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  • “Whores and Thieves of the Worst Kind”: A Study of Women, Crime, and Prisons, 1835–2000
  • Henry Kamerling
“Whores and Thieves of the Worst Kind”: A Study of Women, Crime, and Prisons, 1835–2000. By L. Mara Dodge ( Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002. 266 pp. plus appendix).

Influenced by the work of philosophers such as Michel Foucault and social control theorists like David Garland, studies in crime and punishment have blossomed over the past thirty years. During this time scholarship moved beyond producing straightforward institutional histories of prisons and reformatories to an analysis of the social constructions of criminality and the manner in which penal systems function to support class-based ideals, and especially in America, racial hierarchy. However, outside of a few groundbreaking works by scholars like Estelle B. Freedman and Nicole Hahn Rafter, remarkably few studies have focused on female convicts and their role the criminal justice system. At the same time, many institutional histories still remain to be researched and written. L. Mara Dodge, in a penetrating new monograph on women in Illinois state prisons and reformatories from 1835 to 2000, offers a new kind of institutional [End Page 797] history, one that both reflects the latest thrust of criminal justice studies and breaks new ground into the way prison histories reveal "much about the shifting perceptions and boundaries of proper femininity" (12).

Dodge has chosen a particularly compelling approach to organizing her study. She begins with four chapters that trace the development of women in Illinois' nineteenth-century prison system. These are followed by more conceptual chapters analyzing the social construction of crime and criminality. She repeats this pattern of institutional narrative followed by conceptual analysis through five distinct parts of her work. Invariably, the conceptual chapters, focusing on issues like the gender-based assumptions held by parole board members, prove more compelling. In preparing a study that covers 165 years Dodge has conducted an exhaustive search of state records. She has augmented archival material with personal interviews when possible of warders, staff, and convicts from the Illinois State Reformatory for Women. The result is a powerfully researched study that is not confined to an examination of women in prison but one that examines women's experiences of the entire criminal justice funnel, from policing decisions and the courts to factors guiding governors' pardons and parole boards. Dodge's approach to writing prison history should serve as a model for future projects.

While the scope of this study makes it difficult at times for an overarching thesis to hold the institutional narrative together, several important themes do consistently emerge. The social construction of criminality and the manner in which the state penal system enforced "proper" notions of female behavior reside at the heart of Dodge's work. In an assault on the liberal, positivist approach to criminal justice studies, Dodge contends that "the number of women sentenced to prison bore no relationship to the absolute number of crimes women committed" (71). Instead, Dodge argues that the machinery of the criminal justice system worked to enforce a narrow, middle-class definition of appropriate female behavior. Women who transgressed such notions; single women, working class women, African Americans, lesbians, women living in non-traditional arrangements with men, were more likely to find themselves caught-up in the criminal justice machinery than middle-class white women who engaged in similar violations of the law. Dodge also charts the double standard reflected in this approach to understanding women's criminal behavior. "Although male criminals earned social disapproval and punishment for their law-breaking activities," Dodge concludes that "the woman who violated the law threatened not only legal norms, but the boundaries of femininity itself' (15-16).

This middle-class morality also defined female convicts' experiences of prison life. Whether incarcerated during the nineteenth century at the predominantly male penitentiaries at Alton, Joliet or Chester, or in the separate Joliet Women's Prison during the progressive era, or in Illinois State Reformatory for Women at Dwight after 1930, Dodge explains that such class based notions of proper womanhood informed every aspect of women's carceral experience. Regardless of the era, the domestic ideal centering on turning female convicts...


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