Idealized Femininity and Female Insanity in Southern Insane Asylums Between 1880 and 1900
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Throughout the end of the nineteenth century, Southerners understood female insanity through idealized femininity. However, the ideas about acceptable femininity had changed in the aftermath of the Civil War. By the 1880s, southern idealized femininity had been challenged. The emancipation of slaves led to a shift in the role of women in the house and in society. While southern society dealt with these changes, they attempted to adapt the old standards of femininity to their new conditions. This new idealized femininity became the measure that determined the mental condition of women. Those who failed to meet the standards of femininity were at risk for diagnosis of insanity. Their causes of insanity were understood to be related to their domestic sphere. In the 1880s, the moral causes of female insanity revolved around the private sphere. The moral causes of insanity for women usually involved a transgression of their gender roles. Domestic troubles predominated among the causes of female insanity. With morality and religion within the private sphere, women were more likely to have religious causes diagnosed than men. Masturbation and intemperance, masculine attributes, were more common among men; however, women who were diagnosed with this cause were seen as unwomanly. Asthe end of the nineteenth century drew nearer, the shift in belief on the cause of insanity moved from moral causes to physical ones. Heredity, combined with moral causes, was increasingly reported as the causes of insanity. The female reproductive system became the focus of female insanity. Their functions became a source of insanity, as well as reproductive diseases. The treatment of female insanity in southern insane asylums followed the progression in the causes of insanity and adhered to southern conceptions of idealized femininity. The treatment of insane women in asylums in the late nineteenth century sought to place women in their idealized roles. Asylum superintendents believed that by returning women to their "natural" roles would allow their patients to relearn their place in society. Superintendents assigned women to traditional domestic jobs and supplied them with feminine amusements. As the causes of insanity turned from moral to physical causes toward the turn of the century, the treatment for insanity changed as well. Moral treatment continued, but medical treatment increased. Physical examinations (especially vaginal examinations), drugs, restraints, and, in extreme cases, surgical procedures became a primary means of treating insanity. While asylum physicians and superintendents created their own conception of female insanity, the public created their own ideas.
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