We’re all familiar with the method of discrediting women by making allegations against their mental health whenever they dare to stand up to a man in power. As Radium Girls author Kate Moore ably demonstrates in her new book, The Woman They Could Not Silence: One Woman, Her Incredible Fight for Freedom, and the Men Who Tried to Make Her Disappear, this particularly pernicious tool of the patriarchy has been in use for a very long time.
Elizabeth Packard was a housewife, mother and champion for the disadvantaged and underserved. In the middle of the 19th century, she was involuntarily committed to an Illinois asylum by her husband, a controlling, Confederate-sympathizing Presbyterian minister with whom she had begun publicly disagreeing. At that time, female madness was defined in part as any unladylike behavior, such as arguing one’s case or expressing unhappiness at one’s situation. Anyone who committed these transgressions could be “sent to the madhouse” on nothing more than her husband’s say-so. Packard discovered two terrible truths from her own experience of this tactic: Married women had no rights or legal recourse, and neither did the inmates of asylums.
Once within the walls of the asylum, women were subject to filthy conditions and horrifying physical abuse and torture. As Packard noted, it was as though these asylums were designed to encourage insanity, not heal it. Faced with this seemingly hopeless situation, Packard set out to prove her own sanity and liberate herself and her fellow sisters in a gripping and improbable battle against rich, powerful men.
Packard’s story is, incredibly, not simply one of a woman who survived three years of imprisonment in an asylum for disagreeing with her husband’s religious views. She didn’t throw her energy into merely freeing herself, clearing her name and being reunited with her beloved children. Instead, the brave, brilliant and unshakable Packard went on to pen multiple books on subjects such as emancipation, women’s rights and the rights of people who are mentally ill; to get bills passed asserting the basic human rights and liberties of married women and mentally ill people; and to gain notoriety for confronting injustice no matter the odds.
The Woman They Could Not Silence is compelling not only because of the way it creates an alliance between the reader and the courageous Packard, but also because of how it forces the reader to examine once more the language and attitudes around women’s mental health. In Packard we see a foremother of the female leaders of today: intelligent, tenacious and impossible to cow.