The Insanity of Inequality

In 1851, the state of Illinois opened its first hospital for the mentally ill. The state legislature passed a law to protect people from being committed against his or her will. The law required a public hearing before that person was committed. With one exception, a husband could have his wife committed without either a public hearing or her consent. All the law required was “the permission of the asylum superintendent” and one doctor who agreed with the diagnosis. In the summer of 1860, Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard (1816-1897) was a victim of that law. Such was the insanity of inequality. 

black and white photograph or linotype of Elizabeth Packard a woman who faced the inanity of inequality and fought it.

Early Life

Betsy Parsons Ware was born in Ware, Massachusetts on December 28, 1816, to Lucy Parsons Ware and Reverend Samuel Ware. The oldest of three children, she was the only daughter. She changed her name to Elizabeth as a teenager.

Her father, a Calvinist minister, made sure all his children were well-educated. Elizabeth studied French, algebra, and the new classics at the Amherst Female Seminary. She became a teacher.

Elizabeth fell ill during the 1835 winter holidays. Doctors treated her with emetics, purges, and bleeding for “brain fever.” But her symptoms (headaches and feeling delirious) continued. Her father believed her condition was from stress and checked her into Worcester State Asylum for several weeks. Some speculate that her symptoms resulted from tight lacing her corset, which caused restricted breathing, fainting, and “poor digestion.”

Marriage

In 1839, twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth married the man her parents insisted she marry. Theophilus Packard, a conservative Calvinist minister was fourteen years her senior. They had six children and lived in Western Massachusetts until September 1954. 

They moved to Kankakee County, Illinois. She worked as a teacher in Jacksonville, Illinois.

A New Life and New Ideas

Spiritualism and other modern religious movements intrigued Elizabeth, a religious woman. She questioned her husband’s beliefs and started talking openly about her ideas to his parishioners.

Alarmed by her refusal to follow his wishes, Packard questioned Elizabeth’s sanity. 

His suggestion worried Elizabeth enough she consulted an attorney. The attorney assured her he could not commit her without a jury trial.

In the middle of her husband’s church service, Elizabeth states she was going across the street to worship with the Methodists.

Packard arranged for Dr. J. W. Brown, masquerading as a sewing machine salesman, to speak with his wife.

She complained to the “salesman” about her husband’s domination and his accusations that she was insane.

The doctor told Packard what she’d said. Packard decided to commit her to an asylum.

Committed

Elizabeth came face-to-face with the insanity of inequality on June 18, 1860, when the county sheriff forcibly removed her from her home. 

They committed her to the Jacksonville Asylum. At first, she had a private room and could keep clean and healthy.

black and white photograph of an 5 storied white insane asylum with multiple connected buildings.

The superintendent of the state hospital, Dr. Andrew McFarland, saw her several times. When she refused to agree she was insane or to change her religious views, he had her moved to the 8th Ward for the violent and hopelessly insane.

Over the next three years, Elizabeth steadfastly refused to agree she was insane or to change her beliefs. Attacked and harassed daily, she also witnessed abuse other patients suffered. She wrote her thoughts and experiences on scraps of paper she found. And she collected written testimony from other patients.

She maintained good hygiene, routine physical exercise, and cleaned the filthy rooms of Ward 8.

Discharged to Home

Depending upon which source you read, either the hospital decided it could no longer keep Elizabeth or her oldest son turned twenty-one and had the legal authority to remove her from the asylum. 

She fought the release. She wanted to finish writing her book, and she was afraid her husband would lock her up somewhere else. 

In the fall of 1863, the hospital discharged her with a letter stating she was “incurably insane” and returned to her husband.

Packard had placed locks on everything. Elizabeth could not get food or clean linens without his permission. Before long, he nailed the windows of their former nursery shut and locked her in. She had no fire or warm clothing. Meanwhile, her husband tried to get her committed somewhere else.

Elizabeth Gets Help

After about a month and a half, Elizabeth threw a letter out of the window to a neighbor. A writ of habeus corpus was issued on her behalf.

Judge Charles Starr ordered Packard to bring Elizabeth to his chambers on January 12, 1864. Packard presented Elizabeth to Judge Charles Starr as ordered. He also brought the letter from the Illinois State Asylum that said she left without being cured and is incurably insane.

Packard v. Packard

The Packard v. Packard trial began on January 13, 1864.

