I first encountered references to lesbianism in women’s prisons during my dissertation research in the 1970s, but when I later uncovered rich accounts of sexual relations between prisoners in the papers of Miriam Van Waters, I decided to look more closely at this phenomenon. The prison lesbian, like the male psychopath, seemed to supplant the prostitute as a threat to social order during a period when the white female chastity ideal was declining. The psychopath remained a racially stable diagnosis applied to white men, but the prison lesbian transformed from a primarily African American threat to include both white and black working-class women. New historical research on both women’s prisons and homosexuality among incarcerated men in the twentieth century may help clarify the intriguing associations between race and gender roles in single-sex institutions.
in the mid-twentieth century, the subject of lesbians in prison began to attract both scholarly and popular attention in the United States.1 After World War II, criminologists depicted lesbian inmates as menacing social types. In popular culture as well, women’s prisons became synonymous with lesbianism. The emergence of the prison lesbian as a dangerous sexual predator and the changing contours of this category over time provide a unique historical window on the social construction of homosexual identity.
The prison lesbian also reveals a complex reconfiguration of the class and racial meanings attached to sexuality in modern America. In the early twentieth century, most prison literature equated female sex crime almost entirely with prostitution and rarely inquired into the homosexual activities of delinquent women. As criminologist Charles A. Ford puzzled in 1929, despite widespread evidence of lesbian relationships within women’s refor-
Previously published as Estelle B. Freedman, “The Prison Lesbian: Race, Class, and the Construction of the Aggressive Female Homosexual, 1915-1965,” Feminist Studies 22, no. 2 (Summer 1996): 397-423. Reprinted by permission of Feminist Studies, Inc.
matories, very few studies had been written about the subject. When authors did mention homosexuality, they usually identified black women as lesbian aggressors and white women as temporary partners. By the 1960s, psychologists and criminologists had become intrigued with lesbianism in prison, publishing books and articles on the subject and suggesting that homosexuals “present the greatest sexual problem” in women s prisons. Unlike the earlier literature, the later studies extended the lesbian label to white women, emphasizing the threat of their aggressive homosexuality.2
The following exploration, first of the criminological literature and then of the records of the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women in Framingham, analyzes these simultaneous shifts in the conception of the prison lesbian. From an initial association with African American women, the image of the aggressive female homosexual extended after World War II to include white working-class prisoners as well. At the same time, greater public scrutiny of prison lesbianism and concern about its “contaminating” effect on the society at large intensified the process of labeling female homosexuality in women’s prisons and beyond their walls.
a small body of historical literature provides a context for investigating the prison lesbian. Alongside earlier studies of middle-class women’s romantic friendships and the medical reclassification of these relationships as perversion in the twentieth century, a rudimentary narrative of working-class lesbian identity and community is now emerging. In brief, it suggests that in industrializing America, economic necessity led some working-class women to “pass” as men and sometimes marry other women; in the early twentieth century, some single working-class women pooled their resources and lived together as couples in urban, furnished-room districts. For African American women, the Harlem Renaissance fostered a sexually experimental subculture that offered a measure of tolerance for homosexual relationships. During World War II, women’s work force and military participation intensified a process of homosexual community formation. Even in the postwar decade, when the hostile Cold War climate condemned homosexuals as subversive, a public, working-class lesbian bar culture became increasingly visible.3
