The Madness of Women: Myth and Experience

November 3, 2011

Author: Jane M. Ussher

Edition: First

Publisher: Routledge/Taylor & Francis

Pages: 328

Price: £44.95 and £19.95

ISBN 97804153398 and 39285

Written with verve in a polemical style, this book will not bore the reader. It starts with a convincing and moving deconstruction of the concept of madness, and moves on to a brief exploration of historical ideas about it.

In the next chapter Jane Ussher looks, with reference to epidemiological statistics, at the cultural tendency for the attribution of depression to women far more than to men. Psychiatric theory of the 19th century is explored as the basis for these skewed results, especially the way that "mental alienation" was linked by writers to the particular characteristics of the female body - menstrual cycles, pregnancy, parturition, lactation, menopause, as well as unruly, unfeminine sexual "disorder". This is a link that remains challenged and critiqued, but not broken within several disciplines to the detriment of women.

Ussher also debunks ideas about menopause and post-natal depression in a useful way, with reference to a good range of research. The notion of depression is analysed in further detail, critiques are explicated, and biological models of madness and the rise of psychotropic drug management also receive a bashing.

Feminist social-constructionist critiques of psychiatry are outlined (in Chapter 3) and a good overview of this field of scholarship is presented. This includes an animated tour of historical "cures", which includes first-hand testimony from psychiatric patients about the cruelty they have undergone; the combination of those women's voices and Ussher's confident tone is arresting.

Chapter 4 explores women's madness in the context of violence and abuse, and describes the shame and self-loathing that women continue to feel long after their maltreatment. The discussion draws on moving testimonies and is situated within debates about the sexualised representation of women more generally. Sometimes the examples are unlocated (and I had to consult the notes to find out which country was being discussed) and further cross-cultural examples could have been enriching.

Ussher critiques as pernicious the discourses that position sexually abused children as "seeking out" further abusers later in life. Moreover, we should reject the language of psychiatry that positions extreme distress or prolonged misery as disorder.

Ultimately, further societal change is needed, Ussher concludes: more robust responses to domestic violence, sexual trafficking, forced sexual initiation of young girls and forced marriages. She advocates access to contraception, legal abortion and education as key; what is needed is an end to women's poverty and inequality.

Who is it for? This book will be of interest to a wide range of readers beyond the obvious women's studies market. Training psychological practitioners (counsellors, psychotherapists, psychologists and arts therapists) should read it. Cultural studies, cultural history, social anthropology and sociology students will also find this book useful.

Presentation Articulate, and more suitable for final-year undergraduates and postgraduates.

Would you recommend it? Yes; it is a useful and entertaining overview of the subject.


Framed by Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Modern World

Author: Cecilia L. Ridgeway

Edition: First

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 256

Price: £60.00 and £15.99

ISBN 9780199755776 and 55783

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