Institutions, Social Reform, and the
Career of Miriam Van Waters
Women's prisons differ significantly from voluntary separatist institutions, but they
reveal larger patterns in the history of female reform. I had written about the origins
of these institutions in my first book, Their Sisters' Keepers, and a decade later I
returned to the subject to write a biography of Miriam Van Waters. By then, an ex-
panding historical literature on twentieth-century women's politics was calling into
question the usefulness of national enfranchisement in 1920 as a turning point, espe-
cially for women outside the white middle classes. As I explored Van Waters's career,
I was struck by similarities between her values and those of earlier women prison
reformers. This essay builds upon Miriam Van Waters's exceptional story to general-
ize about the survival of women's personal and political networks in the era between
the 1920s and the 1960s.
IN NOVEMBER 1945, a group of college students who were conducting research on women and social reform paid a visit to the Framingham, Massachusetts, women's prison. They went to meet with the superintendent, Miriam Van Waters, a prominent juvenile justice and prison reformer. In 1927, Van Waters had served as president of the National Conference on Social Work, and she currently presided over the American League to Abolish Capital Punishment. Talking with the students about their projects gave Van Waters a chance to reflect back upon her career. That night, writing in her journal, she posed an intriguing historical question: Why, she wondered, were there no longer any great women leaders in social work, women of the stature of Florence Kelley, Jane Addams, and Julia Lathrop?1 Van Waters's sense that the
Previously published as Estelle B. Freedman, “Separatism Revisited: Women's Institu-
tions, Social Reform, and the Career of Miriam Van Waters,” in U.S. History as Wom-
en's History: New Feminist Essays, edited by Linda K. Kerber, Alice Kessler-Harris, and
Kathryn Kish Sklar (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 170–88.
Reprinted by permission of the University of North Carolina Press.