The prison system provides another location for understanding not only working-class lesbian history but also the importance of race and class relations within this history. By the 1920s, almost every state and the federal government had established a separate adult women’s reformatory.4 The majority of inmates came from working-class backgrounds and were often daughters of immigrants; only a small minority were African American.5 Most of the reformatory inmates had been sentenced for “crimes against public order,” including drunkenness, vagrancy, and a variety of prostitution-related offenses once labeled “crimes against chastity.” Many of the educated and professional women who worked in the reformatories sought to “uplift” the sexual morality of female inmates. Until the 1940s, however, women’s prison authorities concentrated on diverting inmates from heterosexual acts prohibited by law — especially prostitution. They rarely mentioned lesbianism as a problem, and most women’s prison officials ignored evidence of homosexuality among inmates. This lack of interest contrasted with the approach of administrators of men’s prisons, who frequently labeled and punished homosexuality.6
The one exception to the disavowal of lesbianism in women’s prisons highlights the racial construction of the aggressive female homosexual in the early twentieth century. Beginning in 1913, criminologists, psychologists, and state officials denounced one form of lesbian relationship — romances between black and white inmates — for disrupting prison discipline. These accounts usually represented African American women prisoners as masculine or aggressive and their white lovers as “normal” feminine women who would return to heterosexual relations upon release from prison. The earliest criminological study of lesbianism in prison described the practice of “nigger loving” by young white women committed to reformatories. Author Margaret Otis explained that “the love of ‘niggers’ ” had become a tradition in which black inmates sent courtship notes to incoming white inmates. The ensuing relationships ranged from casual to those of an “intensely sexual nature.” Despite this intensity, Otis claimed, once released, the white women rarely had contact with “the colored race,” nor, presumably, with women lovers.7
Observations of interracial lesbianism recurred within women’s prisons over the following decades. An officer at the New York State Reformatory for Women at Bedford Hills testified in 1915 that “the colored girls are extremely attractive to certain white girls.” Another official explained that these relationships had existed since the founding of the reformatory in the nineteenth century, but recent overcrowding had made them more frequent. Blaming unrest at the reformatory on these liaisons, an investigative committee recommended the segregation of black inmates at Bedford Hills. Their rationale echoed the sexual fears that underlay Jim Crow institutions in the South. The committee held that segregation was necessary not simply “because of the color line” but because “the most undesirable sex relations grow out of this mingling of the two races.” Even though these homosexual relationships did not lead to the kind of amalgamation most feared by white supremacists — namely, mixed-race offspring — the thought that white women would reject heterosexuality entirely—and thus reject their racial duty to reproduce — was intolerable. Even segregation, however, did not discourage interracial homosexual unions or lessen the mythology surrounding black women’s sexual aggression. Black-white relationships persisted noticeably in New York prisons, for example, fifteen years after the Bedford Hills investigation.8
In writing about interracial lesbian relationships, criminologists emphasized the ways that race substituted for gender in women’s prisons. Black women took the role of “husbands,” white women of “wives,” in the New York reformatory Charles Ford studied in the 1920s. Samuel Kahn later quoted a New York City inmate who claimed that “there are more colored daddies and more white mamas” among women in the city jails. In 1943, one scholar reasoned that “Negroes” were sexually attractive to whites “because the White girls interpret the Negro aggression and dominance as ‘maleness’” and because the blacks’ “uninhibited emotional expressions and some of their physical characteristics (dark skin) seem to enhance the sex attraction of the Negro girls.”9 In a 1941 fictional portrayal of a segregated women’s reformatory in the South, novelist Felice Swados incorporated the stereotype of black lesbian aggression. Inmate lore described “a cute blonde with dimples” who “got to going around with niggers.” The woman wound up in the hospital after “a great big black” woman “got too hot. Went crazy. Just tore her insides out.”10
Explanations of interracial attraction in terms of “male” aggression by black women mirrored in part the then-dominant theories of homosexuality as a form of gender inversion." At the same time, assigning the male – aggressor role to black women and preserving a semblance of femininity for their white partners racialized the sexual pathology of inversion. In this interpretation, white women were not really lesbians because they were attracted to men, for whom black women temporarily substituted. Thus, the prison literature racialized both lesbianism and butch/femme roles, implicitly blaming black women for sexual aggression and, indeed, homosexuality by associating them with a male role.
