Review: The Woman They Could Not Silence by Kate Moore

 

Title: The Woman They Could Not Silence: Elizabeth Packard’s incredible fight for freedom, and the men who tried to make her disappear

Author: Kate Moore

Published: 28th September 2021, Scribe Publications

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Scribe Publications

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My Thoughts:

 

“I, though a woman, have just as good a right to my opinion, as my husband has to his.”

The Woman They Could Not Silence is the remarkable and inspiring story of Elizabeth Packard’s fight to be recognised as more than her husband’s property, and against the laws that allowed it, by Kate Moore.

In June of 1860, Elizabeth Packard, a wife of 21 years, and a mother of 6, was forcibly committed to the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane in Jacksonville, Illinois by her husband, Theophilus Packard, a Presbyterian preacher. In recent months 43 year old Elizabeth had begun to object to being silenced by her husband whenever she dared to venture a thought or opinion of her own, behaviour “so different from her former conduct,” that Theophilus claimed she was suffering an “attack of derangement….the result of a diseased brain.” Furious with “his newly outspoken wife, with her independent mind and her independent spirit”, he made plans, as was his right by law, “to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement”, arranging for Elizabeth to be committed to an asylum for the insane. No doubt Theophilus expected Elizabeth would quickly repent and return home throughly chastened and made docile, but instead her incarceration became the catalyst for a life long campaign for the rights of women, and the mentally ill.

“It shall be one of the highest aspirations of my earth-life, to expose these evils for the purpose of remedying them,” she announced. “It shall be said of me, ‘She hath done what she could.’”

Drawing upon varied resources, including Elizabeth’s journals written on, “tissue paper, brown paper, and even scraps of cotton cloth”, during her time at the asylum, correspondence, reports, court documents, and news articles, Moore details Elizabeth’s revolutionary challenge of a society permitted to declare women insane upon the whims of their husbands or fathers. She provides insight into the operations of asylums in the late nineteenth century, the understanding of and treatment (or more accurately the lack of) for mental health conditions, and how Elizabeth not only survived but thrived in an environment designed to break her.

“It is hereby ordered that Mrs. Elizabeth P. W. Packard be relieved of all restraint incompatible with her condition as a sane woman.”

By the time of her death in 1897 Elizabeth could claim responsibility for the passage of at least thirty-four bills in forty-four legislatures across twenty-four states resulting in law reform, and widespread, long-lasting change, related to the operation of Insane Asylums, including granting married women the right of jury trial before being commitment. Her legacy should not be underestimated nor forgotten, especially as the battle is still far from won given outspoken women are still labeled ‘crazy’ in an effort to silence them.

Meticulously researched with a readable narrative, The Woman They Could Not Silence is a fascinating expose of history and powerful biography of a courageous, noteworthy woman.

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