the Construction of the Aggressive Female
I first encountered references to lesbianism in women's prisons during my dissertation
research in the 1970s, but when I later uncovered rich accounts of sexual relations
between prisoners in the papers of Miriam Van Waters, I decided to look more closely
at this phenomenon. The prison lesbian, like the male psychopath, seemed to supplant
the prostitute as a threat to social order during a period when the white female chas-
tity ideal was declining. The psychopath remained a racially stable diagnosis applied
to white men, but theprison lesbian transformed from a primarily African American
threat to include both white and black working-class women. New historical research
on both women's prisons and homosexuality among incarcerated men in the twenti-
eth century may help clarify the intriguing associations between race and gender roles
in single-sex institutions.
IN THE MID-TWENTIETH century, the subject of lesbians in prison began to attract both scholarly and popular attention in the United States.1 After World War II, criminologists depicted lesbian inmates as menacing social types. In popular culture as well, women's prisons became synonymous with lesbianism. The emergence of the prison lesbian as a dangerous sexual predator and the changing contours of this category over time provide a unique historical window on the social construction of homosexual identity.
The prison lesbian also reveals a complex reconfiguration of the class and racial meanings attached to sexuality in modern America. In the early twentieth century, most prison literature equated female sex crime almost entirely with prostitution and rarely inquired into the homosexual activities of delinquent women. As criminologist Charles A. Ford puzzled in 1929, despite widespread evidence of lesbian relationships within women's refor-
Previously published as Estelle B. Freedman, “The Prison Lesbian: Race, Class, and the
Construction of the Aggressive Female Homosexual, 1915–1965,” Feminist Studies 22,
no. 2 (Summer 1996): 397–423. Reprinted by permission of Feminist Studies, Inc.