Whether or not these explanations accurately reflected women inmates’ own erotic systems, the official interpretations reinforced long-standing associations among race, sexuality, and gender roles. In the nineteenth century, for example, medical authorities had regarded African women’s genitals as pathological, and according to Sander Gilman, they even associated “the concupiscence of the black” with “the sexuality of the lesbian.” Because “lesbian” then connoted both maleness and a lack of feminine virtue, the label effectively denied gender privileges to black women. Like the cultural assignment of strong, even insatiable, sexual desire to African American women, the identification of black women as aggressive butch lesbians rested on a denial of their womanhood.12
Similarly, twentieth-century criminologists often correlated race, sexual deviance, and aggression. Theories of black women’s greater criminality rested in part on a model of sexual inversion, in which black women more easily engaged in “male” aggressive behaviors. As one criminal psychiatrist explained in 1942, “colored females” predominated among aggressive women criminals because the “accepted ideological codes of Harlem” condoned violence on their part, especially if related to a love triangle. The writer identified one other category of aggressive female felonies, which he labeled “lesbian homicides.” Presumably committed by black or white women, in these cases, “murder obviously afforded an unconscious destruction of the murderess’ own homosexual cravings.” Another study of working-class black women suggested that homosexuality was prevalent among black prostitutes because both prostitution and homosexuality stemmed from a “fundamental inability” to accept the “feminine role.”i3
White women clearly participated in lesbian relations in prisons, and no doubt they had white as well as black partners. Yet the early-twentieth – century criminological literature on white women’s sexuality invariably discussed prostitution, not homosexuality. Even as psychoanalytic concepts filtered into American criminology, it was white women’s heterosexual deviance that attracted attention. As historian Elizabeth Lunbeck has shown, in the early twentieth century, the new diagnosis of sexual psychopathy— a term implying uncontrollable libidinal instincts that would later become a code for male homosexuality— at first applied to heterosexually active white women. Because psychologists presumed that black women were naturally promiscuous, they did not label them as diseased psychopaths/4 Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the growing literature on psychopathic crime rarely addressed lesbianism. A 1934 study of psychopathic women, for example, found that only a few cases could be classified as homosexual. As late as 1941, one criminologist argued that juvenile homosexuality was more common among male than female offenders, while “heterosexual delinquency is by far the girl’s premier offence.” Even as a “lesbian taboo” in marital advice literature warned middle-class women to remain heterosexual or risk becoming abnormal deviants, few writers portrayed white lesbians as dangerous criminals.15
The paucity of either scholarly or popular attention to lesbianism among women in prison did not necessarily reflect the extent of the practice between 1915 and 1940. The few criminologists who did observe women’s relationships in prison documented a sexually active and often racially constructed lesbian subculture. In the New York City House of Detention, for example, women prisoners engaged in “bulldiking,” and their love affairs included regular tribadism. At other institutions, “wives” and “husbands” found ways to send sexually explicit love letters to each other. “You can take my tie / You can take my collor / But I’ll jazze you / Till you holier,” one black “husband” wrote to “My dearest Wife Gloria,” who responded, “Sugar dady if I could sleep with you for one little night, I would show you how much I hon[es]tly and truly I love you.” Other inmates scratched their “friend’s” initials on their skin and smuggled contraband presents in their bras. The administrator of one reform school recalled that white girls aggressively pursued black girls, a pattern rarely reported in the criminological literature^6
For the most part, women’s prison administrators either tolerated these lesbian relationships or denied their existence. When physician Samuel Kahn published the first book-length study of prison homosexuality in 1937 (based on research conducted a decade earlier), he seemed dismayed to report that at the New York City Women’s Workhouse, in contrast to the men’s division, “the homosexuals have been unclassified and are not segregated. . . so that they all mingle freely with the other inmates.” When Kahn sought out lesbians to interview, neither the woman warden nor the male priests at the workhouse were willing to identify inmates as homosexuals. In Five Hundred Delinquent Women, the classic 1934 study of women prisoners conducted at the Massachusetts women’s reformatory, criminologists Sheldon Glueck and Eleanor Glueck never referred to lesbianism/7
Women’s prison administrators may have been reluctant to call attention to the subject of homosexuality because many of them were single professional women who maintained close personal bonds with other women and could be vulnerable to charges of lesbianism. According to the superintendent of several reform schools for girls, in the 1920s women’s prison workers recognized the problem of homosexuality but never openly talked about it. One superintendent who lectured inmates of a girls’ reformatory about the dangers of homosexuality was pressured into resigning in 1931, in part because she addressed such an “embarrassing subject” and in part because she accused both staff members and local businesswomen of having “immoral relationships.” In 1931, officials preferred to be silent about these possibilities of lesbianism rather than call attention to them.18
The disinclination to acknowledge lesbianism in prison lasted until the 1940s, when both prison administrators and criminologists began to express more concern about female homosexuality. The reasons for a gradual shift in awareness included increased arrests for prostitution during World War II and consequent prison overcrowding. Some prostitutes were also lesbians, and the doubling up of women in cells may have intensified lesbian activity. A growing lesbian subculture centered around predominantly white, working-class bars may have heightened lesbian identity for some women who wound up in jails and prisons. Aside from any actual increase in lesbian activity in prison, fears about the dangers of female sexual expression escalated during wartime, especially targeting white women as the purveyors of venereal disease to soldiers or as seductive saboteurs. It was in this context that female homosexuality in general and lesbianism among white women in prisons came under closer scrutiny.
