Dorothea Lynde Dix (1802-1887) was a professional writer, a teacher and an amateur naturalist. During the Civil War, she was appointed to what was then the highest public office ever held by a woman in the United States.
For most of her life, the work she wanted to be remembered for was her work on behalf of the indigent mentally ill.
D.L.D., as she often signed her personal correspondence, perfected the American oratory literary genre in her documentation of the conditions of the prisons and asylums in the United States and abroad. For more than 30 years she was monomaniacal in her efforts to establish government-funded hospitals and to improve the treatment of those suffering from mental illness.
Dix never married. She earned her living by teaching and later lived off the royalties of her textbooks and poetry books. She traveled alone throughout the United States, and as far as Norway and Turkey, to confer with doctors and politicians. She was even granted an audience with Pope Pius IX in Rome.
Dix was a beloved antebellum celebrity, recognised for her “handsome” appearance and her sonorous voice. Despite the presentations of her in some biographies, Dix was anything but a proto-feminist. Her public activities were not evidence of a rejection of the Victorian patriarchy, nor were they evidence of hypocrisy. She cultivated her aura of femininity with great care, but she was a woman behind her own times, a role-model for a waning era: she was the perfect example of the Victorian “spinster” as the community’s ideal matriarch.
Extraordinarily devout and disciplined, Dix was also a flirt, and she sometimes stretched the truth. Her childhood was marked by a volatile, abusive alcoholic father and a mother whom some described as mentally ill, and others described as drug-addicted. Dix claimed she “never knew childhood”. Time and again she referred to herself as an orphan though her mother was alive.
And Dix obsessed over the fragile hold she had on her own sanity.
Dix lived long enough to see the moral therapy she espoused considered passe; the over 30 hospitals she worked to establish dismantled one by one; and her congressional bill for allocation of state funds for the indigent (which had been passed by Congress, but vetoed by President Pierce) forgotten.
Dix chose to live out her final days in one of her own hospitals. At her death, she left nothing to the indigent poor. Her money was left to other (largely educational) projects.
When Ren Powell was 16 she stumbled over Dix’s writings. She has been fascinated by the woman ever since.
Ren’s doctorate work included the production of an imaginative, verse autobiography entitled An Elastic State of Mind.