Marital Power

On June 18th, 1860, Elizabeth Packard was taken from her home in Manteno, Illinois, and placed in an asylum—without trial or a thorough assembly of evidence to support her institutionalization. Packard’s husband was a devout Calvinist who felt threatened by his wife’s outspoken opposition to his religious views. To silence his wife and protect his reputation, he arranged for Elizabeth’s confinement, which lasted three years.

Upon her release from the asylum, Packard essentially exchanged one form of imprisonment for another. “There is no law in America to protect a wife from her husband. I am not safe from him outside these walls,” she would go on to write. Packard was alluding to an 1851 Illinois law that granted husbands wide latitude in controlling their spouses’ lives. Packard secured a trial to fight her husband’s control after a writ of habeas corpus compelled him to appear in court. Packard’s supporters urged her to divorce her husband, but she was against the principle, proclaiming instead the need for “protection from the abuse of marital power, not a divorce from it.”

In 1886, Elizabeth Packard published Marital Power Exemplified in Mrs. Packard’s Trial, and Self-Defence from the Charge of Insanity, an account of her unjust placement in the asylum and treatment by the legal system. Her book begins with a narrative introduction that explains how and why she was wrongfully committed: “When once in the Asylum I was beyond the reach of all human aid, except what could come through my husband, since the law allows no one to take them out, except the one who put them in, or by his consent; and my husband determined never to take me out, until I recanted my new opinions, claiming that I was incurably insane so long as I could not return to my old standpoint of religious belief.”

Included in Packard’s memoir is a report compiled by Stephen R. Moore, Attorney at Law, titled “A Full Report of the Trial, Incidents, Etc.” This compilation provides supporting evidence, in addition to the memoir, for Packard’s case against the charge of insanity. The report states that in 1864, Packard was declared sane by the jury after just seven minutes of discussing the verdict.

Packard concludes her book with an appeal for governmental intervention and an address to the Illinois legislature, demanding action be taken against the injustice of marital laws. She contends that “in the dark ages, married woman was a slave to her husband, both socially and legally, but, as civilization has progressed, she has outgrown her social position—that of a slave—and is now regarded in society as the companion and partner of her husband. But the law has not progressed with civilization, so that married woman is still a slave, legally, while she is his companion, socially.” Packard’s incendiary address brought about the ratification of the “Personal Liberty Bill” in 1867, called “An Act for the Protection of Personal Liberty.”

Through her writing and activism, Packard helped secure greater individual rights for married women and impose more rigorous standards for determining mental health. The Newberry celebrates Women’s History Month by recognizing Elizabeth Packard and her unrelenting progress toward equality.

This essay was written by Nellie Barrett, communications intern at the Newberry.