Women and Mental Illness

“…I’m cursing my luck. Savage now insists on a rest cure, and I am to retreat to a woman at Twickenham for a month. It’s a great bore *

Dr. Savage was Woolf’s physician from childhood. As an ardent follower of American neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell, he recommended Mitchell’s “rest cure” whenever Woolf had an emotional breakdown. This treatment required little to no exertion (including no work such as writing or reading), fresh air, avoidance of excitement, early nights, milk, meat, and bromides (Lee, 1999). Based in a patriarchal power model, the “rest cure” presumed that the physician was the ultimate authority to whom the female patient must defer.

The male doctor lording authority over his female patient was in keeping with the social views of women in Woolf’s day. Although the end of the Victorian era ushered in new rights for women including the custody of minor children and the ownership of property in marriage, women could not vote, hold political office, or shake off the prevailing notion that they were especially equipped for domestic duties and that straying from this inherent nature causes emotional distress.

The female body, still a source of mystery in the male dominated medical world, was considered the source of many psychiatric illnesses. Menstruation, for instance, could render a woman an imbecile. Pregnancy could make her irrational, depressed, and antisocial to her husband. We know today that hormonal changes during menses and pregnancy can influence mood, but during Woolf’s time, these were considered character flaws that kept a woman from performing her mandated social role of caring for husband and family (Geller & Harris, 1994).



Lectures on Diseases of the Nervous System by Silas Weir Mitchell (Lecture XVII focuses on “rest cure”)

Victoria and Albert Museum: Gender, Health, Medicine & Sexuality in Victorian England



Geller, J. & Harris, M. (1994). Women of the Asylum: Voices From Behind the Walls, 1840-1945. New York: Doubleday.

Shannonhouse, R. (2003). Out of Her Mind: Women Writing on Madness. Random House.

Research Papers

Martin, D. (2007). The rest cure revisited. American Journal of Psychiatry, 164(5).


___References for this Section____

Geller, J. & Harris, M. (1994). Women of the Asylum: Voices From Behind the Walls, 1840-1945. New York: Doubleday.

Lee, H. (1996). Virginia Woolf. New York: Random House.

* Woolf, V. (6 vols. 1975-80). The Letters of Virgina Woolf. (N. Nicolson and J. Trautmann, Eds.). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.