A new consciousness about prison lesbianism appeared, for example, among the superintendents of women’s institutions, who met annually to discuss common problems. Several of them had acknowledged black-white sexual liaisons in institutions previously, but for the most part, the superintendents had been concerned about heterosexual irregularities among inmates. Only during the 1940s did they introduce the topic of how to manage homosexual relationships in institutions. At one annual conference, for example, they questioned their guest speaker, Margaret Mead, about “how much we should worry about homosexuality.” Although Mead advised them to “keep it down as much as possible,” the anthropologist — who had herself been sexually involved with women — also argued that female homosexuality was much less socially dangerous than male homosexuality because women tended toward “more or less permanent relationship^] in which one person looks after the welfare of the other, makes them silk underwear, etc. The male homosexuality, on the other hand, is exploitive and promiscuous — it is not a paired sexuality.” Mead believed that women’s relatively benign institutional homosexuality was a temporary substitute for heterosexual relations. Unlike earlier writers, however, she did not identify any racial patterns in lesbian role-playing. Her tolerant attitude, echoed by other speakers, counseled adequate recreation and social stimulation as diversions from homosexuality in prison/9
In the postwar decade, however, the relative tolerance that had characterized the treatment of prison lesbianism gradually gave way to greater sur-
veillance and ultimately to condemnation. The shift from lack of interest to fascination with the prison lesbian can be seen within U. S. popular and political culture shortly after World War II. In the 1950s, True Confessions magazine sensationalized accounts of “love-starved girls in reform school,” while pulp novels incorporated women’s prison seduction scenes. Hollywood produced a series of women’s prison films, replete with lesbian innuendo. In contrast to the earliest women’s prison films, in which the lesbian was portrayed as comic and benign, a dangerously aggressive lesbian criminal now threatened the innocence of young women, as in the 1950 film Caged. At the same time, politicians began to target “aggressive female homosexuals” in prison as a serious threat to moral order. During the 1950s, they invoked images of lesbians in prison as part of a larger Cold War campaign to discredit liberal reformers for being soft on perversion, as on communism.20 By the late 1950s, women who formed homosexual relationships in prison had become stock cultural characters associated with threats to sexual and social order. At the same time, black women ceased to be the primary suspects as prison lesbians. Class marking seemed to be replacing earlier race marking, making both black and white working-class women more vulnerable to charges of deviance, while still exempting middle-class women. By the 1960s, the criminological literature no longer relied on an exclusively racial definition of lesbians and emphasized the social threat of white lesbian activity.
