women and the law

On June 18, 1860, Reverend Theophilus Packard committed his wife Elizabeth to the Illinois Hospital for the Insane. A staunch Calvinist, Theophilus held that his wife’s refusal to accept the orthodoxy of his religious views, her refusal to echo his thinking spoke unequivocally of a deranged mind. Theophilus acted quite legally. Illinois law permitted a husband (but not a wife) to authorize the involuntary commitment of a spouse. Elizabeth Packard, forty-four, the mother of their six children, and completely sane, had not given her consent and was literally dragged off. Elizabeth spent three years imprisoned in the state insane asylum as punishment for her refusal to bend to her husband’s commands. She won her release only in 1863 when her eldest son reached the age of majority and asserted legal standing to petition for her freedom. Months later Theophilus again, stubbornly, locked Elizabeth in a room whose windows had been nailed shut. This time she was freed only after a court trial in which a jury declared her sane.

Elizabeth Packard’s fate was the consequence of male action. In addition to her husband’s, the decisions of fathers, brothers, sons, male legislators, sheriffs, and doctors contributed to her imprisonment. Even the final—felicitous—ruling of a local jury declaring her sane was a judgment of men. At every step, Elizabeth Packard contended with norms and laws established and carried out by men.

rebels at the bar

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