March is Women’s History Month (In the US)
This is a series of posts about women who’ve inspired me.
Have you ever heard the expression “it was like bedlam in there”? Usually used to refer to a screech of toddlers tumbling all over each other in daycare, or possibly when attempting to get rush seating at an outdoor music festival. The connotation of that expression is that the experience was chaotic; that the people involved acted like they were mad, and there was no control over anything.
The history of that expression is pretty interesting. Had you lived in the 19th century, one of your greatest fears would be incarceration. The thought of any sort of imprisonment was horrid, but of all of the manners in which a human could be locked up, the absolute worst was to be incarcerated in an asylum. “Madhouses” were not kind places. They were not designed to treat, cure, or assist people with mental illness. They were designed to take those people ‘out of circulation’.
Of all of the madhouses operated in Great Britain, perhaps the worst (certainly by reputation) was the Bethlehem Royal Hospital. [Most of the people left to rot in Bethlehem Royal Hospital were from the lower class, and “bedlam” is a corruption (linguistically) of “bethlam”.] The Bethlehem Royal Hospital is very, very old. You can read about its history (which is a pretty good read, actually) here.
The reason I bring up Bedlam is because a large part of why mental hospitals were such torturous places was because of the attitude about mental illness at the time. Most of the patients in these hospitals were poor – they couldn’t afford the treatments (including “rest”) that wealthier patients received. Mental illness itself was a huge stigma (and it still is), and mental illness + poverty was pretty much a recipe for lifelong imprisonment, and in the United States, that meant in prison or in a poorhouse.
In the 1800s a teacher called Dorothea Dix began to advocate on behalf of the indigent insane. She was a social reformer who believed in humane treatment, and who believed that the government ought to be responsible for those members of society who can not care for themselves. This was a pretty radical opinion to present to the American legislature, but Ms. Dix had supporters, and she was an intelligent, well-read, and well-spoken woman. Remember that at that time, women did not have the right to vote, and so in order for changes to be made, Ms. Dix had to lobby senators and politicians to argue on her behalf.
She researched prisons, hospitals, and poor-houses in several states. Her reports and presentations, hard work and debates with legislators directly influenced legislation to improve conditions at and to establish asylums especially for the impoverished mentally ill.
The work Dorothea Dix did on behalf of the underprivileged was, by today’s standards, astounding. She undertook her own research, documented her observations, and presented her reports to politicians at a time when women simply did not enter in to political debate. Even when the bills introduced following her reports were defeated, she continued to advocate and argue her case. She was a tenacious, intelligent woman who believed it was imperative to provide dignified, humanitarian care for the disabled, the poor, and the mentally ill. She pretty much single-handedly started a whole social movement AND got government to listen. A woman did this.
She did not bow nor bend to others’ will, which made her particularly unpopular as a nurse. She stood up for what she believed in. More than that, she *fought* for what she believed in. Her actions affected real change. Everyone remembers Florence Nightingale, the “lady with the lamp” of the Crimean War, but nobody’s heard of Dorothea Dix. I encourage you to read more about her at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum page.