First published:Spring 2006
Women could be committed to asylums for many reasons, amongst them prostitution, a conflict at home between a young woman and her parents, having an illegitimate child, an unhappy love affair, a divorce, a childless marriage, and being widowed. Physical illness could also lead to admission to a psychiatric clinic. The male of the family – a husband, brother or father – would bring the woman to the institution and sign her over to the authorities. There she would receive one of the common diagnoses (of which schizophrenia was the most frequent, followed by dementia praecox and manic depression). Many women remained in asylums for the rest of their lives.
More disciplinary measures were meted out to the women than to the men in the asylums and clinics, and women generally received four times as much therapy. Treatment consisted of isolation, forced bathing of long duration, being tied down in wet clothes or straitjackets, force-feeding, and tranquillisation by injections of drugs. In the 1920s, ‘cures’ became popular in Germany, and sleeping cures, malaria cures, insulin therapy and shock therapy were administered, often as punishments. The aim of the therapy for women was that they should behave as society expected them to: in other words, to be good, feminine, friendly, industrious and obedient. The goal of therapy for men, on the other hand, was that they should play an active part in a working environment.
For women in mental institutions in the early 1900s the spontaneous act of creation, whether writing, drawing, sculpting or embroidery, became an assertion of their identity, and as such it should be distinguished from art therapy. Many used their art as a means of escape from the humiliation of institutionalised life. Seldom was their creativity acknowledged, and their actions and reactions in the clinics were seen as symptoms of madness.
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #54