Historiography

The historiography surrounding both Elizabeth Packard’s story and women’s treatment in asylums during the 19th century is abundant. Many of the historians choose to focus on the legality of Packard’s case. Such as Cheree Carlson who argues that due to gender norms being blurred during this period, it was easy for women to seen as insane and allowed the justification in the court of law to deem them insane. Women were weak to the law, as Carlson states, and they lost their rights when married making them susceptible to their husband’s discretion.1 Similarly, Myra Himelhoch and Arthur Shaffer argue Packard’s lobbying efforts played an essential part in passing personal liberty laws for patients in Illinois that were then expanded to other states.2 They also argue in “Elizabeth Packard: Nineteenth-Century Crusader for the Rights of Mental Patients”, that Packard’s use of justice in her efforts, rather than emotion is what allowed her to defy the womanly standard and force her legislation through.3 Linda Carlisle is another who in her work Elizabeth Packard: A Noble Fight aligns Packard’s story between both a legislative lens as well as a societal and cultural lens. She argues that this was a transitional period for women’s standards while also defending Packard’s importance in lawmaking.4

The lens of marriage relations is also present within Elizabeth Packard’s historiography through the publication of Hendrik Hartog’s Mrs. Packard on Dependency. Hartog’s work represents the ambiguity of Elizabeth Packard’s beliefs and her understanding of the position of a wife. Hartog argues that while Packard was unhappy in her marriage — for obvious reasons– she did not desire a divorce for she merely saw it has trading one evil for another.5 He also notes that every time she did protest, it was formal and that her efforts represent what would be considered civil disobedience today.6 Hartog’s also believes that Elizabeth saw her dependency on her husband as something that is expected within a marriage and those dependencies should be good but that Theophilus happened to make the dependency a bad one.7

The relation of Packard’s story to laws and legislation is understandable since she was active herself in those fields. It is also important to note the cultural historiography seen within the research on Packard. One historian in particular, Benjamin Reiss, argues that culture creates social norms and those social norms are then used to define sanity.8 According to Reiss, asylums were also a wonderful example of how far the patriarchal standards of the 19th century reached.9 As seen in Packard’s case, she was admitted by her husband and kept in the Illinois State Asylum at the hand of Dr. McFarland. Without their patriarchal control over both Packard and the asylum, Elizabeth would have been able to defend herself and as a result, free herself from her “prison”.

There is the gender historiography — what this research project has focused on — that is essential to the full comprehension of Elizabeth Packard’s story. Phyllis Chesler, the author of Women and Madness, takes a feminist approach in her research on women in asylums throughout history. She writes of Packard’s story as being one that supports the argument of women being disproportionality named insane. She goes on to argue that the disproportionality derives from women been seen as naturally mentally ill and the connection between what she calls the female condition and madness.10 Chesler’s argument of women being disproportionately institutionalized is also supported by Katherine Pouba and Ashely Tianen in Lunacy: The 19th Century: Women’s Admission to Asylums in the United States of America. The notion of womanhood being aligned with madness is one that creates a parallel to Elizabeth Packard’s story. Her husband’s desire — and success– to have her admitted stemmed from her sharing a differing religious opinion and his fear of her spreading that belief to others and their children. It can be argued that if same situation were to have occurred with a man having a differing opinion, he would not have been institutionalized. It was due to the sheer power Theophilus Packard held over his wife and his ability to use the laws in his favor that permitted him to control his wife’s destiny to this extent.

  1. Cheree Carlson, The Crimes of Womanhood: Defining Femininity in a Court of Law, Baltimore: University of Illinois Press, 2008, 23. []
  2. Myra Samuels Himelhoch and Arthur H Shaffer, “Elizabeth Packard: Nineteenth-Century Crusader for the Rights of Mental Patients.” Journal of American studies 13, no. 3, 1979, 346. []
  3. Ibid, 375. []
  4. Linda Carlisle, Elizabeth Packard: A Noble Fight, University of Illinois Press, 2010, 2. []
  5. Hendrik Hartog, Hendrik, Mrs. Packard on Dependency, Yale J.L. & Human, 1989, 87. []
  6. Ibid, 102. []
  7. Ibid, 85. []
  8. Benjamin, Reiss, Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008, 4. []
  9. Ibid, 173. []
  10. Phyllis, Chesler, Women and Madness, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, 55. []
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