In the growing age of neuroscience, we are rapidly churning out answers to questions about the mind and mental illness that have always evaded us. However, our current understanding of mental illness, although scientific in nature, comes with historical baggage that has negatively shaped society’s beliefs connecting females to illness. Our definitions of mental illness and its association with women came out of a history of stigmatization against women and disease. Science supported the physical and mental inferiority of women, and all illness was tied to the female body. The onset of new brain science had the same agenda to make female inferiority scientifically true, to validate sexism, and justify its societal inequalities. Neuroscience thus made room for neurosexism, the sexist assumption that all differences perceived between men and women are a direct result of neurological difference. It’s true that sex differences exist in male and female brains, but it’s the neurological aspects, along with the gender bias our society promotes, that account for these differences. If we believe that all sex difference can be accounted for neurologically, we would not have to worry about fixing gender inequality since difference is merely a matter of biological determinism. But this is not the case.
This project consists of studies of brain MRI images of individuals diagnosed with mental illness, looking at the effects of sex in the brain to support neurological difference, in addition to exploring the history of sex difference in both scientific and philosophical literature. A survey was conducted of Union College students to measure perceptions of mental illness and whether these perceptions are gendered, with the goal of supporting that neurological difference does not account for all sex difference, but that social stigmatization of mental illness, specifically in its connection to women, still exists, and it isn’t something to ignore. Because our understanding of mental illness is outdated and weighed down by gendered science, redefining how we talk about and treat mental illness is very much needed.