“A Crisis of Transition”: Menstruation and the psychiatrisation of the female lifecycle in nineteenth-century Edinburgh

Jessica Campbell, Gayle Davis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Examining how the female body and lifecycle were constructed within 19th-century Scottish psychiatry, and the wider significance of such portrayals, this article situates the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act within a much longer history that presents menstruation as a problem. We highlight the historical resonance of two prominent features of the Act and the debates leading to it: the enduring tension between views of menstruation as a normal versus a pathological process, and the perceived deleterious impact of menstruation upon female education and, by extension, women’s status. By 1900, Scottish psychiatry had achieved professional status. Asylums were recognised as the officially approved response to madness, and mass institutionalisation allowed the medical profession unparalleled opportunities to observe, classify and treat those deemed insane. Madness as a ‘female malady’, with doctors portraying the female sex as more vulnerable to insanity in publications and clinical documentation, largely due to their reproductive system, has become a popular theme in historical scholarship. This article examines how 19th-century psychiatry depicted the biological ‘crises’ of the female lifecycle and the extent to which menstruation was conceptualised as a pathological process. The widely cited and prolific medical writer, Thomas Clouston—physician-superintendent of the Royal Edinburgh Asylum (1873–1908), Scotland’s largest and most prestigious asylum—offers a particularly illuminating case study. An advocate of managing mental health holistically, Clouston advised society on healthy living through adherence to respectable Victorian standards. In his policing of social norms, he became a prominent spokesperson for limiting female education to protect women during the ‘dangerous’ transition from childhood to womanhood.
Original languageEnglish
JournalOpen Library of Humanities
Volume8
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 28 Mar 2022

Keywords

  • menstruation
  • female lifecycle
  • psychiatry
  • education
  • Edinburgh

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