These changes coincided with a larger cultural emphasis on both the power of female sexuality and the need to contain it within domestic relationships among white and middle-class Americans. Reflecting the rhetoric of Cold War America, which sought to identify internal enemies who threatened social order, the postwar clinical literature on lesbianism elaborated upon the image of the aggressive female homosexual, but it rarely targeted black women. The new stereotype drew upon earlier concepts of the male sexual psychopath, whose uncontrolled, often violent, sexuality threatened to disrupt social order. In contrast to earlier studies that had posited little relationship between psychopathy and lesbianism, writers now suggested “the possibly greater tendency of the [female] psychopaths to engage in sex acts with other girls.” New psychoanalytic theories also contributed to the image of a dangerous, promiscuous lesbian. One writer, for example, differentiated between female homosexuals who simply preferred the company of women and a rarer group containing “the more dangerous type — the promiscuous Lesbian who passing quickly and lightly from affair to affair, usually with physical relations, may cause great harm and unhappiness.” Just as the male psychopath was invariably portrayed as white and often middle class, the dangerous lesbian was no longer marked as a racial minority but appeared to be white, although usually working class.21
Along with serious psychological studies, pseudoscientific works of the 1950s conflated the lesbian and the woman criminal. In her study of postwar lesbian imagery, historian Donna Penn has summarized the portrayal of the lesbian found in popular works such as Frank Caprio’s Female Homosexuality as the “promiscuous, oversexed, conquering, aggressive dyke who exercised masculine prerogative in the sexual arena.” Like the prostitute, the lesbian now spread moral contagion. In Penn’s view, the demonization of the sinister, working-class lesbian helped shift the meaning of female homosexuality away from the “Boston marriages” and innocent romantic friendships of middle-class women.22
The prison literature confirms Penn’s analysis but suggests a racial, as well as class, realignment in the demonology of lesbianism. The dangerous lesbian was less identified with a racially specified aggressive invert. Even though interracial unions continued to characterize women’s prison life, by the 1950s, it was the homosexuality of white women prisoners that became the object of intense scrutiny. Larger social trends contributed to this racial shift, including the gradual sexualization of white women in popular culture and the emergence of visible white, working-class lesbian institutions in the postwar period, such as the bar culture studied by Madeline Davis and Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy” The prison lesbian now appeared not primarily as an African American but more typically as a white woman, albeit one who may have sexually crossed a racial boundary in the process of becoming homosexual. Of either race, she became the “unnatural woman” personified, a threat to other inmates and to women outside the prison. If earlier tolerance had rested on an assumption of the natural depravity or inherent sexual inversion of black women, it is not surprising that the revelation of white women’s lesbianism in prison would sound an alert, a warning about the potential degeneration of theoretically “true” womanhood. Indeed, by the mid-1950s, institutional tolerance gave way to a call to “sort out the real homosexual” in prison through psychological testing and to
“segregate those who show strong homosexual inclinations,” with no refer. "74
ence to race.
A good example of the new attitude toward prison lesbianism appeared in a popular 1956 book written by Katharine Sullivan, a conservative member of the Massachusetts parole board. According to Sullivan, “No age or race is immune to the temptations of homosexuality in prisons.” Moreover, the prison lesbians she described had violent, almost animalistic, characters. Jealousies led to “hand-to-hand fights or even free-for-alls.” If separated from a lover, Sullivan warned, the surviving partner “may suffer an acute attack of homosexual panic, with violent screaming and frothing at the mouth, followed by a period of wan anxiety.”25
In contrast to earlier writers, Sullivan firmly believed that once a woman engaged in homosexual acts in prison, she quickly became “addicted” and built her life around the practice after release. In one example, a young, white parolee named Mary learned about the “doll racket” in prison and now wanted nothing to do with men. Visited on parole, she sported a new boyish haircut, no makeup, and boys’ clothes, and, significantly, had set up a household with two black women. Unlike the “nigger lovers” described by Otis in 1913 who rejected interracial relations after release, Mary continued to associate with black women on the outside. She even adopted a butch identity that had been racially specific to black women in the past. Earlier racial stereotypes continued to operate as well. Sullivan depicted Mary’s black roommates as the antithesis of natural women: they were “large,” “rangy,” and sloppily dressed in jeans and T-shirts. Mary, she implied, had descended into an interracial netherworld from which she would emerge an addicted lesbian. Indeed, Mary declared that when she turned twenty-one, she intended to “leave home and go to live permanently in one of the big cities in America, where Lesbians flourish.” Sullivan clearly wished to prevent white women like Mary from being exposed to homosexuality in prison; she seemed much less concerned about the black women who adopted male styles.26
