Frontiers of Punishment and Gender (Gendered Justice in the American West; Depraved and Disorderly)

By Strange, Carolyn | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Frontiers of Punishment and Gender (Gendered Justice in the American West; Depraved and Disorderly)


Strange, Carolyn, Labour/Le Travail


Anne M. Butler, Gendered Justice in the American West: Women Prisoners in Men's Penitentiaries (Chicago: University of Illinois Press 1997).

Joy Damousi, Depraved and Disorderly: Female Convicts, Sexuality and Gender in Colonial Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1997).

AT FIRST GLANCE, Gendered Justice and Depraved and Disorderly, two recent histories of women sentenced to penal servitude, seem suspiciously old-fashioned. Both books are inspired by a commitment to show that women were there too: they were prisoners in the first penitentiaries built in the Western United States, and they numbered among the convicts transported from Britain to it penal colonies. But dismissing these books as add-women-in-the-stir penal histories would be unfair. Both take up the analytical challenges recently embraced by scholars of gender history, and each author asserts that her book will respire readers to question existing histories of the wild west in Butler's case and convictry in Damousi's.

According to Butler, historians of the us West have interpreted the region's history as a rough-and-tumble story of gunslingers, outlaws, and desperados. Such masculinist preoccupations, she contends, have romanticized the public violence of the West and ignored its domestic dimensions. In Butler's eyes, the West was indeed a haven of male violence, but not the kind that would have translated easily into a Tom Mix screenplay. Butler's west is a dangerous place where suitors, husbands, the courts, and the prison system asserted and enforced masculine dominance over women. Accordingly, she contends that studying women who ended up in prison exposes the oppression that all women faced in the mid-19th century: "the issues surrounding [the woman prisoner] inextricably bonded to all matters of femininity and womanhood in American society. Gender constraints imposed by the social, economic and political order touched the woman criminal before and after her involvement with illegal activity."(24)

Damousi also removes masculinist blinkers from interpretations of the convict past. In a familiar historiographical and criminological gripe, she complains that the sheer force of men's numbers has encouraged scholars to interpret convict history through men's stories without problematizing masculinity. Her work offers a corrective. Not only does she focus her attention on women convicts (about one-sixth of the total transported to Australia between 1788 and 1868) but she argues that female convicts' experiences and the concerns they inspired were fundamentally different from men's. As she declares in her introduction, her purpose is "to make gender and sexual difference the basis of cultural analysis, rather than simply `adding' women to the narrative." (3) Unlike Butler, however, she takes a few pokes at feminist historians of convictry as well. In response to historical caricatures of "damned whores," feminist historians of convictry asked whether the women were worse or better off after their convict experiences; whether their marriage prospects improved or diminished; whether they were more or less virtuous than other women, etc. Damousi sidesteps these moral evaluations by pursuing a cultural analysis of the female convict. While Butler, the social historian, investigates the hidden history of women in predominantly male prisons, Damousi is guided by the sensibility of a cultural anthropologist intrigued more by signs than statistics.

Butler makes good use of prison records, her principal source. Her rather elastic definition of the "West" (the northern and southern states wedged between the Mississippi and the Rockies) led her to nineteen jurisdictions in which penitentiaries were erected in the post-Civil War era with male prisoners in mind. In each of these institutions, small numbers of women prisoners (disproportionately black women, some of whom were ex-slaves) also ended up incarcerated, typically for theft. …

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