The Woman They Could Not Silence
Kate Moore is a feminist biographer whose work is very much of our Time’s Up, #MeToo, SlutWalking, whistleblowing age, but she also provides devastating and inspiring insights into the long history of injustices against which women have had to fight.
Moore’s earliest biographical works – which were, strictly speaking, ghostwritten autobiographies – focus on contemporary women who have been abused and silenced by individual oppressors. Her first proper biography, however, took a historical approach. The Radium Girls tells the story of Grace Fryer and her colleagues who laboured in a New Jersey factory during World War I, painting watch dials with luminous radium paint. The women literally glowed after their shifts and soon became seriously ill. Medical and corporate America conspired in a cover-up, claiming that the first victim had died of syphilis. Fryer led the resistance.
In The Woman They Could Not Silence, Moore tells the story of the 19th-century Massachusetts woman Elizabeth Packard, who was committed to an asylum by her husband after she was inspired by the first Woman’s Rights Convention of 1848 to give voice to her independent mind. The asylum, as Packard soon discovered, was populated by women committed by their husbands for such misdeeds as “hard study”, “change of life” or even “novel reading”. Wives were for all intents and purposes “civilly dead”, the property of their husbands. Institutions such as asylums assisted those who wanted to pull their wives into line or simply to get rid of them. As Moore describes it the asylum was “not so much a place to treat the sick as a pseudo factory for social control”, where women had to act like Victorian-era Stepford Wives, putting on “masks of good manners, politely smiling, calmly chattering about things of no consequence” if they were to have a chance of being found sane or if they wished to avoid cruel punishment.
The Radium Girls was a New York Times bestseller and made into a film, and it’s likely that The Woman They Could Not Silence will meet with similar success. This is in part because of the power of the subject matter, but it is also owing to Moore’s popular biographical style. While the book is clearly rigorously researched – the narrative is liberally interspersed with quotations – there are no footnotes or evident scholarly apparatuses to distract the reader from the high drama of the historical narrative. And
the drama is high indeed.
The narrative opens with Packard, locked in her bedroom, worrying about a potential conspiracy against her, when “footsteps suddenly sounded outside her door”. She is carried away by her villainous husband – a minister who insists on the biblical decree, “wives, obey your husbands” – and a group of churchy accomplices. Stolen away from her six children, Elizabeth is deposited in an asylum run by another rogue, Dr McFarland, under whose Machiavellian supervision she undergoes all kinds of trials and tribulations on her path to freedom.
Beginning with a teaser of a prologue, from the very outset this biography reads more like a novel. In fact, it reads like a Gothic romance, a cross between Jane Eyre and The Mysteries of Udolpho, complete with patriarchal villains, madness, incarceration and a sympathetic heroine. Yet the facts of this story are, incredibly, true.
To begin with I struggled with the potboiler style. Perhaps it was because novelistic conventions seem more novelistic – more silly – in a biography than in their “natural” generic setting. There are also some cringeworthy passages of overwriting. At one point Elizabeth’s footsteps are described as being “as muffled as a woman’s gagged voice”. When she is escorted into the asylum, Moore writes that it is with “each click of her heels saying no no no”. Indeed, Elizabeth’s shoes and footsteps are often bizarrely expressive. Showing that Moore is also not averse to cliché, in a passage describing the asylum grounds we read how “horses frisked” and “wild rabbits scampered”.
However by the end of the book I was completely persuaded by the superhuman resilience and determination of our real-life heroine, who not only fights for her own freedom but for those of her fellow inmates and fellow wives. Packard’s struggle is cleverly counterpoised against the Civil War and President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which set free three million slaves but did nothing to alleviate the status of women. Packard seeks to correct this, penning pamphlets and books, and petitioning the media and politicians. Packard is the Harriet Beecher Stowe most of us don’t know.
I don’t want to completely give away the ending – further proof of this biography’s novelistic pull – but I will say that it proves this biography’s firm grounding in reality rather than fantasy. While we might long for the patriarchal villains to be resoundingly punished, Dr McFarland of the asylum goes on to play a part in one of the most sensational insanity cases of the century, involving Lincoln’s widow, whom he suggests should be committed indefinitely – a recommendation Lincoln’s son fortunately rejects.
Through Packard’s torturous struggle Moore shows us how difficult it is to compel the dominant to concede power and how hard one must fight to change the course of history. However, Moore also makes us aware – by inviting visceral distress and anger at Packard’s experiences of discrimination – how important justice feels. That feeling is represented less by the proverbial Scales of Justice than by the Furies, those Greek goddesses of revenge. Perhaps Moore had this in mind when she describes Elizabeth Packard standing in court with “her hoop skirts unfolding around her in a swell of support, like a Greek chorus made of cloth”. While not wanting to encourage such egregious overwriting, may righteous fury nevertheless continue to drive women towards justice everywhere.
Scribe Publications, 544pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 4, 2021 as "The Woman They Could Not Silence, Kate Moore".
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