From Hopelessness to Hope: Surveying the Women's Prison Reformatory Movement
In 1869, the first independent, all-female prison opened in the United States. It was a significant step in the eyes of many women who, for years, had advocated change in women's incarceration. In the time leading up to the Civil War and immediately after, female inmates were subjected to the vilest conditions behind bars—no individualized care, no cells, no rehabilitation, and sexual abuse. Female criminality was rare, and once convicted, a woman had fallen from the pedestal of purity, never to be dealt with again by society.
The opening of female institutions was the fruit of American female labors. Women joined forces through religious and charitable organizations to open the eyes of the male community to the horrors experienced by women in prison. In the end, men in society began to grant women more opportunities to become involved in corrections work, and a variety of other non-domestic doors began to open for females. For many, the prison represented only the beginning of a time of revolution for women of all walks of life, not just convicts. With the opening of a female institution came the recognition that female criminals could indeed reform their ways. Society finally began to acknowledge that it had a social ill with which to deal. Beyond granting female convicts humane treatment, the evolution of female prisons and reformatories provided middle-class women in America the opportunity to demonstrate their capacity to fulfill roles outside of domestic life.
However, behind these two positive outcomes for women—more humane treatment for the incarcerated and the acknowledgement that women had the capacity to fulfill important roles outside of the home—lay a double-edged sword. The success of the women's prison reform movement did not come without any costs. The female reformers made many significant advances for their sisters, but often the results had the effect of reinforcing the sexual double standard for men and women. In the middle to late nineteenth century, women seized the opportunity to save their fallen sisters by capitalizing on the theory that women could be reformed only through the nurturing of their fellow women and a surrounding "feminine" atmosphere. By institutionalizing different treatment for male and female inmates and the different capabilities of male corrections officers and female matrons, the women's reformatory movement did, in some respects, legitimize a tradition of providing care to women that was inherently unequal to that of men. However, given the fact that radical change rarely happens overnight, historians can observe this course of action as a practical one in which women reformers worked within the confines of the system imposed upon them by society. The participants in the women's prison reform movement set and fulfilled their goals of providing humane treatment for female inmates.
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