Women’s History Month gives us an opportunity to celebrate and reflect on the legacy of global women. Yet, year after year, the faces of Women’s History Month are the same: slideshows and commemorative stamps of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. These women all provided groundbreaking work for women’s rights, yet this emphasis on white, heterosexual, able-bodied and affluent cisgender female activists suggests that women’s history is a narrow scope. Surely, there is more to women than what has been promoted by these examples.
I’m kind of grossed out that Dorothea Dix is mentioned as an example of someone showing the intersection between disability, class, and gender. She was not herself, to my knowledge, a woman with a disability, and she was middle-class. Moreover, her life’s work was creating institutions in which people with disabilities were warehoused and often mistreated. Yeah, here’s a person who really understood ableism.
She was someone with an MH disability, I think? She spent the last 6 years of her life in one of the hospitals (read: asylums) she helped found. She died during a multiple year depressive episode. One of the factors often noted as contributing to her depression is the fact that the hospitals that she had heped found had trended more and more towards custodial, and less and less a place for moral treatment. (UU Biography Dictionary: Dorthea Dix)
Some people speculate that she had a form of what we call today bipolar disorder. some certainly might attribute some of her choices professionally to minor manic and depressive episodes. Who knows? We do know that she became resistant to complying with those wishing to write her biography, dodged questions bout her work, and was known to have a general lack of energy.
At a conservative view, she became ironically a patient in a system she helped design. From this stand point, she wasn’t a self-advocate- instead, her major depressive episode coincided with the time that she beccme burnt out on advocacy.
She also fought for prison reform on the same grounds that she fought for institutions- an idea of how to make dealing with certain populations more humane.
She was, of course, wrong in the end about institutions, and intent isn’t magic, but if you are entirely honest about it, the scio-economic pressures of the times were more of a factor in the rise in popularity of institutionalization and then custodial institutionlization- both trends correspond roughly with economic depressions in the 1800s.
But yeah, it’s a *bit* sketchy to us her as *the* intersection.
Thank you for this explanation. I knew some of that before, but forgot. Whoops.
Dix’s intentions were good, no doubt, but there is some seriously problematic stuff in her advocacy, as is fairly typical of people with disabilities who advocate “for” instead of with people with disabilities. Her own experiences with mental illness is fascinating…but the Ms. article presented Dix as someone who “helped people with disabilities” rather than tell the whole, more complicated story.
There is also a line of thought among historians of the U.S. in the nineteenth century that the whole “package” of middle-class reform movements—of which Dix was certainly a part—was geared towards social control. And certainly institutionalizing people does exercise control, though the points about changing economic circumstances certainly relevant as well. It can be reasonably said that Dix and others of a similar social/political persuasion were trying to make industrial capitalism more compassionate towards those they saw as “weak.”
Really interesting, complicated stuff. I don’t want to villify Dix, and my previous post may have veered to much in that direction. But I don’t want to lionize her, either, and the Ms. post was just too much of that for my taste.
I want intersectional women’s history, but I also want to avoid the hero/villain dichotomy.