Unruly and unsubmissive. A historical approach to the condition of women in mental hospitals between the 19th and 20th centuries Historical approach to the condition of women in mental hospitals

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Mariano Martini https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5703-0858
Maria Carla Garbarino
Davide Orsini


female deviance, history of mental hospitals, social control, gendere-based violence, First World War, Maria Bertolani Del Rio


The authors examine the difficult situation of women hospitalized in mental facilities between the 19th and 20th centuries: an exploration of the forms of institutionalized gender violence in Italian psychiatric hospitals.

In Italy's patriarchal society of the last two centuries, the behavior of women who did not conform to the dominant model of devoted daughter, wife and mother was systematically condemned.

Indeed, as mental disorder was regarded as fundamentally a problem of decorum and respectability, any conduct or attitude that deviated from the norm was not only censured on an ethical level but was labeled as madness. Consequently, thousands of women were locked up in mental asylums.

These women were mainly poor, needy, illiterate, alone and abandoned - individuals who fell into that category of humanity of which society was ashamed.

What the authors outline is a journey of pain and marginalization that spanned almost two centuries, in mental hospitals, where many women were confined because of their “femininity”, which did not “adapt or conform to the expectations” of society.

What is most surprising and difficult to understand is the position of doctors. For many years, they justified the confinement of women in mental hospitals more based on the prevailing morality of the time, rather than scientific evidence.

In the eyes of both society and the scientific community, these women were essentially victims of “madness or moral derangement”, which was marked by moral indifference and a tendency towards criminality and cynicism; they were women who did not respect society's moral norms. For this reason, they fell victim to a markedly gendered-oriented scientific-positivist judgment.

Often locked up in mental hospitals because they were unruly and unsubmissive, these women experienced devastating violence, which was perpetrated by an institution and, before that, by a society whose rules were made by men who regarded females as biologically inferior beings.


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