Menopausal women in the 19th century

In a recent meeting a discussion arose around “information, studies and people’s perceptions around menopause, menopausal symptoms and women in the 19th century”. It was generally noted there appears to be not much in the way of information or studies around this time frame.

My interest is around the menopause and the ageing workforce. I am a menopausal woman and have been working in Occupational Health since 1996. Oh, I feel old! I started menopausal symptoms around the age of 47 during treatment for breast cancer. And boy did I suffer. I’ll leave that there as this is another story.

I love reading and have mainly been reading work-related documents and menopausal books. So, for a change I read the book “The Key” by Kathryn Hughes and the bonus information got me thinking about the menopause and asylums.

This passage was taken from the book:

“The passing of the County Asylum/lunacy act 1845 meant it was compulsory for counties to provide asylums for their “lunatics”. This ensured the mass construction of over one hundred and twenty asylums by the end of the century, housing over 100,000 people. By 1950s, one in three families would admit a family member to a mental hospital, often for the most spurious reasons. “

The 1959 Mental Health Act abolished the distinction between psychiatric hospitals and other types of hospitals and sought to make treatment voluntary where possible. In practice though, not much changed and it wasn’t until 1961 when Enoch Powell, then minister for health, gave his famous ‘water tower’ speech in which he promised the elimination of the majority of the country’s mental hospitals. Without the necessary number of community care programmes, though, it would take another twenty years for this plan to come to fruition.”

I have begun to wonder why we are only just talking about the menopause and how by talking and sharing how we can help one another around this topic. I’ve noticed when talking to my mum’s generation around the age of 73 ish some remarks have been “we didn’t talk about the menopause, we just got on with it” “we didn’t have the severity of symptoms being discussed today” etc. it got me thinking. Is this because their mothers, aunts etc didn’t talk about it – just in case they were thought to be a bit mad or weak? Or was it just a taboo subject due to the lack of education at the time?

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My friend’s nan was thought to be a bit of a hypochondriac. Often complaining of headaches, feeling hot, tiredness and mood swings. Now I’m thinking she had symptoms of the menopause but it was just (quite innocently at the time) ignored.

This made me think about the symptoms of menopause and whether they were taken into consideration in the past and if there is any link with the introductions of asylums

A history of asylums

The first known asylum in the UK was Bethlem Royal Hospital in London. It has been a hospital since 1247 and began to admit patients with mental health conditions around 1407.

The Victorian era was the period when the numbers of admissions appeared to increase quite significantly. The growth of the asylums was probably largely driven by the county Asylum Lunacy Act 1845 and reached its peak around the 1950s.

From what I can find out at the moment in the 18th century male admissions to private asylums was higher than for women. By the 19th century increasingly large numbers of women were admitted. Although they were already being admitted for both social and cultural pressures, disorders related to childbirth, gynaecological, anxieties (hysteria) and the female cycle – young and old.

Maybe the word ‘hysteria’ which was often used as a reason for admission has stopped women from talking about how they feel and that they need help. Previously the word and the symptoms behind it were not fully understood and through limited knowledge by both the professionals and the public resulted in admissions to the asylums. Women were expected to be quiet and polite and not disagree with the men in their lives – fathers and husbands. They were seen as hysterical and in need of treatment if they should dare to speak out or argue.

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I would really like to have the time to look at more records to see what percentage of women and their ages were when admitted – particularly looking at menopausal symptoms.

Information About Women Admitted to Mendota Mental Asylum Between 1869-1872.

Ref: Katherine Pouba and Ashley Tianen. (lunacy in the 19th century)

Age Ethnicity Marital status Children Diagnosis
17 Bohemian Unknown None Insane by suppressed menses
50 German Single None Insane by religious matters
39 American Married Eight Insane by religious fantasy
47 German Married Eleven Insane by domestic troubles
25 Irish Single None Insane by unknown cause
33 Unknown Widow Two Insane by heredity
25 Unknown Married Two Insane by overexertion
59 Unknown Married One Insane by religious matters
46 Unknown Married Eleven Insane by suppressed menses
30 Irish Married Five Insane by abortion
40 Irish Married Ten Insane by loss of property
30 American Unknown None Insane by mental excitement
57 English Married Eight Insane by overwork and domestic trouble
50 Unknown Married Unknown Insane by religious excitement
40 Prussian Married Six Insane by unknown cause
22 American Married One Insane by childbirth
N/A American Single None Insane by nymphomania

Around the 1960s the asylums became too big and unmanageable. It was then announced many would close but it took another 20 years before this commenced. That’s around the 1980s. No wonder its now only just on the agenda.

I do know there have been many individuals beavering away for a number of years trying to highlight menopause. Maybe the mystique, fear, lack of education around asylums, mental health and the many taboo subjects related to this, including women’s issues which have obviously been laughed at or dismissed have stopped this subject and related areas being discussed.

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And more importantly individuals being helped.

Both women and men should not be afraid to talk about any of these subjects today. It is 2019.


The rise of the Victorian era lunatic asylums

Sent to the asylum: the Victorian women locked up because they were suffering from stress, post natal depression and anxiety. Wendy Wallace. 2012

Rosalyn Jones

About Rosalyn Jones

I'm a mum, wife, sister, daughter and friend very passionate about helping others. I have both a professional and personal interest in the menopause and cancer - I had breast cancer and treatment recently, I am now fit and well. I have experienced many side effects from treatment and have had the good fortune of many friends who have helped source treatment and information. I would like to help disseminate this to others. I wish to stop the words cancer and menopause being taboo, ‘whispered behind hands’ and, at times, laughed at and/or ignored. I have a passion for evidence-based knowledge, and dissemination of this to the “working individual” has always been my aim as an Occupational Health Nurse. As well as my nursing career I have been involved in community projects such as in 2006, the ALAC (Active Learning for Active Citizenship)National Network. The West Midlands Hub was the only ALAC hub working exclusively for women at a time when gender issues had slipped down the policy agenda. The Hub recognised the specific barriers and opportunities that women encounter when becoming active citizens. The Hub engaged women and their families in effective community organising and increasing their ability and confidence to exert influence at the levels of policy and service delivery. In 2018 I became a volunteer for Breast Cancer Care.