In 1860, Elizabeth Packard committed an offense that, in those days, could result in a woman being imprisoned. She won political and religious arguments with her dull, ill-natured husband, who reacted by having her declared insane. One especially resonate passage is her anguished question, "Why do you try to injure and destroy my character rather than my opinions?" when she realized he was telling their friends and neighbors she was nuts. It's something any woman who dares to voice GC opinions on Twitter or other social media platforms will likely find herself asking.
Of course, even if Theophilus Packard had been mentally nimble enough to keep up with his clever and educated wife, he might not have bothered with debating her. It was not necessary back then for a man to "destroy" a woman's opinions. The very fact that she was arguing with her husband was an offense, so Elizabeth Packard was carted off to an insane asylum. Kate Moore's book is about Packard's efforts to free and vindicate herself, and while women no longer face quite the same level of danger for being opinionated, its story is a graphic illustration of just how embedded misogyny is in our culture.
Men have for centuries, "argued" with women by clapping their hands over our mouths. Its just the methods and the jargon that change.
Today, the favored terms are "TERF" and "Karen." Back then angry women were dismissed with epithets like "shrew" or "harpy." Today, it's "transphobia" that is offered as the catch-all excuse for not debating women who dare to question male prerogatives, but punishing them. Back then, the term was "moral insanity."
A woman declared to have this disorder might, physicians sagely opined, seem sane and reasonable, but deep down something was wrong. One function of the insane asylum was to confine her and watch her until the physician actually hit on whatever craziness she was concealing. This was not too difficult when you could cut her off from friends and children and drive her half mad with solitude, or boredom, (or, as Packard's physician did, just toss the recalcitrant patient in with the violent inmates.)
Does she raise her voice in anger and frustration? Does she weep? Shout at her doctor? Well, there it is! She's a hateful, irrational, out-of-control woman who needs "help."
21st century women can't be confined and punished quite that easily, but the approach is often roughly the same with those who dare to upset males online. For posting a reasonable and civil critique of trans activism, JK Rowling has been doxxed, even as she's been the target of violent and obscene threats. Everything from her personal life, to her twitter feeds, to her fiction have been feverishly examined for heretofore hidden offenses that are triumphantly presented as utterly damning.
She named a black character in Harry Potter "Shaklebolt!" That proves she's a racist! She doesn't show Dumbledore going to gay bars or snogging a male lover in her children's books. That proves she's a homophobe! She used her Twitter feed to comment on the Forstater Tribunal. That means she's a bad person who cares NOTHING about the horror unfolding in the Ukraine. She's offering matching donations to the charity she set up for Ukraine orphans. That means she's a rich selfish b*tch for not just giving away all her money directly!
Does Rowling eventually post something just a wee bit acerbic about this? Well, trans activists declare, that just goes to show what a hateful, irrational, out-of-control woman she is!
It's hard to read The Woman They Could Not Silence without "hearing" Packard being abused in the current fashion. She was a middle-class Caucasian woman, so "white woman's tears" would likely be invoked. A Civil War over slavery was going on, so she'd be denounced for focusing on the "trivial" plight of perfectly sane women being imprisoned and tortured into compliance by their husbands.
Women's issues -- which affect roughly half of humanity -- are always "trivial."
In spite of all this, The Woman They Could not Silence is not a depressing book. The title should tell you as much. Elizabeth was too smart, too compassionate and too combative for her story to be anything other than inspiring, and even after over a century, her arguments with her physician, her husband, and before the panels of male doctors and judges determining her fate, snap with a wit that even some of them could appreciate.
One passage in particular has a funny and disturbing modern resonance. She was pleading her case before the asylum's Board of Trustees, and responding to her husband's claim that she had plainly gone mad because she was "not as [she] used to be." She pointed out that she'd been 23 when she married him. Now she was in her forties. Her change was from "a natural growth of intellect."
'My husband placing me in an Insane Asylum to be cured of this natural development was like his placing me under the treatment of a cancer doctor to have my breasts removed, insisting upon it that my breasts were cancers, since they were not there when I was a girl!'
A roar of laughter met these remarks.
I laughed too, thinking, "Oh, Elizabeth. If you only knew..."