Main content start

Their Sisters' Keepers Women's Prison Reform in America, 1830-1930

The University of Michigan Press
Publication - Estelle Freedman

In the early 1970s, American correctional officers began to experiment with a seemingly new reform: sexual integration of the prisons. In truth, this "new" system began to dissolve a much earlier reform. The very prisons that are now being integrated were built--after a hard fought campaign by nineteenth-century feminists--as separate prisons run by and for women only.

In the mid-nineteenth century, reformers rejected the belief that "fallen women" could not be redeemed. Instead they argued that only sympathetic care provided by another woman might rehabilitate the female prisoner. The ultimate result was a sexually segregated penal system that is still the norm today.

Their Sisters' Keepers traces the growth and change of the women's prison reform movement throughout a crucial century. It points out the successes and failures of the movement while underscoring an irony of history: the prisons that existed to transform inmates into traditional women provided a base for the emancipation of the keepers, women who built professional careers when few of their sex were allowed to do so.