Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Phyllis Chesler’s Women and Madness is a feminist indictment of the male-dominated psycho-medical establishment. Chesler examines the gender-based power relations in psychology and psychiatry from many perspectives and uses many tools: statistical studies, transcripts of interviews, quotations from many sources, personal reminiscences, charts and graphs, illustrations, extensive (almost chatty) footnotes, tales from classical mythology, and free speculation. Throughout her investigation, she consistently finds that women have been oppressed by the power of male definitions of mental health and mental illness, of treatment and cure.

Chesler divides her book into two sections, “Madness” and “Women.” In the first section, she considers the role of “madness” in the lives of four famous female mental patients: Elizabeth Packard (1816-c.1890), Ellen West (c.1890-1926), Zelda Fitzgerald (1900-1948), and Sylvia Plath (1932-1963). In trying to live authentically—faithful to her own light in terms of religion, artistic creativity, or simple physical energy and adventurousness—each of these women ran afoul of gender-based societal expectations and consequently found herself in the power of men in the psychiatric industry. Once identified as “patients,” the women were then coached, coaxed, and coerced to mend their ways and return to the path of compliant wifedom. Chesler finds mental asylums, and most psychotherapy, to be...

(The entire section is 573 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In the early 1970’s, when Chesler’s book appeared, there was a tremendous popularization of psychotherapy. The most significant impact of Women and Madness was to open this territory of psychiatry and psychotherapy for feminist exploration. By 1972, a number of biographical and autobiographical works had already appeared to detail individual women’s struggles with insanity and the label of “insanity,” notably Nancy Milford’s Zelda (1970) and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1971). What was still lacking, however, was a broader discussion that would identify common patterns in these personal stories and situate them in a general social context. It was this gap that Chesler sought to fill with Women and Madness.

The book’s publication was greeted with extremely mixed reviews, and it was not only opponents of feminism who quarreled with its stance. Chesler’s exhortation that women take power was seen by some as a call to adopt the ways of the oppressor, instead of doing away with oppression—to simply substitute male madness for female. Some claimed that she romanticized madness itself and failed to distinguish between being identified as mad by others, feeling oneself to be mad, and truly being mad in some objective sense. Others criticized the book’s emphatic attack stance, which failed to address the idea of reforming the field of psychiatry. The patchwork nature of the text—with epidemiological data loosely stitched to personal narrative and mythology to polemic—seemed to some critics poorly edited. Some accused her of misinterpretations and frank errors in her statistics. In addition, as was almost obligatory with feminist writers of the period, her tone was called “strident.”

In spite of such criticism, Women and Madness was an influential book. Turning a feminist eye on the psychiatric industry was a productive move, even if the fruit that it bore may have been more polished in later hands. Chesler’s idiosyncratic and personal style in the book, while striking some readers at the time as slapdash, actually became part of a new trend of relinquishing the pretense of impersonal objectivity, the pose of standing apart and separate from the subject of study. Quite apart from its place in general historical trends is the role that this book has played in the lives of many individual women who have found it a comfort and a catalyst in their own struggles with mental health institutions in the United States.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bolen, Jean Shinoda. Goddesses in Everywoman: A New Psychology of Women. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. The exploration of goddess archetypes as patterns of female personality, with which Chesler opens and closes Women and Madness, is more fully developed here. With this book, Bolen became one of the luminaries of the resurgent popularization of Jungian psychology in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Castillejo, Irene Claremont de. Knowing Woman: A Feminine Psychology. 1973. Reprint. Boston: Shambhala, 1990. An attempt to map the psychic terrain of women. This work is closer to classical Jungian theory than Jean Shinoda Bolen’s or Chesler’s, especially in its view of the differentiation of personality into masculine and feminine.

Formanek, Ruth, and Anita Gurian, eds. Women and Depression: A Lifespan Perspective. New York: Springer, 1987. A collection of essays from a variety of theoretical perspectives about female depression in childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. Depression is recognized by Chesler and others as being the primary psychiatric symptom of women in contemporary urban society.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. Contrasts women’s imperative to nurture and...

(The entire section is 401 words.)