Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Women of Wednesday: Dorothea Dix

Dorothea Dix is an example of the dilemma we had with many of the Notable Women: which book to put her in? She was born in Maine, died in New Jersey, and her life’s work took her to every state in the Union and many countries overseas. For most of her adult life she had, in fact, no home, and when she finally collapsed from her constant crusading she was allowed to live out her days in a suite in place she called her “firstborn,” the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum in Trenton.

Dorothea’s profile was also one of those I found it most difficult to revise down to length: she did SO MUCH. Ultimately we focused on her work for humane treatment of the mentally ill, but she also crusaded for the rights of prisoners and orphans. An early biographer, Frances Tiffany, suggested that it was necessary to go back to Teresa of Avila or Claire of Assisi to find a woman of similar effort and accomplishment in establishing “institutions of mercy.”

Dorothea overcame a childhood of privation—her father, an itinerant preacher, never made enough to support his family, and her mother, who suffered from some form of mental illness, frequently took to her bed for days on end leaving her eldest daughter, aged 9 or 10, to care for house and siblings. Dorothea had the wisdom and the strength, at the age of 12, to run away and present herself on the steps of her wealthy grandmother, essentially daring that formidable woman to refuse to raise her! By the age of fourteen she had begun taking students (putting up her hair and wearing long, straight skirts to try and look older than she was.

By the time she was twenty, Dorothea was operating a boarding school in her grandmother’s home, looking after her aging grandmother and younger brother, and supporting her mother. At about the same time she became concerned about the children of immigrant workers in Boston and persuaded her grandmother to allow her to open a charity school for them as well. Over the next few years she kept up this workload, although she would occasionally collapse from exhaustion and was never in good health.

Her fiancé suggested that her health would improve after they were married, as she would no longer be working so hard. But Dorothea was horrified to discover that her future husband assumed that she would give up teaching once they were married: not at all an unusual expectation in that day, of course. Rather than abandoning her mission, she broke the engagement.

While she was teaching, Dorothea created a “mailbox” system of communicating with her students by personal notes. Possibly out of this exchange she developed the idea of a question-and-answer book for parents to use to educate their children. Conversations on Common Things was a great success, providing Dorothea with a steady, if not extravagant income for the next 40 years! At 25 Dorothea had to give up the school because of her health. For a few years she took a position as governess for the children of her minister, the soon-to-be-famous William Ellery Channing. This proved fortuitous a decade later when she attempted a trip to Italy to try and regain her health. The trans-Atlantic voyage nearly killed her, and some friends of Channing took her off the boat in England, brought her home and nursed her back to health—she stayed with them 14 months!

Dorothea’s mother and grandmother both died while she was in England. When she returned to Boston she was very much alone – a life-long invalid, a spinster, with enough to live on but not much to live for, and a heart that burned with a compulsion to be busy and useful.

It’s no surprise, then, that Dorothea jumped at the chance when someone asked if she knew anyone who might be willing to teach a Sunday School class for women prisoners. And it was there that she first encountered the imprisoned insane who were to become her life’s mission. Within weeks of demanding to know what that unearthly howl was, the invalid had become the crusader, and for the next forty-three years Dorothea would spend eight months of the year travelling by foot, horse, carriage and boat, more than 3000 miles a year, investigating and documenting the conditions under which the most vulnerable Americans lived. Instead of spending her winters languidly relaxing in St. Croix with the Channings she spent them pounding the corridors of power, shaming and cajoling legislatures in State after State to fund hospitals for the mentally ill. She even traveled to Europe to spread her message there.

Dorothea had long since given up the house in Boston, living as she did in hotels and trains. The closest thing she had to a break from her exertions was being Director of Nurses for the Union Army during the Civil War. In the category of interesting connections amongst our Notable Women, Dorothea was the supervisor who rejected Marilla Ricker’s application (too young and attractive) and who called Louisa May Alcott’s father to come get her when she was nearly dead from typhoid. After the war she went right back to work, adding the causes of prisoner and orphans to her campaign. So when she collapsed on the way to inspect the hospital in Trenton, a facility she had not only campaigned for but designed, she had nowhere to go home to.

Toward the end of her life Sarah Hale asked Dorothea if she would allow herself to be profiled in Sarah’s book Lives and Characters of Distinguished Women. Dorothea declined, fearing, she said, that romantic young women might be inclined to follow in her footsteps and thus subject themselves to the life she had led, for which she was certain others were not designed. In retrospect it’s hard to imagine anyone thinking her life was one to be emulated! I’m exhausted just thinking about her. But clearly she must have drawn strength from her passion, because she went from being an invalid to being indomitable. Unquestionably a Woman from [insert state here] You Should Know!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am currently working on a project about Dorothea Dix and have read four biographies, none of which could substantiate a romantic relationship with Edward Bangs... I am trying to find out who the fiance you refer to could be?