Debating women’s “nervous temperament” in the 1890s

The Melnick Medical Museum is pleased to host a banner exhibit from the National Library of Medicine called “Literature of Prescription: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” The exhibit examines the interesting subject of “nervous exhaustion” and the Rest Cure during the late 1800s. It is on display in the Cushwa Hall cafe until August 8th. Literature of RX ad During this time period, doctors such as S. Weir Mitchell and George Beard were studying the treatment of neurasthenia or nervous exhaustion. This condition was strongly linked to educated, middle-class women who were considered to have weak or sensitive nerve systems. Doctors theorized that too much stress, over-education, or lack of exercise during the formative period from 13 to 17 years of age could permanently damage a woman’s nerve system. Later in life, this condition could show symptoms such as hay-fever, headache, extreme fatigue, indigestion, or hysteria. (For more on this debate, specifically the arguments of Dr. Edward Clarke and Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi, see the National Library of Medicine blog post here.)

Dr. S. Weir Mitchell
Dr. S. Weir Mitchell

Dr. S. Weir Mitchell was a famous doctor who had studied “nervous diseases” in American soldiers during World War I. He developed the “Rest Cure” where the patient was required to rest for 6 to 8 weeks. During the first week, the patient was not allowed to sit up or feed themselves. They were not allowed to sew, read, or write. A nurse took care of their needs and provided gentle massage for their muscles. Their food was a simple diet and did not include any of the potent medicines (often stimulants or narcotics) that were common at the time. In the following weeks, normal activities were gradually resumed. Charlotte Gilman Perkins was one of his patients in 1887. She had married Walter Stetson in 1884 and given birth to a daughter, Katharine, a year later. After Katherine was born, Charlotte began to experience periods of depression. She resented the narrow confines of married life and motherhood. Her diary entries from this time period show the pain and isolation she felt during her depression. After one month of Mitchell’s Rest Cure, she was sent home with instructions to “live as domestic a life as possible,” to lie down for one hour after meals, to limit her “intellectual life” to 2 hours per day, and never touch a pen, brush, or pencil again. For a woman like Charlotte, these instructions led to extreme distress, shame, and discouragement.

The fictional narrator of The Yellow Wall-Paper

After separating from her husband, Gilman moved to California with Katherine. In 1890, she wrote her famous short story “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” In it, the female narrator is undergoing the Rest Cure, isolated in a old nursery with bars on the windows and faded yellow wallpaper. Her forced isolation and restricted intellectual life gradually deteriorates her mind. At the end of the story, she tears off pieces of the wallpaper, trying to free the woman who she sees trapped inside. The story was controversial as soon as it was printed in 1892. Gilman published a short article explaining her motivation to write the story. She said “It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.” She had heard that after reading her story Dr. Mitchell had altered his treatment of neurasthenia.

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