- Troublesome Women: Gender, Crime, and Punishment in Antebellum Pennsylvania by Erica Rhodes Hayden
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In Troublesome Women: Gender, Crime, and Punishment in Antebellum Pennsylvania, Erica Rhodes Hayden asserts the agency of women caught up in nineteenth-century Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system. By focusing on individual women and their experiences of the system, Hayden’s work challenges how we view the power of both penal institutions and ideologies of gender. Rather than passively absorbing this ideology, the women highlighted in this book were aware of how gender circumscribed their lives and often challenged societal ideals of gender. Similarly, these women were not just docile bodies the carceral system acted upon but rather actively shaped their experience in the criminal justice system.
The volume is divided into two sections. In the first section, “The Crimes,” Hayden distinguishes between three broad types of criminal activity in which gender ideology played a central role. Through numerous examples, such as the case of Mary Hildebrant, who used her good looks and fine clothing to avoid suspicion while she shoplifted, Hayden shows that women were cognizant of the ideals of nineteenth-century womanhood and used them to disguise or excuse their illegal activity. While their gender may have helped some women commit certain crimes, such crimes as infanticide or rioting reflected how gender limited the avenues available to women for affecting their circumstances. Left with little legal or political recourse because of their status as women, these individuals asserted themselves through the only means left to them. Through these crimes, the women in this volume challenged norms of womanhood based on white, middle-class ideals, ideals they often did not fit in the first place because of their race or class.
The second section of Troublesome Women, “In Prison,” focuses on how women, once inside the carceral system, often presented both direct and indirect challenges to the power of the institution. Women’s imprisonment reveals how nineteenth-century carceral institutions were gendered spaces. The people who designed and managed them were ill-equipped to manage women inmates because criminality and violence were associated with men. Women, seen as non-threatening, were treated differently than male inmates. In one example, a female inmate at Western State Penitentiary was able to help another inmate escape because prison officials had not confined her to her cell. While some incarcerated women were able to take advantage of this inconsistent treatment, others suffered because of it. By focusing on the ways that women resisted the system or presented challenges to it, however, Hayden shows that, despite how prison authorities may have viewed them, women were not passive victims of carceral control.
In revealing how Pennsylvania women refused to acquiesce to the legal system and to the notions of womanhood that structured this system, Hayden shows how both nineteenth-century gender ideology and carceral authority were not [End Page 118] hegemonic. While ideas about what it meant to be a woman shaped and often limited their lives, women who committed crimes also challenged this ideology and used it to their advantage. By focusing on the lived experience of women in the carceral system, Troublesome Women provides an important intervention in scholarship that emphasizes the power of the carceral system and universal ideas of womanhood.