Against the Tide: Women Reformers in American Society

By Paul A. Cimbala; Randall M. Miller | Go to book overview
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Dorothea Dix and Mental Health Reform

ELISABETH LASCH-QUINN

"I am the Revelation," Dorothea Dix once wrote, "of hundreds of wailing, suffering creatures hidden in your private dwellings, and in pens, and cabins,-- shut out, cut off from all healing influences, from all mind restoring cares."1 Nineteenth-century reformer, author, teacher, and Civil War superintendent of nurses, Dix helped usher in a revolution in the way Americans thought of and treated those considered mentally ill. Incensed by her firsthand observations of the living conditions of the insane confined in her local jail, she began a lifelong project of examining such conditions and bringing them to public attention primarily through her memorials, which were presented for government action by members of the legislatures of the various states. These elaborate testimonials raised general awareness of the most shocking and tangible details of cruel treatment and confinement, and through the nineteenth-century reformer's method of moral suasion, Dix managed to compel legislatures to appropriate funds for the construction of new hospitals for the treatment of the insane and for improvements to extant ones, thus abetting the transition to institutionalization already under way. Dix's reform work struck her as the humanitarian imperative of her life: "I am the Hope of the poor crazed beings who pine in cells, and stalls, and cages, and wasterooms," she wrote. 2

When Dix promoted institutions for the insane, she pictured benevolent hospitals in which treatment would be the province of enlightened doctors who saw madness as a disease, albeit one with a moral component. Far from the authoritarian and inhumane psychiatric hospital of the modern American cultural landscape--as depicted, for instance, in Ken Kesey One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest--or the overcrowded place of confinement, not cure, described by discouraged asylum superintendents, Dix's ideal asylum was a place of kindness, order, and decency. Part of a larger movement that sought to revise older ways

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