A Case of Hysteria

Till Commitment Do We Part

Women have long struggled for equal rights in America, from voting to financial to personal health issues. Religious excitement, epilepsy, sexual activity, mild depression, combativeness, or just about any claimed neurosis, legitimate or not, could lead to their involuntary commitment. In years past, it was not uncommon for a husband seeking a divorce—or just dissatisfied with his wife or daughter’s behavior—to have her locked away in an asylum indefinitely. One example seen here is a letter from the mother of Wilma Holtz, who details how her daughter was confined against her will thanks to her now-deceased ex-husband. Even after his death, Wilma remained a patient, lacking any legal rights. The situation in California finally changed with the passage of the 1967 Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, which established due process rights for mentally ill individuals. It required a judge to sign off on involuntary confinements, bringing a more uniform approach to the situation and significantly reducing the number of frivolous commitments. A Patient’s Bill of Rights passed by the California legislature in 1973 gave additional assistance to those under the care of the state.

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