When Were We Really OK?

Did ADHD and other diagnoses and disabilities always exist, or were they just shaped in a different form, morphed into different letters of the alphabet? When did the term “idiot” turn into “profound mental retardation”? Why did the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-Minded call what we now call “profound mental retardation”, “morons”? And what was the outcome or “cure” to being labeled one of these things? What happens at the early stages of a new disability or illness, where nobody knows what you have, and give (usually controversial) treatments that may make you worse off?

Once upon a time (circa 1900), there was no such thing as postpartum depression. Instead, it was called “hysteria and nervousness.” The cure was very different from what we have today, but helped mold one woman’s personal and painful voyage into a semi-autobiographical short story that also shed light on women’s rights.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author, feminist, mother and wife, born July 3, 1860, always wanted what was best for herself, her daughter and the female population. She was “sick and tired” of women perceived as being the “lower species.” “I agree that women are the lower species, because every society has had only a few female leaders where you can’t name many women. It’s not my critique, it’s in their societies views,” says Matt Fischofer, age 21.

Martine Antoine, age 27, was on the fence as a female who has seen and lived in a glass ceiling world in the entertainment industry. “Will females dominate in the future? Yes, Generation Y will definitely take over. Right after maternity leave, you see women going right back to work.”

However, after Charlotte gave birth to her daughter, Katherine, in 1878, she suffered from what we now know as postpartum depression. The cure called for no socialization with family, bed rest and eating, to increase fat volume. It was called “Rest Cure.” After one month, she was ordered to have her child with her at all times, lie down an hour after each meal and have less than two hours of “intellectual life.” This eventually led to severe depression where she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper,” to share with others what it was like in that time period, living with postpartum depression.

Her book that depicted life living with postpartum depression in a demonic way

“People should write about their illnesses, even if they have fictionalized details. If many people write about it, it will show it’s more common if it hasn’t been given a label yet,” says Brian Rubinton, 18.

Unfortunately, back then, there were no second and third opinions, especially when the doctor giving you a diagnosis was the most prestigious nerve specialist in the country. Scientific research on depression just wasn’t available yet.

At the time, some critics thought it should be censored because of its vivid details. Many of the critics were men, however.

Charlotte was often “frustrated with the public mind” and how it “moved like a slug.” Brian Rubinton agreed. “A majority of people stick to their own traditions and thoughts but it is different for urbanites. When you don’t interact with different backgrounds, you stagnate.”

In her essay “Women and Economics” she wrote, “Without going into either the ethics or the necessities of this case, we have reached so much common ground: the female of genus homo is supported by the male. Whereas, in other species of animals, male and female alike graze and browse, hunt and kill, climb, swim, dig, run and fly for their livings, in our species the female does not seek her own living in the specific activities of our race, but is fed by the male.”

Charlotte existed in a time where if a woman was lucky, she was able to take home science classes to “build strong bodies for her family.” Would classes like this exist today?

Matt said, “They couldn’t exist. It’s ethically wrong and nobody would take them.”

Brian said, “I don’t know because I feel some people would take them. A liberal arts major might. Some people might go major in it so they know how to raise a family. I might take a class or two.”

So when I asked Matt and Brian what would be different about their lives if the women in their lives stayed home and “cooked and sewed?”

“It would be terrible because they are in the work force and making contributions to society. It would be a regression,” says Matt.

“It would be weird because my mom makes more than my dad right now!” says Brian. His father is a lawyer and his mother is a property manager.

So we are on our way, females. So many changes have taken place over the last century that would not have happened without a woman like Charlotte Gilman Perkins and some men seem to agree. But now, we might have to change the term “husband” and “wife” because their original meanings are not true to today’s definition. According to a November 6, 1994 New York Times article, in 1898, husband, the noun, was originally a management title: it meant the manager of a household. The verb means to manage economically. Wife, the noun, was no title at all: in its obscure Germanic roots it simply meant “woman.” Its spousal connotation came later.

Much like how “hysteria and nervousness” is now known as postpartum depression except in this case it’s the actual definition that is obscure, not the label.


Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1898.

The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 2 Vols. Ed. Denise D. Knight. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.

Berman, Jeffrey. “The Unrestful Cure: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and `The Yellow Wallpaper. The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on The Yellow Wallpaper. Ed. Catherine Golden. New York: Feminist Press, 1992. 211-41.

Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution

The Yellow Wallpaper (1891)

–Catherine Livigni


5 thoughts on “When Were We Really OK?

  1. It is true that many many mental illnesses are just labels with much of society not knowing what the true definition is. When there are those who experience it, it must take some kind of outer power to share it with people. In my opinion, that person has to be outside themselves while writting it as much as they were inside themselves during their illness. I dont agree with the quote by Rubinton about writing even if it is fictionalized because thats how we get stereo-types and hollywood personas depicting what is defined as sick. If you unwantingly face an illness, there will be enough factual experiences that there is no need for any added drama because of the drama that simply living life gave you already.

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