Theophilus Packard’s lawyers produced witnesses from his church and family and even Dr. J. W. Brown, the doctor-salesman. All of whom declared Elizabeth was insane for her disobedience and for trying to leave the church.

Elizabeth Packard’s lawyers, Stephen Moore and John Orr, called witnesses who knew the Packards but were not members of her husband’s church. None of them had ever seen any signs that Elizabeth was insane. Her friend, Sarah Haslett, testified about Elizabeth’s confinement in the locked nursery. Dr. Duncanson, a physician and theologian, testified that he had interviewed Elizabeth for three hours, and while he did not agree with her beliefs, he did not call people insane “because they differ with me.”

After seven minutes of deliberation, on January 18, 1864, the jury declared Elizabeth sane.

Home Again

Elizabeth returned home, but Packard had sold their house, took her money, notes, wardrobe, and their young children back to Massachusetts with him. His actions were perfectly legal under Illinois and Massachusetts law. Elizabeth could do nothing to recover her children and property.

Elizabeth never divorced her husband, but she never returned to him either. 

Asylum Reform

Elizabeth devoted the rest of her life to changing the conditions suffered by the mentally ill. She traveled around the country and campaigned to pass laws that required a jury trial to prove insanity. 

She founded the Anti-Insane Asylum Society and published several books, including Marital Power Exemplified, or Three Years Imprisonment for Religious Belief (1864), Great Disclosure of Spiritual Wickedness in High Places (1865), The Mystic Key or the Asylum Secret Unlocked (1866), and The Prisoners’ Hidden Life, or Insane Asylums Unveiled (1868). Her book sales made her financially independent.

Various state legislatures passed thirty-four bills, which required a jury trial before anyone could commit a person to an asylum. Illinois passed such a law in 1869. In 1880, they formed The National Society for the Protection of the Insane and the Prevention of Insanity, in part because of her influence.

And she didn’t stop there.

Married Women’s Rights

Elizabeth wrote, lectured, and lobbied against the insanity of inequality for married women. She fought for a married woman’s right to own property, sign legal documents, enter a contract, obtain an education, and keep custody of her children.

She won custody of her children when they were teenagers (1873).

After her children grew up, she lobbied for people locked up in mental wards. She got laws changed in Iowa, New York, Connecticut, and then worked on a federal bill. The bill passed.

She spent fifteen years organizing 25 other states. Many laws changed because of her influence.

A Life Story Worth Telling

book cover for the woman they could not silence by Kate Moore detailing the life story of Elizabeth Packard

Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard, also known as E.P.W. Packard, died on July 25, 1897. She faced the insanity of inequality, fought it, and won. Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people were saved from abuse because of her. She probably saved hundreds of married women from false imprisonment for insanity. If you’d like to read more about this strong woman who fought for women’s rights check out The Woman They Could Not Silence by Kate Moore. 

A tiny Crack in Male-dominated Science

In the 1850s, a natural philosopher (amateur scientist) studied the effects of the sun’s heat. Hers were early, perhaps even the first experiments ever done on Earth’s greenhouse effect. Despite the limitations 19th century society put on Eunice Newton Foote, she made a tiny crack in male-dominated science.

graphic representation of Eunice Newton Foote shows a female profile with a pilgrim-style bonnet covering most of her face. She made a tiny crack in male-dominated science.

Early life

In 1819 in Goshen, Connecticut, Isaac Newton Jr. and Thirza Newton had a daughter they named Eunice. Eunice, her six sisters, five brothers, and her parents moved to Bloomington, New York.

At seventeen, she went to Troy Female Seminary. Being a student there allowed her to study the basics of chemistry and biology at a local science college.

On August 12, 1841, she married Elisha Foote. They lived in Seneca Falls and later in Saratoga, New York. They had two daughters.

Women’s Rights

While living in Seneca Falls, Eunice Newton attended the first Woman’s Rights Convention on July 19-20, 1848. She signed the convention’s Declaration of Sentiments written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The document demanded equality with men in social status and legal rights.

Research

NASA image of the earth from Apollo 17 celebrating the tiny crack in male-dominated science made by Eunice Newton Foote in her experiments on the greenhouse effect.
Apollo 17, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1850s, Foote conducted her experiments. She used an air pump, four mercury thermometers, and two glass cylinders. She put a thermometer in each glass cylinder. Then she pumped the air out of one cylinder and compressed the air in the other. She used carbon dioxide, common air, and hydrogen. When both cylinder reached the same temperature, she set them in the sun. She measured the temperature in the cylinders and recorded how long it took to reach maximum temperature. And she made a discovery.

