A prescription for driving women crazy

July 30, 2013 —

Have you read author and women’s rights advocate Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wall-Paper”? If not, I encourage you to do so, and then check out the DMU Library’s latest exhibit, “The Literature of Prescription: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Yellow Wall-Paper,” on display now through Sept. 6. It’s an eye-opening exploration of how the medical profession viewed gender differences in ways that restricted women.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman rejected the notion that "over-education" was damaging for women.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman rejected the notion that “over-education” was damaging for women.

The traveling exhibit is by the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Its website for the exhibit provides this background: “In the late nineteenth century, at a time when women were challenging traditional ideas about gender that excluded them from political and intellectual life, medical and scientific experts drew on notions of female weakness to justify inequality between the sexes. Artist and writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who was discouraged from pursuing a career to preserve her health, rejected these ideas in a short story titled, ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper.’ The tale served as an indictment of the medical profession and the social conventions restricting women’s professional and creative opportunities.”

During her first unhappy marriage, Gilman consulted nervous diseases specialist Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell for treatment. Mitchell promoted the belief that young women could be permanently damaged by over-education and that neurasthenia, or nervous exhaustion, was rife among women who attempted to exceed their natural limits. For Gilman, he recommended a so-called “rest cure,” in which the patient was not allowed to read, write, feed herself or talk to others. Fortunately, she rejected that prescription for insanity and instead went on to write and speak publicly about women’s rights and economic independence.

Visit this fascinating exhibit to signify your support of the “over-education” of women and of smart women everywhere!


Endlessly curious and easily entertained, Barb Dietrich Boose loves being a member of the friendly, fascinating DMU community and its creative communications team. The University's publications director and DMU Magazine editor, Barb is always on the hunt for story ideas, good books and new recipes to try out on her family, such as her surprisingly tasty pork-and-bean bars.

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