The Women’s Rights Movement
Plath wrote ‘‘Mushrooms’’ in post-World War II England. During the war, both in England and the United States, many men of working age went away to fight in the war and women were left to run businesses and work in industry. Furthermore, many men died in combat, so women were needed in greater numbers in the workforce after World War II than they had been before it. These historical events were a major spur for the growth of the feminist movement during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. It was argued that as women were doing the same work as men, they should be paid the same and enjoy equal rights.
During the 1960s in the United States, several federal laws were passed that were designed to improve the economic status of women. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 mandated equal wages for men and women doing equal work. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination against women by any company with over twenty-five employees. In 1967 a Presidential Executive Order was issued prohibiting bias against women by federal government employers.
However, discrimination against women in daily life remained. Married women often could not obtain credit cards in their own name. Single or divorced women often could not obtain credit to purchase a house or a car: stories were rife about women having to take along male friends for the purpose of signing the credit agreement, even when they were not the real purchasers.
Even in the area of crime, women were discriminated against. A woman who shot and killed her husband could be accused of homicide, but a man who shot his wife could be accused of a lesser crime of passion. In Pennsylvania, only in 1968 did the courts void a state law that ruled that any woman convicted of a felony should be sentenced to the maximum punishment prescribed by law.
In most states, abortion was only deemed legal if the mother’s life was proven to be physically endangered by continuing with the pregnancy. This state of affairs was overturned in 1973 by a landmark case in the Supreme Court, Roe vs. Wade, which ruled that a mother may abort her pregnancy for any reason, up until the point at which the fetus becomes viable.
The Civil Rights Movement
Running parallel with the women’s rights movement in the United States was the civil rights movement (approximately 1955–68). The civil rights movement attempted to abolish public and private acts of discrimination on the basis of race, particularly with regard to African Americans.
The period between 1955 and 1968 was marked by outbreaks of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience aimed at drawing attention to the lack of equity faced by African Americans. One pivotal episode in the civil rights struggle took place on December 1, 1955, when an African American woman and civil rights activist, Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat on a bus to make room for a white passenger. Her act and the subsequent Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott led to the abolition of segregation on public buses in 1956. In 1960, a student sit-in was held at a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina, to protest Woolworth’s policy of excluding African Americans. Four African American students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, an all-black college, sat down at the segregated lunch counter at Woolworth’s, leaving space for white sympathizers to sit among them. The civil rights movement culminated with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which together made discrimination illegal and protected the voting rights of African Americans.
The Treatment of Depression
Electroconvulsive therapy or electroshock treatment was a popular treatment for severe depression in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Plath was given electroconvulsive therapy for depression, but it only seemed to increase her anxiety. Electroconvulsive therapy is still used today as a treatment for depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder (moods of depression and abnormally elevated mood, or mania). It has gained a controversial reputation due to suggestions that it can cause brain damage. One of its side-effects is memory loss.
The two other main treatments for depression are medication, and psychotherapy, which Plath was treated with. One of the most popular psychotherapies is cognitive behavioral therapy, which aims to change negative thought patterns and behaviors. A commonly prescribed drug treatment for depression is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), though controversy has arisen over side-effects said to include suicidal and homicidal ideation (a desire to kill oneself or other people).
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Sylvia Plath, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010