“The receiver containing this gas (carbon dioxide) became itself much heated—very sensibly more so than the other—and on being removed [from the Sun], it was many times as long in cooling.”

Climate.gov

After only basic chemistry and biology classes, she hypothesized that Earth would have been much warmer in the past if its carbon dioxide levels were higher. 

Recognition

She wrote a report on her experiments and hypotheses. Joseph Henry presented that report on August 23, 1856, at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The AAAS was all male until 1850. They allowed females and amateurs to be members but not a “professional” or a “fellow.”

The September 1856 issue of Scientific American featured Foote’s work. In an article titled “Scientific Ladies—Experiments with Condensed Gases,” the author wrote, “the experiments of Mrs. Foote afford abundant evidence of the ability of woman to investigate any subject with originality and precision.”

She accomplished this three years before Irish physicist John Tyndall’s famous experiments. We don’t know if he knew about Foote’s experiments.

A Woman’s Work

Kudos to the folks who uncovered the documents about Eunice Newton Foote. What we know about her makes one wonder how much more she could have done with the proper education and support. A strong woman, she wasn’t loud; she didn’t make a tremendous splash, but she made a tiny crack in male-dominated science. 

The First Female Olympic Champion to Strike Gold

The first modern Olympic Games took place in Athens, Greece, April 6–15, 1896. Women athletes could not participate for ninety-four years. Hélène de Pourtalès of Switzerland became the first female athlete to compete at the Olympic Games and the first female Olympic Champion to strike gold.

About Hélène

Portrait of the Countessa Hélène de Pourtalès the first female Olympic Champion to strike gold.
contessa

Hélène de Pourtalès (pronounced El-én day Por-tá-lay) was born in New York, New York on April 28, 1868 to Henry Barbe and Mary Lorillard Barbey.They named her Helen Barbey. 

Her father was an affluent financier. Her mother came from a family whose wealth came from a tobacco empire. Helen inherited her passion for horses and love of sailing. Her uncle, Pierre Lorillard IV, lived in Newport, Rhode Island and helped make it a yachting center. He was also a Thoroughbred racehorse owner.

On April 25, 1891, Helen married Hermon Alexander, Count von Pourtalès, (1847–1904). He was a captain of the Cuirassiers of the Guard, a heavy cavalry regiment of the Royal Prussian Army. She became known as Hélène de Pourtalès.

Hélène had dual citizenship, Swiss and American. Her husband had dual Swiss-German nationality. They had three daughters.

In 1896 Europe’s most prominent families had personal flotillas. Among them were members of the Swiss Pourtalès family.

The Olympics

Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937), was a French educator and historian, the instigator of the modern Olympic Games, and founder of the International Olympic Committee. He said that female athletes would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect.”

But in 1900 they allowed a few female athletes to compete as long as their legs were “aesthetically” covered by long skirts. They only allowed women to participate in five out of nineteen sports: tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrianism and golf. Out of 997 athletes, twenty-two were women.

One hundred-fifty yachts from six countries competed at the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris. Each yacht followed rules from their own area since the International Yacht Racing Union did not yet exist. No rules existed to standardize the boats either. They ordered classes by tonnage.   

On May 22, Hélène was a crew member along with her husband’s nephew aboard the Swiss boat, Lérina. Her husband was helmsman. They won gold in the first of the two regattas for the 1-2 ton class boats. In the second race three days later, they won silver.

Sepia tone photograph of the Swiss boat Lérina, crewed by Hélène de Pourtalès the first female Olympic champion to strike gold.

Hélène was the first Swiss female athlete to go to the Olympics, the first female athlete to compete at the Games, and the first female  Olympic Gold Medalist. 

NOTE: England’s Charlotte Cooper was the first individual female Olympic champion, as winner of the women’s tennis singles tournament. She also won a gold medal in the mixed doubles.

From First to Current

Hélène de Pourtalès was the first female Olympic Champion to strike gold. But she wasn’t the last. From 1956 to 1964 the Russian gymnast, Larisa Latynina, won fourteen individual medals and four team medals and became the female with the most Olympic medals. This year in Tokyo, almost 49% of the 10,305 Olympic athletes are female. It’s taken 121 years to be close to gender equality in numbers. Someday, hopefully soon, there will be true equality. 

