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Behind Prison Walls

A professor of history looks at the controversial life and career of a women's prison reformer.

Photo: Rod Searcey

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By Leslie Endicott

In the spring of 1983, Estelle Freedman escaped from her highly publicized tenure battle at Stanford by flying east to work on a research project. Taking refuge in the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, Freedman stumbled across the files of a prison reformer, Miriam Van Waters, and discovered a kindred spirit. In 1949, Van Waters had been dismissed from her job as superintendent of the women's correctional institution at Framingham, Mass., and, like Freedman, fought for her job in a highly publicized appeal.

Last year, nearly 13 years after first reading the Van Waters files, Freedman published Maternal Justice: Miriam Van Waters and the Female ReformTradition (University of Chicago Press, 1996, $34.95).

In an interview with Stanford, Freedman describes Van Waters as someone who "both lived in interesting times and made the times more interesting." An innovative women's prison superintendent, Van Waters was an unusual historical phenomenon. From 1932 to 1957, she ran an institution modeled on progressive-era ideals, and she began this work nearly 20 years after progressive reforms had disappeared from most social service programs. Most important at Framingham was the notion of maternal justice, defined by Freedman as "personal salvation through maternal love, rather than punishment, for women accused of crime."

More social worker than prison warden, Van Waters oversaw a population at Framingham that Freedman says had committed "crimes against gender." Nearly 80 percent of the women had been found guilty of offenses related to alcohol or prostitution; during the Depression, that figure jumped to 90 percent.

For 25 years, women were taught skills in the prison's kitchen, hospital or farm, which they could use when they were released. The women also organized clubs, performed in plays and musicals and held jobs outside prison walls. Inmates were allowed to have their children with them until the age of 3. Van Waters noted that the presence of children softened even the most hardened inmate--and that women with children had a much lower rate of recidivism.

These liberal programs got Van Waters in trouble with local politicians, leading to her dismissal and the famous hearings of 1949. In the hearings, Van Waters rallied public opinion and garnered support from national figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt. Defended by Claude Cross--who would later represent Alger Hiss--Van Waters took the stand and answered all charges against her.

Newspapers and magazines of the time compared the hearings to the Scopes trial or the Sacco-Vanzetti affair. Former inmates swore she had changed their lives. After months of testimony, Van Waters won her appeal and returned to Framingham, where she remained as superintendent until her retirement in 1957.

During the hearings, allegations of homosexuality in the prison tantalized the public. In Framingham, unless women made aggressive unwanted advances, homosexuality was ignored. Also, questions about Van Waters's own sexual preference loomed over the hearings. Although Van Waters had not been accused of being a homosexual, most of her romantic relations had been with women. She never mentioned her own relationships with women because, as Freedman points out, it would have been professional suicide.

Freedman notes that writing the biography gave her insights into Van Waters's development from a religious young woman to a mature social reformer with a strong spiritual foundation. She says that Van Waters's wide-ranging efforts to promote social equality showed her the pitfall of doing too much. "I think that when you are one of a pioneer generation of women, you feel the pressure to do everything," she says. Freedman, who has written three books, edited two others, published more than 20 articles and currently chairs the Feminist Studies Program, is quick to admit that she ignores the advice she would like to have given Van Waters: "Let go. Don't try to do so much. Do what you can accomplish."

Freedman never met Van Waters, though once she came very close. In 1973, while working on her dissertation about 19th-century women's prisons, she did research at Framingham. A librarian asked if she would like to meet the esteemed reformer. A dutiful grad student, Freedman realized that Van Waters was not in the correct time period for her dissertation and passed on the meeting. Freedman regrets the missed opportunity--but hopes that Van Waters will live on in this new book as much as she has in the lives of those she touched with her maternal justice.

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