Mental Health Advocacy: Women who shaped the modern movement

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In 19th century America, the social status of people with disabilities and women were defined primarily by the same thing — their physiology. Intelligence, education, and talent, if considered at all, were only secondary characteristics. This Women’s History Month, I want to share the stories of two women who fought for more, advancing rights for people with mental health disabilities and expanding freedom for all. 

Women in the 1800s faced many of the same forms of oppression, discrimination, paternalism, and stereotyping that people with disabilities have endured throughout history. The country still adhered to the English common law of coverture, where a married woman is under the protection and authority of her husband. 

Under this harmful, paternalistic policy, a woman named Elizabeth Packard was committed to an insane asylum for three years merely on her husband’s observation that his wife was “a little insane.” The reason? Elizabeth disagreed with his theological views; her differing theological views made her “a little insane” when they became a public embarrassment for the Reverend Packard.

While incarcerated at the insane asylum, Elizabeth was isolated and treated like a criminal. She was housed with violent criminals and experienced intimidation and even violence on a daily basis.

In 1863, Elizabeth was finally given her day in court. She had to prove her sanity to regain her freedom. The policy at the time dictated that she would remain “insane” until she could prove she was not. In other words, she was guilty until proven innocent. Elizabeth acted and spoke with such dignity and eloquence that the jury took all of seven minutes of deliberation to release her from the asylum. (Elizabeth would have been released to live under the authority of her husband, once again, had he not sold their house, all of her possessions, and moved with their children to Massachusetts — all of which was his independent legal right at the time.)

Elizabeth went on to found the Anti-Insane Asylum Society; authored several books; and toured the country advocating for more stringent commitment laws, the rights of married women, and the protection of the rights of asylum inmates.

Before Elizabeth’s odyssey of incarceration for expressing her opinion began, another woman was already hard at work. Dorothea Dix, considered the mother of Mental Health reform, fought a more than 40-year crusade to create a more equitable world for the underprivileged. 

Dorothea was a teacher. She published popular textbooks and founded multiple schools for underprivileged girls. In 1841, Dorothea volunteered to teach a Sunday school class at a local women’s prison.

Much like today, prisons were facilities to incarcerate and “treat” people with mental health issues. Dorothea witnessed firsthand the inhumane treatment of inmates. When she confronted a prison official about the miserable living conditions of people with mental illnesses, the official said, “The insane do not feel the cold.” This seven-word sentence is a textbook example of “othering,” viewing a person or group of people as intrinsically different from you and deserving of different treatment, and a common justification for oppression.

Dorothea refused to accept this insidious response and began to work for reform. She created a system of collecting objective data, enabling her to defeat opponents of her reforms who relied solely on subjective arguments. She used her skills developed as a teacher and her growing connections with other reformers to make real change. She persuaded legislators, European governments, and even the Pope, to recognize the inhumane treatment of people with mental health issues and improve the treatment and living conditions of all prisoners, as well as the mentally ill. 

Both Dorothea Dix and Elizabeth Packard understood that working for the freedom and dignity of others was necessary to their own. Though they made great strides, the work to create a world where everyone is welcome continues. If you would like to learn more about some of the people working for disability justice today, read more with the Disability Visibility Project, check out resources from the Disability Intersectionality Summit, or follow the active conversation on social media with one of the disability trailblazers we’ve profiled! 

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