By the time the prison lesbian became the subject of extensive academic inquiry in the 1960s, race had practically disappeared from the scholarly research agenda. Sociological accounts of the “problem” of the prison lesbian described widespread homosexuality in women’s institutions and focused on the butch-femme role system that organized prison life, but like other supposedly “race-blind” works of the period, they evaded race, even when it influenced their findings.27 The two classic case studies that appeared in the 1960s — David A. Ward and Gene G. Kassebaum’s Women’s Prison: Sex and Social Structure and Rose Giallombardo’s Society of Women: A Study of a Women’s Prison — avoid mentioning race in their descriptions of prison social life and sexual roles. Giallombardo’s discussion of fictive marriage patterns among women prisoners never referred to race, even though her kinship diagrams, read closely, reveal that the majority of “marriages” were interracial.28 In short, race may have continued to play a role in the erotic
life of prisoners, but observers presented a lesbian world that, lacking racial markers, appeared to be entirely white.29
The racial shift in the construction of the prison lesbian, taken together with other evidence of postwar moral panics, suggests deep-seated cultural anxieties about the instability of white heterosexuality. Although focused on working-class women who wound up in prison and those who were forming a lesbian subculture in various cities, the discourse reached a broader public. Literary critic Lynda Hart has argued that the historical construction of the lesbian has often projected a “secret” sexual identity onto working-class women, as well as women of color, while it simultaneously speaks loudly to fears about the sexuality of middle – and upper-class white women. In postwar America, as popular and commercial culture elaborated upon white women’s sexual availability and effective medical treatment of venereal disease made prostitutes seem less threatening than in the past, several new boundaries appeared to help shore up white, marital heterosexuality. The outlaws included the frigid career woman, the black welfare mother, and the prison lesbian.30 a case study of the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women further illustrates both the changing racial construction of the aggressive female homosexual and the shift from a period of institutional denial or tolerance to one of labeling and strict surveillance. The reformatory, founded in 1877, typically housed between 300 and 400 adult female prisoners, the vast majority of whom served two – to five-year terms for minor offenses against public order, such as drunkenness and prostitution (often coded as vagrancy or “lewdness”). As in most northern reformatories, until the 1960s, the population was overwhelmingly white. The institution had a scattered history of liberal administrations aimed at uplifting so-called fallen women. Miriam Van Waters, who became the reformatory superintendent in 1932, expanded upon this mission by providing education, social welfare services, psychiatric counseling, and work opportunities outside prison.
As in other institutions, the earliest references to lesbian relations at the Massachusetts reformatory noted attractions between white and black inmates. In the 1930s, when Van Waters detected “black-white manifestation of homosexuality,” she followed the advice of writers such as Charles Ford and attempted to divert the black inmates by “stressing their prestige in Dramatics, Spirituals, [and] Orchestra.” Other staff members also learned of romantic liaisons between inmates during the 1930s. One officer informed
Van Waters of inmate gossip about the “doll” situation — the prison code for lesbians — and noted “the fuss the white girls make over the colored girls.” A few years later, when Van Waters commented that she observed no “overt white-white” relationships, she identified several interracial couples.31
Van Waters and her staff distinguished between true homosexuality and temporary attractions. They believed the former could be detected by the Rorschach test; in the absence of such “positive evidence,” they assumed that the boredom of prison routine stimulated unnatural interest in same-sex relationships. By offering an active program of classes and clubs, they attempted to channel the energies of both black and white prisoners into what the staff considered healthier recreations. Nonetheless, underground homosexual unions survived. Newcomers quickly learned about “dolls,” and love letters circulated among inmates. In 1938, for example, when an inmate tried to use her fear of sexual advances to convince the parole board to release her from the reformatory, she submitted love letters from other women to support her case. In addition, officers occasionally discovered two women in bed together, a problem that escalated during World War II, when increased prison commitments led to overcrowding^2
