Most Americans have heard of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Dorothea Dix, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but few know of Elizabeth Packard, who has been left out of the history books.
From the New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Radium Girls comes another dark and dramatic but ultimately uplifting tale of a forgotten woman hero whose inspirational journey sparked lasting change for women’s rights and exposed injustices that still resonate today.
1860: As the clash between the states rolls slowly to a boil, Elizabeth Packard, housewife and mother of six, is facing her own battle. The enemy sits across the table and sleeps in the next room. Her husband of twenty-one years is plotting against her because he feels increasingly threatened―by Elizabeth’s intellect, independence, and unwillingness to stifle her own thoughts. So he makes a plan to put his wife back in her place. One summer morning, he has her committed to an insane asylum.
The horrific conditions inside the Illinois State Hospital in Jacksonville, Illinois, are overseen by Dr. Andrew McFarland, a man who will prove to be even more dangerous to Elizabeth than her traitorous husband. But most disturbing is that Elizabeth is not the only sane woman confined to the institution. There are many rational women on her ward who tell the same story: they’ve been committed not because they need medical treatment, but to keep them in line―conveniently labeled “crazy” so their voices are ignored.
No one is willing to fight for their freedom and, disenfranchised both by gender and the stigma of their supposed madness, they cannot possibly fight for themselves. But Elizabeth is about to discover that the merit of losing everything is that you then have nothing to lose…
Bestselling author Kate Moore brings her sparkling narrative voice to The Woman They Could Not Silence, an unputdownable story of the forgotten woman who courageously fought for her own freedom―and in so doing freed millions more. Elizabeth’s refusal to be silenced and her ceaseless quest for justice not only challenged the medical science of the day, and led to a giant leap forward in human rights, it also showcased the most salutary lesson: sometimes, the greatest heroes we have are those inside ourselves.
The Woman They Could Not Silence chronicles the life of Elizabeth Packard, who was wrongfully committed to an insane asylum in 1860 by her husband, a local preacher, because she dared think differently than he did. After Elizabeth fought her way out of the asylum, she dedicated her life to freeing her friends from the same conditions and improving women’s legal agency.
Kate Moore brilliantly tells Elizabeth’s story in The Woman They Could Not Silence through a combination of Moore’s own prose and pieces of source documents. I am typically not a fan of biographies; I often find them to be uneven as people’s lives have their ebbs and flows. But I was constantly reaching to pick back up this book. I found nearly every page compelling. Despite the book’s length, I was riveted until the end.
Although religion plays a large part in Elizabeth Packard’s story, it is not a central theme of the book. For someone like me who is areligious, I appreciated this. I think Moore diving into the details of Elizabeth’s religious arguments would have taken focus away from the nature of Elizabeth’s struggles, made her story a religious fight rather than what it ultimately was, and slowed the narrative’s pace.
Moore’s extensive research, particularly of primary sources, is clear from the first pages of The Woman They Could Not Silence. I think some of the book’s power comes from the fact we are able to hear parts of the story in Elizabeth’s (other others’) own words. I also really valued that Moore provided sufficient context for readers to understand the norms of the time period. This allowed me to truly appreciate Elizabeth’s struggles and accomplishments. Moreover, Moore ended with a powerful post script that reminds readers that despite Elizabeth’s story being over 160 years ago, it is still relevant today. Women are frequently still delegitimized by being called crazy.
I had so many visceral reactions while reading The Woman Who Could Not Be Silenced. There was a lot of cussing aloud and exasperation on my part. Elizabeth’s story was frustrating and enraging at times – not the book itself, but the treatment of Elizabeth Packard. I struggle to see any woman reading this book and not being exasperated by the expected role of women in society and the extremely patriarchal laws and norms of the 1860s.
Moore’s writing was filled with urgency and passion. Despite her analogies being over the top at times, Moore’s prose read like a novel. And while this made reading The Woman Who Could Not Be Silenced entertaining and quick, I think it is also a key weakness of the text. I would be remiss if I did note some important criticism.
No person is wholly good or bad. But from reading The Women They Could Not Silence, you are left with the impression that Elizabeth Packard was a saint. Moore craft the story to be inspirational and praiseworthy while leaving out anything that may have been an unsavory reflection of Elizabeth, such as racist or religious views. Moore skims over Elizabeth’s blatant inflated self-regard and fails to present readers with an unbiased narrative. Furthermore, Moore’s writing was melodramatic at times, which made for an entertaining read, but not a neutral one by any means. The book is also filled with snippets of quotes, removed from the context in which they were written. Depending on what you are looking for in reading this book, you may be disappointed by the approach Moore decided to use. It is my understanding that this proclivity is not included in her first book, Radium Girls.
Because I read The Woman They Could Not Silence as an audiobook, I want to mention that I would recommend reading it in this manner. Moore, herself, narrated the audiobook. She has a wonderful, light British accent that was very pleasant. I will be seeking out more books that she narrates.
Overall, I loved The Woman They Could Not Silence. Elizabeth’s story was inspiring and provocative. I think this is a piece of nonfiction that even the staunchest fiction readers will love. I will be relentlessly recommending this book to my friends, but as always, I encourage everyone to read critically.
The Woman They Could Not Silence: One Woman, Her Incredible Fight for Freedom, and the Men who Tried to Make Her Disappear
Nonfiction – Biography
June 22, 2021