Title: History: The Original "Bad Girls?" Credit: Craig Young Comment Tuesday 25th July 2006 - 12:00pm1153785600 Article: 1353 Rights
In a recent book on US feminist history, Estelle Freedman wrote two intriguing chapters about the herstory of debate about lesbians within US womens prisons. And here? If you're a dyke queen, you'll know better than to stand in the way of a squadron of stampeding sapphists when ITV's Bad Girls is airing. However, it wasn't a subject for entertainment for most of last century. "Prison lesbianism" apparently arose in the original context of interracial lesbian prison romances in the United States. This 'moral panic' encompassed condemnation from psychologists, criminologists and state officials. These professional sources used racist and homophobic language to describe alleged African American prison lesbian 'sexual aggression' that captivated vulnerable white inmates on the inside. It led to calls for prison segregation, even outside the Deep South, which didn't eventuate, as these conservative professionals didn't have things their own way. Samuel Kahn wrote the first 'study' of prison lesbianism in 1937, although a female prison warden and male chaplains tried to evade the issue. It might have been an official discourse of invisibility, though, although the Second World War led to emergence of anxieties about white working-class lesbianism, as urban lesbian bars began to emerge in coastal American cities. As ethnicity faded from official antilesbian social scientific research, an equally shrill demonisation of working-class lesbians replaced it. According to this sociological and psychological research, working class lesbians were sexually voracious, polyamorous and physically aggressive, and also allegedly composed a 'majority' of violent female criminals. According to one conservative Massachusetts parole board member, Katherine Sullivan, impressionable young women were exposed to the spectacle of tall, sloppily dressed women with short-cropped hair, t-shirts and jeans and decided to emulate them! At other times, recurrent lesbian prison romances were used for parole discrimination against lesbian inmates, although not all prison governors were that homophobic. Indeed, some were lesbian themselves. For example, Miriam Van Waters was a prominentprofessional social worker and became superintendant at the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women at Franingham, holding her position for twenty two years and sucessfully fighting off an antilesbian moral panic at her institution against inmate lesbian relationships through formidable reformist women's networking in 1949. And in New Zealand? Again, we don't know if this whole official series of controversies about prison lesbianism was reflected in other contexts, if official New Zealand correctional ministers and personnel took notice of overseas controversies of this nature, or if New Zealand lesbian inmates had contact with counterparts from the United States. Again, I'd like to suggest this area as an ideal topic for women's studies or LGBT history post-graduate thesis research. Recommended Reading: Estelle Freedman: Their Sisters Keepers: Female Prison Reform in America: 1830-1930: Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press: 1981: ISBN: 0472100084 Estelle Freedman: Maternal Justice: Miriam Van Waters and the Female Reform Tradition: Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1996: ISBN: 0226261492 Estelle Freedman: "Seperatism Revisited: Women's Institutions, Social Reform and the Case of Miriam Van Waters", "The Prison Lesbian: Race, Class and the Construction of the Aggressive Female Homosexual (1915-1965)" and "The Burning of Letters Continues: Elusive Identities and the Historical Construction of Sexuality" in Estelle Freedman: Feminism, Sexuality and Politics: Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press: 2006: ISBN: 0807856940 Craig Young - 25th July 2006    
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