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Kickass Women in History: Elizabeth Packard

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This month’s Kickass Woman was brought to my attention by the book The Woman They Could Not Silence: One Woman, Her Incredible Fight For Freedom, and the Men Who Tried To Make Her Disappear by Kate Moore.

Kate Moore is also the author of The Radium Girls: The Dark History of America’s Shining Women. I recommend both books with the caveat that they will induce feelings of rage, as Moore brings historical cases of systemic and personal injustice to light.

Heads up for some triggers in this month’s edition

Before you read, heads up for ableism, abuse, grief/loss, and kidnapping.

Elizabeth Ward was born in 1816. She was well-educated, having been allowed by her parents to attend Amherst Female Seminary. However, these same parents pressured her to marry a much older man, Theophilus Packard, a Calvinist minister. The couple had six children. They lived in Massachusetts and then in Illinois.

Over time, Elizabeth began to question Calvinism, going so far as to announce to her husband’s congregation that she was going to leave the church and join the Methodists. Elizabeth maintained that she had the right to her own opinions and the right to voice them. Furious with this ‘disloyalty,’ Theophilus had her committed to the Jacksonville Insane Asylum in 1860. Elizabeth refused to ‘admit’ that she was insane and refused to recant on her religious and philosophical views. As she stated, she’d been “placed there by her husband for THINKING.”

Elizabeth was judged insane by a doctor that Theophilus hired. The doctor disguised himself as a sewing machine salesman in order to win her confidence, and judged her insane because, during their conversation, Elizabeth complained that her husband thought she was crazy. Once committed to the asylum, Elizabeth continued to be judged insane by her doctor (a different one) because she indicated that she disliked her husband and that she disagreed, publicly and privately, with his religious views, his authoritarian child-rearing style, and his pro-slavery views. At any time, Elizabeth could have pretended to acquiesce to the views of her doctor and her husband, and given up on her writing (she was a prolific author of essays, books, speeches, and letters about her religious views and the treatment of the insane). However, Elizabeth famously wrote, “No talent can lie dormant” and she persisted, even at a terrible cost.

Elizabeth Packard

Women in the asylum were considered to be insane if they denied their insanity and if they showed sadness or anger. Women who were desperately grieving the loss of their children and their freedom were forced to appear stoic lest they incur a doctor or attendant’s wrath. They were at the mercy of the attendants, who could be friendly, neglectful, or vicious depending on personality and whim.

Elizabeth looked after her fellow inmates, helping them stay clean, advocating for their care, and making friends among other women, who, like Elizabeth, were incarcerated for their “excessive application of body and mind.”

Elizabeth’s adult children succeeded in securing Elizabeth’s release in 1863, at which time she was forced to return to her husband if she wanted to be reunited with her children who were still minors. Theophilus locked her in the nursery and nailed the doors and windows shut until she was finally able to smuggle a letter out to her friends who petitioned the court for a writ of habeas corpus. This writ forced Theophilus to bring Elizabeth to court where, in a sensational court case, she was finally legally declared sane.

The night before the verdict, Theophilus absconded with her younger children, her money, her notes, the family furniture, and her clothes. Elizabeth was not able to live with her younger children while remaining separate from her husband until 1869, when, after years of unrelenting pressure from Elizabeth and other advocates, the Illinois and Massachusetts State Legislatures passed laws saying that married women had an equal right to property and child custody. Elizabeth continued public speaking and writing about the rights of women, saying, “The more freedom I have, the more I want.”

Elizabeth continued to advocate for the rights of women incarcerated on grounds of insanity until her death in 1897, stating, of her former friends in the asylums,

Knowing as I do their helpless, hopeless condition, so far as justice to them is concerned, I can find no rest for my liberated soul, so long as my associates are not delivered, also.

Elizabeth was caring, empathetic, and incredibly stubborn. She travelled around the country speaking out for the rights of women and for the rights of the insane, and was instrumental in achieving reforms on both counts. In closing, one more quote from this remarkable woman:

I do say when we must fight, go at it in good earnest.

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