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"Suffered as Women Do:" Gender and Treatment in U.S. Asylums : Home

A reading list of women's first-person accounts of mental health institutionalization to accompany "Suffered as Women Do:" Gender and Treatment in U.S. Asylums, an exhibit currently on display at the National Museum of Psychology.

"Suffered as Women Do"

"Suffered as Women Do:" Gender and Treatment in U.S. Asylums is a temporary exhibit currently on display at the National Museum of Psychology. Researched and curated by Museums and Archives Studies Certificate student Lacy Nicholas, the exhibit explores women's experiences of mental healthcare in the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The following reading list includes the published, first-person narratives of women's institutionalizations and lived experiences that form a part of the exhibit. 


“But I at last had a regular attack of what the doctors called nervous prostration or spinal irritation. At any rate, I lay in bed for many months and suffered as women do – from backaches and headaches, and pains boring into the base of my skull.”

~ Anonymous, 1896 


“My story is simple. I was put in the asylum for two reasons: the first was that I was extravagant and too fond of dress. What a lot of asylums there would be if all people whose natures were like mine had to be locked up! The other reason was that my family wanted me relieved of the disgrace of being publicly accused of obtaining goods under false representations, by resorting to the insanity defense..."

~ Adriana P. Brincklé, 1887


“Indeed, Dr. Tyler told me at one time that my insisting so strongly on my sanity was proof to him that I was insane! My alleged insanity has been variously designated as “Moral Insanity,” “Emotional Insanity, “Earnestness of Mind,” “Morbid state of Feeling,” “Fixed Idea,” “Monomania,” “Spirit of Revenge,” etc. It has never, however, been convenient or agreeable (not to say possible) for Dr. Tyler to explain to me, my friends, or any one else, the manner in which it was developed.”

~ Lydia B. Denny, 1862


“She gave me “Room Thirteen.” Its dirty walls may have been once white, but they were sadly scratched, and marred by numerous unmeaning caricatures, imprinted there, no doubt, by the wretched occupants of that ward and room for preceding years. It also contained one iron-barred window, with dirty, white, hanging curtains, a single bed, a strip of carpet, one plain, stiff, cushioned and uncomfortable chair, a little excuse with three small drawers, that served for a bureau, or stand, - and my room was furnished. I laid down on the bed, but shed no tears – my grief was too deep for them!”

~ Ada Metcalf, 1876


“Why are we always cautioned to let matters rest, and keep quiet about the manner in which we were taken, as well as the treatment received at the hospital? If all is right, what need of keeping quiet about it?”

~ Rose and Barbara Trautman, 1894

Moral Treatment

“The public is completely deceived about the situation of their friends after they are there. On visiting the building every thing presents a fair appearance; but in order to know the evil of any place you must first be in it. In the first place, I shall speak of what the poor patients have to suffer on account of the neatness of the interior of the building, as that is so often spoke of by visitors. A great deal of pains is taken in every thing of an outward appearance, while things that are not seen by visitors, are not regarded.”

~ Elizabeth T. Stone, 1842


“Mad! what can be half so horrible? My heart thrilled with pity when I looked on old, gray-haired women talking aimlessly to space. One woman had on a straightjacket, and two women had to drag her along. Crippled, blind, old, young, homely, and pretty; one senseless mass of humanity. No fate could be worse.”

~ Nellie Bly, 1877


“I was ready to submit to anything and he “curetted” – that is the word – my womb. Instead of being better, I was a thousand times worse.”

~ Anonymous, 1896

Somatic Therapies

“Now the woman was putting clamps on your head, on the paste-smeared temples and here came another one, another nurse-garbled woman and she leaned on your feet as if in a minute you might rise up from the table and strike the ceiling. Your hands tied down, your legs held down. Three against one and the one entangled in machinery.”

~ Mary Jane Ward, 1946


“Tonight big nurse found me out. After the lithium pill was duly given and received...she noticed. Waited until I swallowed – and then her instinct grabbed for me and found the pill still in my cheek. I could swallow then or confront. I decided to confront. The speech about civil liberties, about forced medication of unexplained substances. Carried away with my case, I demonstrated the tablets in the right-hand pocket of my Mexican shirt. That was it. Swallow or else. “And you are to swallow this, too.” “What is it?” “Thorazine.””

~ Kate Millett, 1990

Cushing Memorial Library Collection of Asylum Reports

The Archives of the History of American Psychology at The University of Akron is home to the largest multi-region collection of institutional annual reports held at a single repository in the United States. Over 570 of the Cushing Memorial Library Collection of Asylum Reports have been digitized and can be searched and read online.