In the Victorian era, insane asylums were a tool utilized by a patriarchal society in the oppression of women. While there were signs of feminism and women’s rights taking hold in the 19th century (i.e. bluestockings, feminist writers, women’s colleges, etc.), progression was slow. Women’s suffragettes, in England, wouldn’t see the fruits of their labor until 1918. A woman’s place was believed to be at home, in the domestic sphere, and insane asylums supported this notion throughout the Victorian era—despite having a woman, Queen Victoria, on the throne.
Women who rebelled against their male relatives or guardians often found themselves in insane asylums. Admittance into asylums were started at a father’s or husband’s request. Lacking either of those, the closest male relative would start the process. Women had no legal ability to object, because they had no rights.
Women were admitted for various reasons, such as reading novels, masturbation, over action of the mind, religious enthusiasm, politics, or political statement. And of course, a male guardian who was concerned their wife or female relations fell into any of these categories, or any myriad of others, could step in and request their entry into an asylum. One such woman who met these “symptoms” was an English woman named Edith Lanchester.
Edith Lanchester was a headstrong feminist and socialist. She believed in women’s suffrage and pursued it wholeheartedly. This tickled her family’s concern, but what really confirmed their distress was when Edith announced she intended to live with her lover, Shamus Sullivan, out of wedlock. Shamus, an Irish, working-class labourer and fellow socialist, matched Edith in many of her ideals. However, her father didn’t see it that way.
In 1895, Edith’s father and three brothers, along with the services of Dr. George Fielding Blandford, entered Edith’s lodgings. The five men questioned Edith. Dr George Fielding Blandford diagnosed Edith as insane when she argued marriage was immoral, because she’d lose her independence if she married. Edith tried to fight off the men, but her father accosted her and handcuffed her. She was then tied up, hauled into a carriage, and taken to the Priory Hospital in Roehampton, England. Her certificate in the asylum stated her reason for insanity was “over-education.”
Any other feminist out there seething yet?
The case created a national sensation in England, and even reaching newspapers around the world. Even The New York Times covered the case. Edith’s friends, who knew her through the Social Democratic Federation, tried to obtain her release. Others tried to help secure her freedom through other avenues, such as the Marquess of Queensbury, who promised her £100 (close to £12,000 today) if she went through the marriage ceremony “under protest.” Edith refused the offer.
Edith, however, saw a ray of hope when the commissioners of lunacy met and reviewed her case. They found her sane but unwise in her choices. She was released under under Section 75 of the Lunacy Act. However, during Edith’s four days at the asylum, she had been physically, mentally, and sexually abused.
Understandably, she never saw her father again. Would you ever want to speak to your father if he handcuffed you, tied you up, and tried to have you legally declared as insane? I don’t think so.
Edith Lanchester went on live with her lover, Shamus Sullivan, until his death in 1945. The couple had two children, Waldo and Elsa Lanchester. Elsa Lanchester became a Hollywood actress and secured the lead role in the famous movie, The Bride of Frankenstein.
More importantly, Edith did not allow her experience to crush her political activism. In 1897, she found employment as the secretary of Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx’s daughter. She continued to fight for socialism, until declaring herself a communist in 1917, and for women’s rights. She used her time at the Priory Hospital to advocate for change, and in so doing, she became another strong, feminist voice in women’s history.
125 reasons you’ll get sent to the lunatic asylum by Dave Tabler
Edith Lanchester (1871-1966) by Penny L. Richards
Edith Lanchester and “free love” by Cathy N
How suffragette Edith Lanchester came to be kidnapped and committed for ‘over-education’ on Lanchester Interactive Archive
Women and Psychiatry on Brought to Life, a website by the Science Museum, London