Sophie Allen is a first year PhD Student at Newman University looking at the relationship between spiritualism and psychiatry in the late nineteenth century, with a particular focus on the association between the female medium’s body and mind and mental health. Find me on twitter @SophieAllen_
Spiritualism can be defined as a broad range of beliefs and relationships that are both Christian and non-Christian. Belief in spiritualism and its central tenant concerning the continuance of life after death in the nineteenth century did not mean a full rejection of the Christian church. The core beliefs in God remained – for some – but it was the rigid Victorian structure of the church that spiritualists broke away from to create a more free-thinking and expressive form of religion; largely influenced by the Fox Sisters from the United States and Emma Hardinge Britten in Britain. This form of religious expression included a special sense of spiritual sensitivity and communication through various forms of physical means including spirit writing, spirit rapping’s, table turning and spirit photography.
However, none of these forms of communication were achievable without the body and mind of the medium, and it is here that a gender construct is formed. A medium’s body represented the bridge between the physical and spiritual world and as such blurred the distinction between life and death, fact and fiction. A medium’s body and mind represented both a willful, active and performative connection to the spiritual world, but also the medium was ‘entranced’, vulnerable, passive, muted and as Tatiana Kontou highlights ‘empty’. This is key in identifying the gender discourses that surround the concept of a female medium.
The lack of masculine attributes such as will and intelligence combined with the stereotypical feminine attributes of passivity, chastity and impressionability meant that the female body and mind were more apt to engage with spirits as a medium. Despite attracting women due to the performative and vocal opportunities that spiritualism provided, connecting to the spiritualism world created new challenges to the fragility of the female mind. A female medium’s body and mind was the active agent in a séance as it was her brain power that initiated the connection between the two worlds and yet with responses to female religious practices marking the point at which ideas of madness and legitimate faith intersect, the wider argument surrounding the discourses of power and gender binaries become apparent. The female mind was no longer the active agent in a séance. Instead the female mind and body was simply a passive host there to bind the two worlds together to enable communication with a male deceased voice. It was the ‘fragility’ of the mind that initiated the spiritual connection and as a result linked faith with madness in a new way.
The female form in terms of language, mind and body was seen by the psychiatric profession as a societal and biological defect that meant women were more susceptible to the deterioration of the mind. However, such sweeping statements regarding mental health are in danger of romanticizing madness as a form of ‘desperate communication of the powerless’. Historical studies of madness should not conclude there was a definitive correlation between femininity and insanity. Instead there must be an investigation into why particular societies were influenced by their cultural context, notions of power, gender and intellect that influenced the domain of mental health.
Yet, with this, it is another example of the scientific community exerting their traditional gender hierarchy and male form of power to reinforce the gender binary that surrounded religion and science. The nature of insanity is complex and even more so when trying to define something that isn’t physical but is subject to one’s own conscious. However because there was limited room for a female to attempt to engage with ‘legitimate’ forms of science, this association between the male encouragement of using the female mind as a medium became a new way for men to challenge the sanity of women. The belief that men withheld the capability to diagnose something which at the time was seen to be a feminine default reasserts the male patriarchy over women.
Such a male enterprise was therefore used by professional experts to reassert the Foucauldian theory that science equaled rationale and objective and in the process define women as irrational. Attempts were made to confine women meaning that these spiritualists were pushed further back into the private sphere of society. Despite their belief providing an outlet to engage with society and explore the spectacle of the séance, the discourse surrounding power in terms of Victorian women was reasserted with women reduced to simply being passive subjects.
As malady now escaped the bounds of the human body and was not only biological but a psychological defect in women with the spiritualist psyche seen as rife with signs of mental health, definitive conclusions of sanity and rationale can only be questioned and estimated, not obtained. The changing nature of science coincided with the changing nature of religion and as such, both were contemporary challenges to the traditional beliefs of society. Intellect and dialogue during a séance was used on both sides of the religious and scientific conflict with the body and mind of the female medium now being used as a way to engage women with spiritualism but also as a new way to define female malady by outlining the female mediums body and mind as passive, susceptible and fragile.
 J. Shirland, ‘’Enigmas So Occult That Oedipus Might Be Puzzled To Solve Them’: whistler, Spiritualism & Occulture in Late Victorian England’, Aries, 13, 2013, pp. 71-102, p. 76.
 T. Kontou, Spiritualism and Womens Writing: From the Fin de Siecle to the Neo-Victorian, London, 2009, p. 14.
 J. Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London, London, 1992, pp. 176-177.
 J. Shaw, ‘A Modern Millenarian Prophet’s Bible’, in Z. Bennett and D. Gowler, Radical Christian Voices and Practice: Essays in Honour of Christopher Rowland, Oxford, 2012, p. 167.
 E. Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980, London, 1985, p. 5.
 G. F. Blandford, Insanity and its treatment; Lectures on the Treatment, Medical and Legal, of Insane Patients, London, 1871, p. 1.
 J. Ussher, Women’s Madness; Misogyny or Mental Illness?, Massachusetts, 1992, pp. 66-67.
 G. Weldon, ‘Death Blow to Spiritualism – Is it?’, 1882, in Women, Madness and Spiritualism, ed. R. Porter, H. Nicholson and B. Bennett, Vol. 1, London, 2003, p. 121.