Are You an Anti-Strong Female Protagonist Protester?

Have you read the protests? Did you nod your head and agree? Are you Anti-Strong Female Protagonist? You say you’re not against strong female characters, you’re against the label, the marketing term. Perhaps you’ve overlooked the reasons we need book and movie categories for strong female characters. Consider rethinking and rephrasing your argument.

Yes, there are reasons to wish we didn’t need this label and there are lots of books and movies that get the strong female character wrong. But not all women recognize a strong woman or know how to be one. For now, we need all the strong female protagonist examples we can get.

Drawing of non-gendered humans, one with a bull horn yelling at another one who wears a black tie and is jumping back, startled--the anti-strong female protagonist protesters yell, sometimes without examining what they really mean.

Where the Anti-Strong-Female-Protagonist Protesters Get it Wrong

It’s a sign of male oppression, so say the anti-strong-female character devotees. Yes and no. Yes, the patriarchal societies of the world often/usually/always suppress the females in their societies. That oppression is wrong-headed, but real. Like it or hate it, it still exists in far too much of the world.

“Male characters aren’t labeled that way so female characters shouldn’t be.” It would be a wonderful world if we all naturally understood that both males and females are powerful characters. Too bad that’s not reality.

To say that we shouldn’t have a label identifying strong female characters seems to imply that all females know they are strong therefore we shouldn’t need the label.

Let’s take a moment and agree that oppression of one gender by another, oppression of one race by another, and oppression of one religion or ethnicity by another, is wrong. Let’s be clear: all oppression of one set of people by another is wrong. Oppression exists on all kinds of levels. Pretending it doesn’t exist is also wrong. To pretend that we’ve overcome oppression is wrongheaded.

Let’s Rephrase It

When you read the posts by members of the anti-Strong-Female-Protagonists movement, they claim the label has somehow led to a proliferation of females with male characteristics. It is this that they contend is the problem. They believe that somehow authors have bought into the idea that to be strong, females must shoot and kill and “act like a man.”

Hopefully, they are not suggesting that it’s unrealistic for females to shoot or kill or “act like a man.”

When you examine their complaints, it appears the are talking about poorly developed characters. Characters who exist solely to forward the plot. Or characters with less than deep and believable motivations.

So instead of protesting the label because of poorly written characters, let’s rephrase and complain about flat characters. Flat characters are unsatisfying, especially when the flat character is a female.

Why the Label is a Good Thing

Few matriarchal or true egalitarian societies exist today. Many women from patriarchal societies or relationships have had no mentors to teach them how strong they are. Some need to learn how to be strong. They need mentors and examples in books, movies, and in real life. Some of those examples may not meet everyone’s definition of a strong female. That’s okay. The woman next to you may see herself in that character.

Despite more and more authors stepping up to portray female leads, stories with female protagonists remain a small percentage of all stories published. Some readers seek stories with female protagonists. The label “strong female” is a marketing tool that helps readers find these stories.

Needed: Strong Females 

Your mother, aunt, or grandmother may have been a self-actualized, powerful female and mentored you. That’s great. Not all of us are so fortunate. 

Some of us need print and movie examples. Many of us need to be shown all the ways we are strong. If you haven’t had the life experience to help you identify your own strengths, examples help. Giving the world lots of fictional examples, all kinds of strong females, allow girls and women to see and test what kind of strong female they want to be. Please, allow them that opportunity.

It would be ideal for every female to have examples of the perfect, self-actualizing females surrounding her. But then we’d have to all agree upon what the perfect self-actualized female looks and acts like. And that’s not respectful of the diversity of human society.

Why Not Strong?

Is it truly the word strong you are protesting? Would you prefer simply female protagonist? That’s not a very compelling label for marketing.

Perhaps you would prefer using the same labels used in stories with male protagonists. For example: action hero, dumb jock, rogue, strong and silent, etc. The list goes on.

How would you rephrase “strong female protagonist” so readers can find those stories?

Don’t Throw Out the Label, Yet

Are you a part of the anti-strong female protagonist movement? Please protest patriarchal oppression. And protest poorly written, flat characters. Don’t throw the label “strong female characters” out. Some day the label will have fulfilled its purpose. But not today. Today we need strong females–everywhere.

How Do You Recognize a Strong Woman?

