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Mental Illnesses in women have only recently been accepted and understood. In the mid 1800s, women with any form of mental disease were diagnosed with “hysteria” or “neurasthenia,” isolated from her family and her normal life, and submitted to cruel and unusual treatment. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was one of the many women who was diagnosed with neurasthenia and then condemned to the “rest cure,” a medical treatment that often broke women’s wills and forced them to submit to male physician’s diagnosis and treatment. As a result of the rest cure, Gilman suffered a transformative nervous breakdown. Because of her experience, Gilman was inspired to reveal details of her own story to save other women from her terrible fate.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman in The Yellow Wallpaper, uses her personal experience with the rest cure to advocate for women’s rights and strive for a change in the treatment of mental illnesses in women. The rest cure originated in the early 1800s and was developed by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell. His cure became the standard of care for neurestania in the US and UK (O’Sullivan). This cure for neurasthenia and hysteria included a highly regimented schedule of treatment. The treatment includes a heavy fat based diet to increase blood supply and gain weight, twenty four hour bed rest, massages to keep muscles from atrophying, and restriction of anything that would stimulate the brain, like reading, writing, or even thinking for yourself.
Sometimes “if defiant, women are force fed through the nose or rectum, or in rare cases whipped to ensure obedience” (Felluga). Patients, almost all female, have reported being in agony and losing their minds during this eight week torture treatment. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was put through the rest cure after the birth of her son when she was suffering from what we now know as postpartum depression. She was confined to her bed for hours on end and was separated from her son for weeks. Gilman detailed in her autobiography that she “came perilously near losing her [my] mind.
The mental agony grew so unbearable that she [I] would sit blankly moving my head from side to side” (Gilman 96). Alone, and mistreated, she noted how it was “not physical pain, not the least ‘headache’ even, just mental torment” (Gilman 96). The treatment she was forced to undergo was mental degradation aimed to break her spirit, will, and sense of self. When she was having the most intense side effects, she would cry for hours, crawl underneath beds, and hide inside closets to escape from the torture and distress of what had become her life. (Gilman 96).
Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, the physician that treated Gilman even had an unpleasant reputation among his peers and other patients. He believed that “male dominance was therapeutic” (O’Sullivan) and that it was healthy for females to bow down to men – that it would increase their fertility. “Mitchell believed that intellectual achievement underminded a woman’s overall health, particularly her reproductive function” (Felluga). Mitchell looked and treated women as if they were only good for two things: getting pregnant and taking care of the children they produce. He was cruel to his patients, threatening them if they didn’t get better or get out of bed, he would wake a patient up by “threatening to climb in with her” (Martin). Even his friends commented that “a note of contempt creeps into his descriptions of his neurasthenic patients. ‘She was a pallid, feeble creature had no more bosom than the average chicken of a boarding house table.
Nature had wisely prohibited this being from increasing her breed” (Martin). Not only were his words degrading and inappropriate as a medical provider, but he was also known for his harsh and unorthodox treatments where he would drive a woman far away from home, drop her off in the middle of nowhere, and force her to walk all the way back as a form of treatment (Martin). His overall goal of the treatment was to break the patient’s will enough for women to submit to the patriarchy and settle back into their womanly duties at home. Part of these womanly duties that he enforces would be his rule about women not reading, writing, or participating in anything intellectually stimulating during treatment, because they are not mentally strong enough to handle information unlike their male counterpart. She was told to “live as domestic a life as possible.lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours intellectual life a day. And never touch a pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live” (Gilman 96).
Because of this horrific experience for Gilman, she was inspired to share her story with the world. “Gilman’s short story highlighted the rest cure as a symbol of the paternalistic nature of 19th century medicine and the suppression of female creativity” (Martin). Not only did she write The Yellow Wallpaper, but she also included some details of her agony in her autobiography. Her purpose was to expose the indecency and mistreatment she suffered in order to spread awareness and save other women from her same fate. “Gilman condemned the rest cure and by extension the harmful treatment of women by physicians, most of whom were men at the time” (The Neurasthenia Rest Cure and Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell). Her story eventually spread enough and gained enough attention as being able to change how the rest cure was prescribed.
These patriarchal ideas continue in Gilman’s, The Yellow Wallpaper when she introduces John, the narrator’s husband. Throughout the short story, the narrator relies on John for everything, especially the decision making and diagnosing of her “nervous condition”. This reinforces the idea of men controlling women and how females cannot handle taking care of themselves and thinking on their own. When the narrator tried to talk to John about visiting her cousin, he immediately says no and then she flees back to the room and cried (Gilman page #). It did not matter what she wanted; the final decision was always made by her husband. Because of the Victorian time period and stereotypes, women were expected to be the caretakers of children and housewives. (O’Sullivan).
At this point in the 1800s, it was unfortunately, widely believed in the world of medicine, that relying on a man or finding a man was the cure to nervous breakdown, neurasthenia, and hysteria (O’Sullivan). Gilman made sure to portray the men in her story as figures of power and might, and her own shadow character as a helpless being with no voice of her own. In her book, Gilman wanted to highlight and draw attention to how the rest cure reinforces male dominance and how the doctors mistreated women’s mental illnesses. After Gilman’s success with her short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, she later in life became an activist for women’s rights. She attended many conventions along with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton along with also being a member of several activist groups including the Pacific Coast Women’s Association. In 1996, she was even a delegate for California at the National American Woman Suffrage Association Convention in Washington DC (Gilman 187). Even her main source of personal income was from giving lectures on tours to advocate for women’s rights. She dedicated her life to helping woman gain their voices back and fight the patriarchy. Because of her rest cure experience, she became an influential voice in the medical world.
As her popularity grew and as her stories became more mainstream, Dr. Silas Mitchell, years later admitted to reading The Yellow Wallpaper and explained that he changed his treatments because of the way Gilman felt about her experience. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s experience with the rest cure was the stemming of her motivation to fight for women. She wanted to protect women from being treated like she was those many years ago. Over time, as her successes and breadth of knowledge grew, she became a prominent activist for women nationwide. Because of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the face of how physicians treat women with mental illnesses has changed for the better.. She suffered through the rest cure, used her personal experience to formulate a call to action short story to highlight the mistreatment of women’s mental illnesses, and found a way to inspire physicians to change their ways and encourage them to create a more humane treatment for women in all of medicine.
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