Declared Insane For Speaking Up

Nancy Pelosi needs help fast! There is either something wrong with her “upstairs,” or she just plain doesn’t like our great Country. She had a total meltdown in the White House today. It was very sad to watch. Pray for her, she is a very sick person! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2019

This quote is easy to dismiss as either a political ploy or the usual musings of an unconventional politician. And yet, at one time, strong, opinionated women were considered mentally ill.

Think back to the 19th century. In 1835, British physician James Cowles Prichard published Treatise on Insanity and Other Disorders Affecting the Mind which introduced “moral insanity” as a mental disorder, which he described as “madness consisting in a morbid perversion of the natural feelings, affections, inclinations, temper, habits, moral dispositions, and natural impulses, without any remarkable disorder or defect of the interest or knowing and reasoning faculties, and particularly without any insane illusion or hallucinations.” (

One of the results of Dr. Prichard’s view of mental illness was its impact on women. Throughout recorded history, a woman’s role had been one of domesticity and submissiveness. Now any woman who exhibited independence and freedom of thought, including studying and reading, could be considered “sick.” For example, regarding suffrage, one doctor declared: “There is mixed up with the woman’s movement much mental disorder.” And after visiting a girls’ school in 1858, one doctor declared, “You seem to be training your girls for the lunatic asylum.” As a result, some women found themselves confined to insane asylums. Their only escape was complete submission to the gender roles of the time.

Fortunately, today we have a more enlightened understanding of gender roles, and such stories are in our past. At least for the most part.

For more, including the example of Elizabeth Packard of Illinois, see “Declared Insane for Speaking Up: The Dark American History of Silencing Women Through Psychiatry” by Kate Moore ( Ms. Moore is the author of The Woman They Could Not Silence.

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