CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (415) 723-2558
COMMENT: Estelle Freedman, Department of History (415) 723-4951
Estelle Freedman publishes new book on prison reformer
STANFORD -- As Estelle Freedman culled through boxes of Miriam Van Waters' personal and professional papers in Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library in 1983, she experienced an "emotional catharsis."
"For over a year I had been embroiled in a devastating tenure case that was undermining my ability to do historical work," Freedman writes in the prologue of her new book, Maternal Justice: Miriam Van Waters and the Female Reform Tradition, published in May by the University of Chicago Press.
"My fate was then in the hands of a university official who was investigating my grievance that sex discrimination had influenced the administration to reverse my department's recommendation of tenure," she wrote. "Local and national newspapers had covered the case as a fight over the legitimacy of feminist scholarship, leaving me feeling exposed and highly vulnerable. . . . This research trip was like a vacation from hell, a chance to immerse myself in the past and try to recover my intellectual grounding."
Freedman goes on to write that her own tenure victory, which came within weeks of her visit to the Cambridge library, felt "anticlimactic," in comparison to Van Waters' case.
A pioneering liberal jurist and social reformer who earned her Ph.D. in anthropology in 1913, Van Waters had become one of the few women judges in the Los Angeles juvenile court system in 1920. She was appointed superintendent of the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women in 1932, and then abruptly dismissed in 1949.
But "she did not go quietly," said Freedman, author of Their Sisters' Keepers, a book about the origins of women's prisons.
Van Waters appealed to the governor, defending herself and her administration against charges that she allowed inmates to work outside the correctional institution for wages, that she hired known criminals and that she condoned homosexuality among the women inmates.
The governor overturned the dismissal, and Van Waters was reinstated and continued to work at the Framingham facility until her retirement in 1957. She died in 1974, at the age of 87.
For Freedman, Van Waters represented a pioneering generation of women scholars who challenged conservative views about the innate differences between the sexes. When research universities like Stanford, the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins opened at the turn of the century, these women found some sympathetic male mentors who encouraged them to explore questions of gender in their research.
By 1910, when Van Waters was accepted at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., the proportion of doctorates earned by women nationally had increased from 1 percent in 1890 to 11 percent. The future judge enjoyed the academic life, but also was chagrined at the deferential treatment accorded to women on campus, noting in one letter that when a woman professor entered a lecture hall and 20 men jumped up to offer her 20 chairs, it was "the most embarrassing" moment of her life.
In addition to petitioning college authorities to open the gymnasium to women, Van Waters and her classmates took weekend excursions to march in suffrage parades in Boston and New York. Her decision to put social-science education to work for social service ultimately led Van Waters away from a career in academia to one in the juvenile justice system.
In researching Maternal Justice, Freedman said she found "ample evidence" of the ways discrimination was brought to bear against women seeking academic careers.
"At the same time, Van Waters' life suggests that women sometimes rejected the university as much as it rejected them," she said.
Drawing on diaries, letters and personal papers, Freedman shows how Van Waters attempted to turn a correctional institution into a progressive school, offering classes, paid work, recreation and music for female offenders who had been incarcerated for such crimes as fornication, bearing children out of wedlock and alcoholism.
"She preferred to work with what she called unusual 'students,' " Freedman said.
The story of how Van Waters "championed maternal justice, or personal salvation through maternal love, instead of punishment, for women accused of crime," Freedman writes, constitutes the story of a charismatic figure who touched thousands of lives, in and out of prison.
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