The Victorian era is remembered, with justification, as a time of stringent patriarchy. Men went to work in the growing industrial world while women were kept, strictly and under the dominion of their husbands, in the “second sphere” of family and homemaking. Male authority was solid. But even in such a systemically misogynistic time, women began to assert themselves in American life. Female-dominated “societies” sought to influence American social life through activism in the social and even, in those pre-suffrage days, the political realms. Few women were more accomplished than Dorothea Dix.

Known to North Carolinians as the namesake of our state’s first mental health hospital, Dix came of age in the hothouse New England world of reform. Like many other educated middle-class women of the mid-19th century, she had her eyes opened to the pervasive injustices that plagued her country. While others were drawn to temperance or anti-poverty causes, Dix set her sights on the abuse of a group so marginalized it was literally hidden from view: the mentally ill.

Going on a tour of New England, Dix found countless mentally ill people chained up in cold basements and confined to jails and other degraded places. This revelation set off her Victorian sense of mission, and she soon petitioned the legislature of Massachusetts to make amends for the state’s mistreatment of “the insane.” She leaned into her womanhood, asserting that her feminine conscience better prepared her to understand the pain and suffering of the mentally ill. The all-male assembly was moved by her case and appropriated funds for a new “asylum.”

In the coming years, Dix would tour the country as the leading evangelist for what historians now know as the Asylum Movement. And her efforts met with remarkable success, both tangible and cultural. This was the first time in history that the mentally ill had been seen as people suffering from maladies, not criminals or victims of demonic possession. Having taken the North by storm, she ventured into the dark reaches of the slaveholding South.

This is where the story gets complicated. In the 1850’s the South was more dug in on its commitment to slavery than at any time in its tortured history. “Fire eaters” insisted on the expansion of bondage across the North American continent and into the Caribbean. In several states it became illegal to criticize slavery in print. How, then, was a northern woman to persuade these people to help the mentally ill?

By surrendering on the slavery issue. Even as her fellow reformers (many of them women) began zeroing in on abolition as the preeminent moral cause of the day, Dix declined to question the peculiar institution. Like Abraham Lincoln, she was a person of extraordinary moral conscience who was content to allow evil to fester south of the Mason-Dixon Line. She would eventually be named chief nurse of the Union Army when the Civil War came about, a post that put her on the side of a liberating force, but in the heyday of her reforming influence she elected to leave slavery untouched.

That is why Dix cannot be seen purely as social-justice heroine. She did extraordinary good for some of the most marginalized people in the country, liberating them from literal chains and creating the first wave of modern mental health care, but for the far greater number of Americans confined to an even more vicious system of bondage, she did next to nothing. She compromised with the world. And in this sense she reflects the ironies that scar the history of what aspires to be the greatest nation on Earth.

So many Americans, most of them white, have done great things while maintaining a blind spot for the seminal evil of American life. Thomas Jefferson, who composed one of the most stirring testaments to human freedom ever written, owned 300 human beings. Franklin Roosevelt saved capitalism and won the war against Nazi totalitarianism and Japanese militarism, but in the process of fighting his war he put Japanese-Americans in concentration camps. What are we to make of this? Is it enough to pledge to do better?

I have called for the South to remake itself through a reckoning. Just as the South need not give up pride in things like its literature and its natural beauty, America as a whole does not need to condemn its entire history as a story of systematized brutality. There have been moments of great triumph in these centuries. But as with Dix, even the best of America have also fallen for the worst of America. It is important to bear this in mind as we enter the era of the first truly multi-racial democracy.

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