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It’s About Control: Remembering a Mental Health Crusader

Elizabeth Packard's forgotten fight for women's rights should inspire us today.

Key points

  • In the 19th century, women's rights were not recognized by the law.
  • Elizabeth Packard became an early advocate for women's rights after her husband punished her by locking her away in a mental institution.
  • Packard drawing attention to lopsided mental health laws was an important step forward for women—but the struggle for women's rights continues.

In one of the most powerful and influential women’s narratives of the 19th century, Elizabeth Packard told a woeful tale. Her husband, a cruel, religious martinet named Theophilus, decided that his wife was too troublesome for the home. As Packard explains in The Prisoners Hidden Life, or Insane Asylums Unveiled, Theophilus had “for some time been trying to induce me to sign a deed, so that he could sell some real estate, and I had objected, unless he should give me some equivalent for what he had already unjustly taken from me. This he would not do.” He also despised Elizabeth for contradicting his strict Calvinist beliefs. Her gentler, Universalist vision of God was not to his liking.

Theophilus decided to punish Elizabeth. He went the legal route. He had her locked away in a mental institution.

In the 1800s, American women were deeply stifled by the law. For the most part, they could not vote, their husbands controlled their property, they could not participate in politics, they could not go to universities, and they could not easily gain custody of their own children. Essentially, women were noncitizens.

William Lloyd Garrison, the famous abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, put it this way: “The Common Law, by giving to the husband the custody of his wife’s person, does virtually place her on a level with criminals, lunatics, and fools, since these are the only classes of adult persons over whom the law-makers have thought it necessary to place keepers.”

The asylum was often used as a threat to the wayward wife.

Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton pondered, “Could the dark secrets of those insane asylums be brought to light… we would be shocked to know the countless number of rebellious wives, sisters, and daughters that are thus annually sacrificed to false customs and conventionalisms, and barbarous laws made by men for women.” Reformer Lydia Smith laid out the strategy in her memoir: “It is a very fashionable and easy thing now to make a person out to be insane. If a man tires from his wife… it is not a very difficult matter to get her in an institution.”

In Packard’s case, her husband used his “right” to have her mentally incarcerated at his own “request.” Due process did not apply equally to women. Packard could not defend herself.

Packard quotes the statute that her husband used in her book: “Married women and infants, who, in the judgment of the medical superintendent (meaning the Superintendent of the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane), are evidently insane or distracted, may be entered or detained in the hospital on the request of the husband of the woman or the guardian of the infant, without the evidence of insanity required in other cases.” Basically, women in Illinois had the same rights as children.

Packard was not a “feminist” by our modern standards. She did not push for complete legal equality. She believed that male patriarchs should rightfully be in control of the home and in politics. Her issue, more narrowly, was that the law insufficiently protected women from unjust, tyrannical men.

But Packard did something to improve the lot of all women. She drew attention to the lopsided mental health laws that allowed “disruptive” women to be sent away at a husband’s discretion. After she secured her freedom, she went on the road, publicly pushing legislatures to do the right thing and make changes to their commitment laws.

The National Women’s History Museum summarizes Packard’s subsequent crusade:

“In Iowa, Maine, and Massachusetts, she helped win the fight for regular visiting teams that monitored conditions in asylums. In Iowa, ‘Packard’s Law’ made it illegal for asylum officials to intercept patients’ mail. Packard won reforms to commitment laws in four states, as well as the passage of a law protecting married women’s property in Illinois.”

By Packard’s death in 1897, women were slowly gaining ground. Four states had granted suffrage. Activists like Susan B. Anthony and others fiercely battled for women’s rights as citizens. Packard’s battle was part of a broader war for basic rights, waged on numerous fronts by brave women and their allies.

The fight for women’s rights was not won in the 19th century.

Despite Packard’s actions, women continued to be mistreated and discriminated against by the mental health system.

The battle for gender equality is not yet over, a fact attested to by the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which is opposed by two-thirds of American women in a recent poll.

Let us remember Packard’s battle for women in the mental health care system as we look to the battles ahead.


Carlisle, L.V. (2010). Elizabeth Packard: A Noble Fight. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Packard, Elizabeth. (1871). The Prisoner’s Hidden Life, Or, Insane Asylums Unveiled. Chicago: J.N. Clarke, Publisher.