The Progress of Women in the 1830s and 1840s

Dorothea Dix.

Around the 1830s and 1840s, individuals who suffered from mental illness were treated as criminals, regardless of whether they had actually committed a crime. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 604. Dorothea Dix sought to change that.

Dix sought to put those with mental illnesses into asylums, run by the states, which would ideally be a haven, where they would provide “tranquility and treatment.” Id. Dix campaigned, taking this message to legislatures all over America, and even Canada. Id. She carefully avoided two issues, in doing so, however: women’s rights and antislavery. See id.

Despite this, Dix enjoyed remarkable success in getting states to agree with her proposal. See id.

This success was due to the transportation revolution, the communications revolution, and the industrial revolution. Id. Women were more fully able to traverse the country, to communicate, and to make money than ever before in America. Id. Women, like Dix, were empowered in a way that they could not have imagined merely years before this. See id. citing Daniel Howe, Making the American Self (Cambridge, Mass., 1997), 167-75; see also David Gollaher, Voice for the Mad (New York, 1995); Thomas Brown, Dorothea Dix (Cambridge, Mass., 1998).

While women’s suffrage was decades away, and it would be a considerable amount of time before women would enjoy the autonomy that modern Americans are familiar with, women like Dorothea Dix were the quiet but effective pioneers in securing women’s rights. It should also be remembered that Dix was not even intending to advance women’s rights explicitly, as she was campaigning for the rights of the mentally ill, and in turn, she advanced the rights of both.

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