Herbert Spencer argued that human development depended on a fixed amount of energy, and since women used their energy in reproductive function, they had little or no energy left for intellectual or political pursuits (ibid. 122). Further, Darwinian psychology accepted this view and—utilizing the theory of sexual difference that locates women’s natural outlet of mental energy in the domestic realm—argued that women who tried to use any mental energy toward activities outside the home would suffer psychologically. Thus, according to Showalter, “mental breakdowns” would result from women defying their “nature” either by trying to “compete” with men in the public sphere instead of “serving” men or by adding any unnecessary “additions to their maternal functions” (ibid. 123). Patriarchal Victorian representations of hysteria, then, rested on the social function of motherhood, which became a highly controversial topic within the New Women debates. If a woman was not biologically linked to her domestic role, neither could her hysteria be organically linked to her rejection of that role. By delineating a clear, stable distinction between the proper woman who performed her domestic functions and the pathological, hysterical woman who disregarded her maternal and marital duties, Victorian medical and political patriarchal authority created a punitive cultural atmosphere that ensured its misogynistic ideology would perpetuate. Consequently, the hysterical woman figure in literature at the fin de siècle became politically charged.
From: Murdering the Monstrous Ideal: The “Hysterical Mother” in Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly TwinsBy Jennifer Givhan