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
Published by Sourcebooks
Publication date: June 22, 2021
Genres: Book Clubs, Non-fiction, History, Social Issues
The general consensus among people who know me is I don’t need more reading that could make me angry. This might be true, but as history is written by the victors and the victors for centuries have been men we all need to read nonfiction that challenges the prevailing history. This was the case when I read The Woman They Could Not Silence by Kate Moore. I thought my head was going to explode. Thankfully, it didn’t or I couldn’t share this book with all of you.
Elizabeth Packard is a 43-year-old married woman with 6 children living in Manteno, Illinois in 1860. Her husband of 21 years, Theophilus, is a pastor. For the past several weeks his increasing acrimony against his wife has grown to the point he doesn’t sleep in their bed anymore. What Elizabeth doesn’t know is that Theophilus has grown so tired of his wife’s opinions he’s taking drastic action. Divorce? No, that would not look good in the eyes of his congregation. Plus, Elizabeth is an exemplary wife whose domestic skills are lauded far and wide.
No, it’s much less trouble to simply have her committed to an insane asylum. He’s already booked her at the Illinois State Hospital in Jacksonville. Elizabeth has no say in the matter; the laws of the United States at that time define a married woman as “civilly dead”—meaning she has no rights. Not to her money, to her children, to her body, or her mind. Just like that Elizabeth is removed from her home and her beloved children, one still a baby and two under the age of 10, and bundled off to an asylum.
In the beginning the hospital appears genteel. Elizabeth is put in a ward with women from the same social background as herself. Days are spent conversing and meals are convivial. Even better, the hospital is run an understanding superintendent who doesn’t see Elizabeth’s ideas about religion or society as insane, but as an articulate woman. With Dr. Andrew McFarland in her corner, she has no doubt she’ll be back home in a few weeks.
This is the beginning of Packard’s stay in Jacksonville and of the battle she fought for the rest of her life not only to have her own sanity validated, but to change the laws that gave men unfettered control over their wives across the country. As time passed, she would witness abuse and deprivation and though there were clinically mentally ill women there, the majority were experiencing emotions that were acceptable in a man, but considered crazy in a woman. A key example is Elizabeth’s being repeatedly censured for her anger towards her husband. You mean the man who locked her up?! Kept her loved ones from visiting? Lied to everyone about her mental health? How dare she feel rage.
Obviously, I would not have fared well in this era. Elizabeth Packard was a dutiful wife until she espoused women’s rights and dared to believe in a God of love—as opposed to her husband’s God of wrath. She was called insane, hysterical, and crazy, labels that followed her for the rest of her life, as she led a crusade for the rights of women and the mentally ill. Throughout it all, she maintained a calm demeanor, holding steadfast to her faith and her belief in her own intellect. The Woman They Could Not Silence is thoroughly researched, propulsive reading, often in Elizabeth’s own words. A shocking piece of American history seldom acknowledged and all the more relevant now as the rights of vulnerable communities are being challenged by lawmakers around the country. Valuable reading.
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