In this article, the author, Belknap, examines 19 articles published about women offenders in the first hundred years of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. These articles, published from 1913 to 1971, varied in their subject matters and included topics such as female reformatories, the offenses women committed, and...
In this article, the author, Belknap, examines 19 articles published about women offenders in the first hundred years of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. These articles, published from 1913 to 1971, varied in their subject matters and included topics such as female reformatories, the offenses women committed, and descriptions of female prisoners. Twelve of these articles were published before 1930, and sixteen of the 19 articles were written by women, most of whom the author describes as "proto-feminists."
The author found that the female incarceration rate at the beginning of the twentieth century was higher than today's rate, perhaps because women could be sentenced to reformatories and workhouses as well as jails. However, the author also states that the "war on morality" at this time was also a "war on women" (page 1069), meaning that many women were sentenced to jail for crimes that involved consensual sex, such as as adultery or lewdness. However, men were not punished for crimes such as hiring prostitutes.
Helen Worthington Rogers, a member of the Committee on Delinquent Women of the Connecticut Prison Association, wrote 4 of the 19 articles, mainly about women's reformatories. These institutions, which were often homier than traditional prisoners, were aimed at controlling women's sexuality and making them into good wives and mothers. Women were expected to carry out very arduous tasks in reformatories.
Most of the women in these studies were young and relatively uneducated, with many not even progressing beyond fourth grade (page 1077). Most of the articles did not mention race and did not consider the childhoods of the offenders, though, for women, a history of childhood abuse has been associated with an increased risk of becoming an offender. Some of the studies, however, described offenders' histories in ways that showed that the women had been abused. Many of them came from poor health situations, including venereal disease.
Overall, the author finds two trends. First, the earlier authors often offered biological or genetic explanations for the women's offenses (rather than, for example, understanding how abuse affected the women). Second, the response to the women's situations was sexist in nature, which the author notes is still true today. The prison system did not help women or focus on their medical problems, though this is the help that they needed and continue to need today.