Though she was born in an age that didn’t value education for women, Dorothea Dix (April 4, 1802 – July 17, 1887) learned to read and write as she cared for the siblings her mentally ill mother and alcoholic father all but dumped on her.
She was extremely unhappy and left home to live with relatives when she was twelve years old, but social consciousness had rooted itself in her soul. She began a lifetime of fighting for the downtrodden by opening a school for female children. These “little dames” were not permitted to attend public schools because of education laws, but could be taught privately by a female. Dix was only fifteen when she taught her first class.
When Dix was 40, a friend asked her to teach a Sunday School class in a jail. When she arrived, Dix was appalled to find that “feeble-minded idiots” had been incarcerated with hardened criminals in an unheated jail room. From that moment, she was determined to help the mentally ill, who too often wound up in such places because there was nowhere else to put them. Below is a picture of the Lombard Farm Poorhouse, where Dix reported finding women chained and kept in pens.