Anger and Insanity in Women Discussion (April 1996)

Anger and Insanity in Women Discussion April 1996


>From Ron Leonard 15 April 1996

I am doing extensive research on Mary Todd Lincoln, and have read almost everything written about her from a biographical standpoint. It seems to me that discussion about her personality breaks down into four distinct points of vies: a) she was a shrew; b) she was insane; c) she had a brain disease and can't be held accountable for her actions; and d) she was the victim of oppression from 19th century society. What struck me is that nowhere have I read anything that acknowledges the validity of her thoughts and feelings.

For example, in Carl Sandburg's _Mary Lincoln, Wife and Widow_, he recounts that during the "grand march" at the White House promenades, the established custom was for the President to lead the march with another woman on his arm., while the First Lady followed with another man on her's. MTL insisted that she be on the President's arm (changing the custom from then on.) Sandburg asks: "Was it a woman's jealousy of her husband or a selfish personal pride or both that brought her decree regarding White House promenades?"

At any rate, my rather long-winded message is to explain my reason for writing, which is that I would like to discuss with anyone who is interested the correlation between discounting women's opinions and feelings, and the tendency to label women "insane" or "shrews" for having strong opinions. It is interesting to me that the angrier a woman becomes, and the more she attempts to be acknowledged, the more the "insanity" or "shrew" label seems to stick. O am certainly interested in discussing this from an historical, 19th century viewpoint, but also in terms of how this is something that continues today. I am particularly interested in exploring the anger-insanity connection. Thank you all in advance. I have found H-Women very interesting so far.

>From Debra A. Combs 16 April 1996

I just read your post on the bbs, and thought I'd give you my two cents from my work on medieval and renaissance women.

For ways in which modern audiences construe insanity in a women's writing I recommend the debate over Margery Kempe's "sanity." Kempe was a medieval pilgrim, wife, and possible visionary, whose repeated weeping and wailing infuriated the people who heard her and has lead to charges of insanity today(the most famous being from the editors of the definitive text of her book--Meech and Allen.) More recently rhetoricians have been reclaiming her as more competent, and certainly more valuable as a thinker. (Cheryl Glenn's piece in _College English_ a few years back, for instance.)

I've also done work on the ethos/character problems of the "shrew" specifically the various versions of anger in Renaissance women pamphleteers--Jane Anger, Rachel Speght, Ester Sowernam, Constantia Munda, and the collaborative team of Mary Tattlewell and Joan Hit-him-home (and the pseudonyms are indicative of both the anger expressed and the means chosen to express it.) In these cases, the women were dismissed as shrews--even the very mildly angry Rachel Speght(one annotator in the period accused her of fighting for her "Cunt-rie," responding with his own brand of shrewishness.)

I'm currently doing extensive work with both of these problems using these women as my means of understanding character presentation--this is in the hopes of doing a book. Because of this, I have *lots* of material on both of these versions of the problem you're looking at, and if there's anything I can pass on to you that will help move your own thinking further along, please tell me.

>From Genevieve McBride 16 April 1996

Have you missed Jean H. Baker's _Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography_(Norton, 19870?

>From Sara Lee Silberman 16 April 1996

Jean Baker's biography of MTL is, it seems to me, extremely sympathetic to MTL (and rightly so). I would think you had already seen that book, but if you say you have not yet found anything sympathetic, then perhaps you have not. Good luck.

>From Linda Rosenzweig 16 April 1996

In re: anger, a good resource is Carol Z. and Peter N. Stearns' _Anger in America_. Although it doesn't treat just women's anger, it provides an historical overview of the emotion and it does discuss gender socialization and women's anger.

>From Melissa Doak 16 April 1996

I find the comments regarding anger and insanity in women very intriguing. I am currently researching the case records of two private and one public asylum in New York state, 1890-1920. I am searching specifically for sexual misbehavior, rather than anger, but what it very striking in the case records is that any expression of anger in a female patient was interpreted as a lack of "insight" into her condition, a failure to realize that she was insane and needed to behave the institutional authorities. Other emotions that seem quite reasonable to us today--depression at a lover leaving, for example, were also seen as signs of insanity. I look forward to reading other thoughts along these lines...

>From Michele A. Gates 16 April 1996

Although this may not hit your questions directly, I think it relevant:

Elizabeth Keckley's _Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years As A Slave, and Four Years in the White House(1868; reprint, NY, Oxford U Press, 1988), discusses extensively about MT Lincoln - at the expense of an account on her own experiences - and even states her motivation to counter the vicious and negative talk about the President's wife. I hope you will seriously consider this work in light of your interest in gender analysis. You might ask, did Keckley's account influence contemporaries or biographers to any extent? Why or why not? Why would a former slave feel so compelled to defend the former first lady? How does Keckley's portrait of MTL compare with others and what is the significance of those differences considering the author's class, race & gender? Good luck in your study.

>From Deborah Fink 17 April 1996

If anyone can read Danish, I have some riveting material on anger and insanity of two rural nineteenth century Danish women.

>From Mary K. Greer 17 April 1996

I'd like to suggest Annie E.F. Horniman (1860-1937) as a good example. She is acknowledged as the "founder of the modern English theatre," built Dublin's Abbey Theatre, and ran the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester, producing the first plays of at least three Novel laureates and other theatre notables. Yet she has gone down in history as a shrew and was threatened with being placed in an asylum in more than one case, in part because she was a magician in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. See my scholarly biography _Women of the Golden Dawn: Rebels and Priestesses_(Park Street Press, 1995), which has an excellent bibliography or contact me directly for more information (see also my website below which features excerpts from the book).

Tools and Rites of Transformation (T.A.R.O.T.)

>From Marie Cox 18 April 1996

Have you read Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" published in 1892? It provides an interesting literary portrayal of anger and insanity. You can find it in the Norton Anthology of Literature By Women.

>From Phyllis Lassner 18 April 1996

With the suggestion from Danish women's history on women, anger and insanity, I was reminded of the 1910 novel by the Danish writer, Karin Michaelis, _The Dangerous Age_, which I had the good fortune to rediscover and contract with Northwestern University to reprint. It's about women's mid-life crises and their social construction as insanity. Narrated as letters and fragments from a woman's diary, it records women's anger about their social and psychological constraints which coincides with their being dismissed for no longer being either beautiful or of childbearing capacity. Available in paper and riveting reading.

>From Jeanne Kilde 19 April 1996

Marge Piercy's 1976 utopian novel _Woman On The Edge Of Time_ focuses on a chicana woman who is committed to a psychiatric hospital for violent behavior erupting from the frustrations she experiences as a poor minority woman in urban America. While this will take you miles away from Mary Todd Lincoln, it is a revealing indictment of both the institutionalization of women for behavior deemed anti-social(i.e. "unbecoming to a lady") and the invasive medical treatment of such patients.

>From Ruby Rohrlich 21 April 1996

Phyllis Chesler's book _Women And Madness_, published in the 1970s is a classic.

>From Pam Casto 24 April 1996

One are you might want to check into is the number of women who are drugged by various members of the mental health field. It might be very revealing to view statistics on that subject. You might also read Phyllis Chesler's _Women and Madness_.