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Doing Away with the Taboo: Women’s Mental Health in Literature

By Anna Ceballos and Brooke Davis

According to WomensHealth.gov, at least one in every five women struggle with a mental health condition in the United States (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). Rates of mental health conditions are higher in women than in men, and even among the same conditions, depression and anxiety, for example, women and men can have varying experiences and side effects. The topic of mental health has slowly become less of a taboo in the media, and over time, women’s mental health has begun to taken more seriously. From the early days of women’s mental health in literature with Charlotte Perkins Gilman to more modern takes like Colleen Hoover, it is easy to see the value of writing women’s mental health into popular literature. Here are a few women writers who have changed the game and helped to normalize women’s mental health.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) is an American writer best known for her short semi-autobiographical story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which depicts a woman prescribed the controversial “rest cure.” Gilman herself was prescribed the rest cure after suffering from postpartum depression. She participated in the treatment but eventually her depression returned, so Gilman decided to leave her husband and begin her life as a writer, at which time she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Gilman also dedicated herself to feminism and social reform, “believing that a purely domestic environment oppressed women, that men dominated women, and that motherhood should not prohibit a woman from working outside the home” (Gagnon). She became an advocate for women and was a crucial voice in early discussions of women’s mental health. If you enjoyed “The Yellow Wallpaper,” we recommend a more modern, thrilling take on the rest cure, Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) is an American poet and novelist, and the “first person to win a posthumous Pulitzer Prize” (biography.com editor). Plath is most famous for her novel, The Bell Jar, and her collections of poetry, including “Ariel” and “The Colossus.” Over the years, however, she has been remembered as the woman who “ended her life by putting her head in the oven” (Chakravarty). Her works, including The Bell Jar, pull at the reader’s emotions while discussing a concept that was wildly taboo in the 20th century: mental illness.

The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical novel with the mistreatment of women and the mishandling of mental illness at its core (Censored: Wielding the Red Pen). The main conflict that drives the story is the oppressive environment Esther (and all women at that time) experiences, coupled with her constantly wavering mental health in a society that has no place for ambitious women. Plath is one of the first women to have discussed mental health as openly as she does in her novel, and she has become the first of many to do so since then. Her poems explore her own mental health as well as her troubled marriage, parental conflicts, and her own self-image. Plath is a trailblazer for women discussing mental health in their writing.

Colleen Hoover

Moving into the 21st century, we find one of the media’s most popular fiction authors, Colleen Hoover. Known for many hard-hitting novels including It Ends With Us, Ugly Love, and Verity, Hoover writes romance thrillers that often center around domestic violence and similar themes. Specifically, It Ends With Us chronicles a young woman’s experience both growing up around domestic violence and discovering it for herself in her adult life. Hoover’s writing weaves together depictions of these difficult situations and warning signs of them with romance and thrill in a way that normalizes discussion of mental health and trauma. The ever-popular “Booktok” (collection of videos on TikTok which include book recommendations and discourse) has been ablaze with Colleen Hoover’s recent releases as well, meaning younger social media demographics are being exposed to literature revolving around mental health.

Brit Bennett

Brit Bennett, author of novels The Mothers and The Vanishing Half, among many other short stories and essays, has won many awards for her writing on subjects including “community and ambition, love and friendship, and living up to expectation in a contemporary black America” (Bennett 2016). The Mothers, specifically, tells the story of a young black woman whose mother dies by suicide. Following this tragedy, Nadia experiences her own mental health struggles surrounding the trauma of her mother’s death as well as her own traumatic situations throughout life. Bennett’s depiction of a woman’s experiences with mental health in a coming-of-age story like The Mothers is one example of many modern takes on the common struggles many women face today.

Sources Cited

Bennett, Brit. The Mothers. Riverhead Books, 2016.

biography.com editors. “Sylvia Plath.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 15 Apr. 2021, www.biography.com/writer/sylvia-plath.

“Censored: Wielding the Red Pen.” Silenced Minorities, University of Virginia Library, explore.lib.virginia.edu/exhibits/show/censored/walkthrough/minorities.

Chakravarty, Rashmi. “This Famed Poet Ended Her Life by Putting Her Head in an Oven.” Youth Media Channel, ED Times, 21 Sept. 2021, edtimes.in/this-famed-poet-ended-her-life-by-putting-her-head-in-an-oven/.

Gagnon, Amy. “Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Connecticut History: A Cthumanities Project.” Connecticut History | a CTHumanities Project, 26 Jan. 2022, https://connecticuthistory.org/charlotte-perkins-gilman/.

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