62 pages 2 hours read

Kate Moore

The Woman They Could Not Silence: One Woman, Her Incredible Fight for Freedom, and the Men Who Tried to Make Her Disappear

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


The Woman They Could Not Silence is the second work of popular biographical history by English author and editor Kate Moore. Her first, The Radium Girls, recounts the story of young women working in watch factories in the early 20th century who succumbed to radiation poisoning secondary to their role as painters of watch dials. Like The Radium Girls, The Woman They Could Not Silence is the story of a woman in a position of disadvantage working to change the status quo for the benefit of herself and others. It was published on June 22, 2021, by Sourcebooks. This guide refers to the paperback edition of the title published on February 22, 2022.

Moore specifies in her introduction that The Woman They Could Not Silence is not about the history of psychiatry or about 19th-century “asylums”; she describes the book as a biography of one woman who managed to create great change in her lifetime, and an exploration of how her experiences illustrate the ways that the notions of mental illness can be wielded as a tool for individual power and greater social control. Moore discusses several contextual aspects of mid-19th-century institutional psychiatry throughout the book as circumstances arise. She does this to illustrate how Superintendent McFarland’s actions and the actions of the greater legal community in Elizabeth’s case constitute the general rule or the exception to the rule as far as similar events unfolded during that time. Primarily, she focuses her intense research and scrutiny on presenting Elizabeth’s story in complete detail and doesn’t delve into realms that deviate from the discussion of this particular story. In so doing, she crystallizes one woman’s experience as a remarkable example and never generalizes or insinuates that these conclusions should be extrapolated and presumed to be the historical reality across the nation at this time.

Content Warning: This guide discusses several sensitive topics, including the separation of a mother from her young children, spousal abuse, forced admittance to psychiatric facilities, physical and emotional abuse of vulnerable populations, psychological manipulation, and rampant sexism and gender-based inequalities. It further references a death by suicide as well as outdated and problematic language to discuss mental illness. In keeping Moore’s vernacular in her approach to the content, this guide refers to the historical terms “asylum” and “insane” as they were used during the period to describe medical and scientific locations and as diagnostic descriptors in congruence with the quoted speech and writing of the historical individuals discussed in the text.

Note: Elizabeth Packard was a deeply religious, lifelong devotee of her Christian faith. This guide frequently references Christianity as it was practiced in the mid-19th century and incorporates concepts from that religion to explore and analyze the events of her life. Through this religious framework, Elizabeth perceived her role as a human being and navigated her relationships with others and her world. These references are meant to orient the reader to her mindset and to emphasize the significant extent to which the dominance of Christianity pervaded and influenced American society during the period, but they are not intended to constitute judgments or opinions on religion. Elizabeth is often described as devout and faithful, and these designations are meant to indicate her integrity with respect to her practice of what she preached and reflect the consistency between her espoused views and her actions. Similarly, those who claim one viewpoint and behave otherwise are also scrutinized not from a religious standpoint but concerning whether or not their actual behaviors were consistent with who they claimed to be.

Plot Summary

On the morning of June 18, 1860, 43-year-old Elizabeth Packard watched as an axe hacked through the shutters her husband had nailed shut outside her bedroom window. In a panic, she realized that he was likely making good on the threats he had made for the past four months. After 21 years of marriage and six children together, Elizabeth had decided that she would no longer go along with doctrines and mandates she did not agree with, even if they came from her husband and religious leader, Theophilus. Elizabeth was passionate about theology and refused to stop voicing her opinions on religion. Emboldened in her new beliefs, she had also begun advocating for a married woman’s right to hold opinions different from those of her husband. Elizabeth realized that her husband had carefully orchestrated this coup; he had made certain that all six of their children were not there to witness him and his coconspirators hauling her off to the train station and the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane at Jacksonville, 200 miles away from their home in Manteo.

When she arrived at the “asylum,” Elizabeth never imagined that she would remain there for three years. She presumed she would soon be found “sane” and returned to her home and her beloved children. Realizing that her only way out would be to agree to acquiesce and conform to her husband’s wishes, Elizabeth decided to remain in the hospital to prove her mental health to the hospital’s superintendent, Dr. Andrew McFarland. When she grew impatient with him, drafting two documents, one in her defense and one in indictment of how he ran the hospital, he moved her from Seventh Ward, designed for educated, quiet, and polite middle-class women like her, into Eighth Ward, a filthy, frightening, and treacherous environment filled with some of the most violent and unpredictable patients in the hospital. For the next three years, she waged war against him with her wits and pen, gaining the inside knowledge of the hospital and the courage and inspiration to change it from the outside once she secured her release.

Finally discharged to a cousin’s house, Elizabeth returned home against Theophilus’s wishes and, with the help of friends and supporters, managed to secure a trial on the subject of her mental health. Vindicated by a jury trial and declared “sane,” Elizabeth’s victory was short lived when she discovered Theophilus had fled with their children to Massachusetts. Unable to pursue them for fear that he would commit her to yet another state hospital, Elizabeth devoted her time to publishing the work she had written in the “asylum” and networking with influential members of society and political figures to enact changes in the laws surrounding the rights of married women and women in “asylums” for those labeled “insane.” Battling against the specter of her husband and McFarland as they constantly attempted to undermine her reach, Elizabeth managed to help pass dozens of pieces of legislation and amass an impressive portfolio of published work. In 1869, she was reunited with her children, who moved with her into the home in Chicago, which she had purchased with the proceeds from her publications. She devoted the rest of her life to continuing to work for change and making up for the time she had lost with her five sons and daughter.