Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard: An Advocate for Cultural, Religious, and Legal Change

91 Pages Posted: 14 Jul 2003


After twenty-one years of marriage and six children, Theophilus Packard committed his wife, Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard (1816-1897), to the Jacksonville Insane Asylum because she defied him by publicly expressing her liberal religious beliefs. Elizabeth spent three years in the asylum, and upon her release, she returned home and Theophilus confined her to the nursery. Elizabeth's friends obtained a writ of habeas corpus, and a public trial regarding her sanity ensued. The trial attracted national news coverage and resulted in the exploration and confirmation of Elizabeth's sanity. Elizabeth recognized that in order to effect legal change one must fight on several fronts - in the courts, at the legislative level, and with public education. She utilized the courts when necessary - to gain recognition that she was sane and to gain custody of her children. But she also saw the value in educating the public about her causes (insanity, married woman's property rights, and child custody rights) through her books and the benefits of lobbying legislatures to change laws.

This Article: (1) explores Elizabeth's early years and how they influenced her later in life; (2) analyzes what led to Elizabeth's commitment, her experience in the insane asylum, and the trial for her freedom; (3) addresses Elizabeth's crusade for the rights of the insane, married women's property and earning rights, and child custody rights; (4) examines Elizabeth's beliefs concerning religion, marriage, and a woman's legal being; (5) delves into how Elizabeth, Charlotte Bronte, and Elizabeth Stoddard, through the act of writing, confronted the male mirror to create their own mirrors; and (5) posits that Elizabeth entered the borderlands - the sites of contestation - as a dormant, hesitant, and daring voyager.

While certainly there is much merit to the theoretical approaches that have been devised to analyze the lives of nineteenth century women (i.e., domestic, feminist, etc.), such constructs to some extent result in an oversimplification of how women shaped their own self. Women existed within a diverse and continually shifting world. Some remained almost exclusively within their private landscape - that of home and children - remaining dormant voyagers. Within the private landscape existed a vibrant world, where these women searched to capture their selves and in many ways constructed a liminal space of empowerment. Other women attempted to restructure their private landscape in order to gain greater power - these women were hesitant voyagers. They were the women who gained confidence from the private landscape and began to express themselves. Circumstances, or perhaps self-revelation, caused some women to become daring voyagers - that is, women willing to enter the borderlands - the sites of contestation. Suddenly, the private/public dichotomy disappeared for these women as they attempted to capture their selves - in all realms, private and public.

There is much to be gained from unearthing and grappling with the inconsistencies and intricacies of women's lives during the nineteenth century - in that we can better understand the fluidity of women's lives and how they shaped and were shaped by various forces, including law, religion, and culture.

Keywords: legal history, women's studies, religion, family law, women's legal history, literature and law, insanity, and married women's property rights

Suggested Citation

Levison, Jennifer Rebecca, Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard: An Advocate for Cultural, Religious, and Legal Change. Alabama Law Review, Vol. 54, No. 3, Spring 2003. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=406821 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.406821

Jennifer Rebecca Levison (Contact Author)

Schiff Hardin LLP ( email )

6600 Sears Tower
Chicago, IL 60606-6473
United States
312-258-5500 (Phone)
312-258-5600 (Fax)

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