The Power of One
Dorothea Dix was born in 1802, at a time when women had few rights. They could not vote, own property, have custody of their children, attend university, or divorce. Despite these limits, she spent most of her life fighting for the rights of the mentally ill.
Dorothea grew up in Massachusetts. When she was fifteen, she began teaching at a private school for young girls. She taught and wrote books until she was thirty-nine. Then, in 1841, she taught a Sunday-school class for women inmates at the East Cambridge Jail. She returned home that night so shocked at what she had seen that she could not sleep. What she had seen was the condition of four mentally ill people. They were not criminals, but they were kept in one dark, airless room. The walls were covered white with frost because it was not heated.
At that time, most people thought insane persons were born depraved. They thought nothing could be done, except to confine them like wild animals. Many guards made extra money by charging visitors to see them. Some people would even prod them with sticks to get a few laughs!
Dorothea wanted to do something about this. She visited jails and other places where the mentally ill lived, taking careful notes. She delivered a speech to the Massachusetts state legislature. She began by saying: "I proceed, gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of insane persons within [the state], in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens-chained naked. Beaten with rods, lashed into obedience."
She told them what she had seen-a woman chained to a wall, living in a toilet; a youth with a heavy iron collar around his neck, also chained to a wall. The politicians were surprised, and Massachusetts quickly passed laws to improve conditions for the insane.
She didn't stop there. Dorothea continued on to other states and countries. During her first four years, she visited 18 prisons, 300 jails and more than 500 almshouses. She helped start thirty-two mental hospitals, fifteen schools for the feeble-minded, a school for the blind, and many training facilities for nurses!
Dorothea believed that people who suffer from mental illnesses should have the same rights and privileges that other Americans take for granted. She believed we should treat them the same way we would treat our relatives or best friends. Dorothea's work made a large impact and led to many social changes. But the work she started is far from finished.
Quotes and info from: Long, Joe B., Dorothea Lynde Dix: Rescuer of People, 9/17/84 The Telegram
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