“Wise as serpents and harmless as doves”: The Contributions of the Female Prison Association of Friends in Philadelphia, 1823–1870
- Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies
- Penn State University Press
- Volume 81, Number 3, Summer 2014
- pp. 300-341
- View Citation
- Additional Information
In 1823 a group of Orthodox Quaker women in Philadelphia formed the Female Prison Association of Friends in Philadelphia, a female auxiliary of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (later known as the Pennsylvania Prison Society). For approximately the next fifty years they engaged in organized prison visiting in Philadelphia at Arch Street and Moyamensing prisons and the Eastern State Penitentiary. As visitors they became subtle, understated allies in the operation of the Pennsylvania System of separate confinement with labor. Their work was reformist in nature, in that they pressed for practical measures they deemed significant to improve the condition of female inmates: the institution of matrons and the founding of the Howard Institution, a sort of halfway house for released prisoners. Their main goal, however, was spiritual, and the salvation they sought was their own as well as that of the imprisoned women they aided. As a Quaker women’s group that worked quietly in the background during a period usually associated with the more public work of activist Hicksite Quaker women, they were barely officially recognized by the male society in their own day and are almost entirely unknown today. Their story suggests that the spiritual motivation of some nineteenth-century women may be a significant but little-noted force behind their contributions to the history of social reform.