For the past four years, this blog has featured brief biographies of women. Each woman featured shows strength, but it’s not necessarily physical strength. If it’s not physical strength, how do you recognize a strong woman?

Daring greatly is being brave and afraid every minute of the day at the exact same time.

Brene Brown

She doesn’t wait to be saved or given permission to act.

Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.

Mother Teresa
Photo of Mother Teresa in her blue on white habit

Sensitive, kind, and dedicated to serve others, Mother Teresa was a strong woman. She acted on her convictions and founded the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa and her missionaries cared for people dying of HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis, ran soup kitchens, dispensaries, mobile clinics, children’s and family counseling programs, as well as orphanages and schools. She put her own health at risk and worked tirelessly to help those in need.

Strong women challenge themselves. 

Where there is no struggle, there is no strength.

Oprah
Photo of Simon Biles in a red long-sleeve leotard, mid-air during a gymnastics routine.

America’s most decorated gymnast, Simone Biles is physically small, but she didn’t let that stop her. Her strength isn’t only physical. A focused and dedicated athlete, she challenges herself and works hard to achieve her goals. 

Strength can be mental, emotional, or physical. Physical strength isn’t necessary to be a strong woman. But women can also be physically strong.

A strong woman speaks her mind.

You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.

Maya Angelou
Photo of Kamala Harris By Office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris, Vice President of the United States, is confident, assertive, and full of personal charisma. She does not shrink herself to fit the roles or expectations of others. Vice President Harris speaks her mind and does not back down when others attempt to diminish her.

She can make choices against convention

It’s ok to care about what other people think, but you should give a little more weight to what you, yourself, think … The habit of thinking is the habit of gaining strength. You’re stronger than you believe.

Nnedi Okorafor
Photo of South African female combat troops with helmets, weapons, and in cammo

Strong women know others might judge them for choosing a career that goes against what is “feminine.” They also know that others do not determine their self-worth. They find their self-worth inside themselves.

Photo of a female construction worker carrying a long beam over her shoulder.

She can say no.

We don’t even know how strong we are until we are forced to bring that hidden strength forward. In times of tragedy, of war, of necessity, people do amazing things. The human capacity for survival and renewal is awesome.

Isabel Allende

Rosa Parks was soft-spoken, sweet, and small in stature. Some described her as timid and shy. But in 1955, Rosa said no. She refused to give her seat up for a white man. She might have been ‘timid and shy’ but she was a strong woman.

A strong woman seeks the right attention

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt

Though she was a shy and retiring person, Eleanor Roosevelt gave 348 press conferences as First Lady. She stepped into the role of First Lady and used her position and her voice to help others. Eleanor was a United Nations delegate, a human rights activist, a teacher, and a lecturer who averaged 150 speaking engagements a year throughout the 1950s.

She frees herself from the victim mentality

Only I can change my life. No one can do it for me.

Carol Burnett
Photo of Oprah Winfrey clapping

Outgoing, enthusiastic Oprah Winfrey is idealistic and has the interpersonal skills to make others want to join her to make things happen. She had plenty of reasons to see herself as a victim, but she changed her life. And she works to change the life of others.

Her Strength May Not be Recognized

One small crack does not mean that you are broken. It means that you were put to the test, and you didn’t fall apart.

Linda Poindexter

Strength is not always visible. Others may refuse to see it. Sometimes you may have difficulty seeing past your perceived flaws or the insults and injuries life has dealt you.

The broken heart still has heart beats. Though you may feel like death, you are stronger than you think.

Qwana M. BabyGirl Reynolds-Frasier

Strength is contagious

Learn about the strengths of the women before you and around you. Surround yourself with strong women. Find mentors and be a mentor. 

Fight and push harder for what you believe in, you’d be surprised, you are much stronger than you think.

Lady Gaga

How do you recognize a strong woman? Sometimes you need to look in the history books. Sometimes you need to look in the mirror.

Photo Credits:

Photo of Mother Teresa by Laurel  Maryland, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Simone Biles in 2016 Olympics at Rio de Janeiro, CC BY 3.0 BR, byFernando Frazão/Agência Brasil via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Kamala Harris Public Domain 

Photo of female South African troops by MONUSCO, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of female construction worker  from Seattle Municipal Archives, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Rosa Parks Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Eleanor Roosevelt at the United Nations, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Oprah Winfrey by Machocarioca, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of old woman by Free Photos on Pixabay