Honors College

Document Type

Honors Thesis

Publication Date

Spring 2019


The purpose of this thesis was to investigate the impact of sociocultural factors of 19th century domestic gender roles, as they affected women’s mental health specifically in the area of depressive disorders. Using modern psychological research on gender-influenced proclivity toward depression as a lens through which to understand 19th century mental health diagnoses, this thesis investigates how these gender-biased diagnoses and treatments compounded the mental health struggles women faced. This thesis employed the use of literary review to examine the lives of women as expressed by female authors during the 19th century through their writing, information about their lives as communicated by biographers, and ultimately the effects their works had on influencing gender roles in the domestic sphere. After establishing the societal norms for women during this period, this literature review analyzed the lives of two female authors from the 19th century, one British (Charlotte Brontë) and one American (Kate Chopin), whose work was critically acclaimed for being too outspoken and unfeminine.

The standing hypothesis of this thesis is that the domestic roles of women during the 19th century contributed to the development of depressive disorders, that were then misdiagnosed as hysteria and neurasthenia and treated in ways that compounded women’s experience of oppression, and that the emergence of great female authors brought voice and reform to the treatment of women in the domestic sphere. This hypothesis was supported by the review of modern research on depression in women, which highlighted several sociocultural factors that contribute to depression that were a large part of the lives of women in the 19th century, such as sexual harassment, subservient domestic roles that required self-sacrifice and internalization, feelings of helplessness due to lack of social power, diffused sense of purpose following the Industrial Revolution altering the role of wives and mothers, gender-biased psychological treatments that were harmful, and perpetual pregnancies, which often involved complication. Research on women's lives during the 19th century, primary source letters written by women during the period, legal and medical documentation of the oppression of women, as well as accounts from the lives and works of female authors all provide glimpses into these connections. Lastly, this thesis concluded that both Bronte and Chopin provided a voice and venue for discussion about topics that led to reform and the rise of feminism through writing from the perspective of women.