Prison records also reveal contradictory attitudes toward lesbian relationships on the part of reformatory and court officials. The former were reluctant to label women as homosexuals, while the latter were willing to impose harsh penalties for openly lesbian relationships. The case of Marie LeBlanc, a white woman of French Canadian background, illustrates psychiatric tolerance within the institution and the punitive response of parole boards and courts.33 LeBlanc had become sexually involved with Eleanor Harris, another white inmate. The prison psychiatrist who “treated” her saw no reason not to recommend her for parole. When parole agents learned that, after release, LeBlanc had been sleeping with Harris and her husband, they revoked LeBlanc’s parole “for the best interests of herself and the community.” She returned to prison for a year, then left on parole again. This time, she reportedly became involved with another former inmate, Jane MacGregor. The court convicted LeBlanc of “Open and Gross Lewdness” and sentenced her to another two years in the reformatory because of her lesbian relationship^
Jane MacGregor’s records further highlight the conflicting policies toward lesbianism. According to a reformatory psychiatrist, MacGregor had “no preference” between “hetero – and homosexual experience.” Because she was “not the aggressive one” in the latter, the psychiatrist did not consider her a true lesbian. Even after officers discovered MacGregor in bed with another inmate, the psychiatrist emphasized her need for motherly love and recommended that “it is far better to have some of these intense feelings directed toward an officer where the activity can be controlled than toward another student [inmate].” Only after MacGregor was repeatedly found in bed with other women did prison officials fear that she was “in danger of becoming a true homosexual.” Despite efforts to divert her interest in women into athletics and the care of animals (to “help take care of her need to demonstrate affection”), the psychiatrist eventually concluded that MacGregor was in fact “strongly homosexual.” Nonetheless, he supported her request for parole. The more conservative parole board revoked her release, however, explaining that she “engaged in homosexual activities to such an extent that she is unable to adjust in employment.”35
The inmates clearly knew that reformatory officials were reluctant to label same-sex relations, as the case of Barbara Jones illustrates. A white woman, Jones had been committed to prison for idle and disorderly conduct, which may have meant prostitution. At the reformatory, she tended to pair off with a “colored inmate,” laboring to maintain the relationship by “coveting favor with small gifts.” The staff tried to discourage the pairing by transferring Jones to a housing unit apart from her friend. Annoyed by the move, Jones wrote to a staff member with the expectation of tolerance and understanding. “You told me one time if I didn’t want people to complain to you about my actions I shouldn’t make them so obvious,” she explained. “I didn’t this time. It was purely what people thought. True, I was carrying on an affair, but I certainly wasn’t loud about it.”36
The relative tolerance toward homosexuality among the staff at the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women could not survive long after World War II. Just as the psychological and popular literature began to emphasize a sinister, even predatory, lesbian, conservative Massachusetts politicians seized on the prison lesbian to discredit the unusually liberal reformatory administration. The investigation of an inmate suicide in 1947 led to reports of a “doll racket” at the reformatory, giving the Massachusetts Department of Corrections an opportunity to launch a series of probes of Superintendent Van Waters’s administration. Among their complaints, they charged that “many of the inmates receiving special favors are ‘known’ homosexuals or dangerous psychopaths.” Although Van Waters denied the charges, the politicians exploited them in the press, using prison lesbianism as a sensa – tionalistic wedge with which to expose Van Waters’s liberal attitudes toward rehabilitation.
Like the federal officials who soon outlawed the employment of homosexuals on the grounds that they spread corruption in the government, Massachusetts officials claimed that homosexuals corrupted the young women of the state. Instead of prostitution, which had so disturbed an earlier generation of Americans, homosexuality now represented the great destroyer of young women’s virtue. As Senator Michael LoPresti told the press, “Supt. Van Waters’ administration of the Women’s Reformatory has been more damaging to the morals and mental health of young girls than has the operation of White Slavery in all New England over the same period of time.”37 In 1949, when the commissioner of corrections dismissed Van Waters from office, he charged that she had “known of and failed to prevent the continuance of, or failed to know and recognize that an unwholesome relationship has existed between inmates of the Reformatory for Women which is called the ‘doll racket’ by inmates and some officer personnel; the terms ‘stud’ and ‘queen’ are used with implied meanings, and such association has resulted in ‘crushes,’ ‘courtships,’ and homosexual practises [sic] among the inmates in the Reformatory.’^8 Although the grounds for dismissal included Van Waters’s allowing inmates to work for pay outside the institution and hiring former inmates on the reformatory staff, the homosexual motif ran throughout the charges, fueling sensational newspaper coverage of the issue.
During several months of public hearings, Van Waters successfully defended her policies, in part by minimizing the existence of homosexuality at the reformatory, and in part by deferring to psychiatric authorities when asked about homosexual tendencies among inmates. Typical of her strategic evasion was this response to hostile interrogation about whether certain acts or personal styles revealed homosexual tendencies: “That, sir, is so distinctly a medical and technical question that I would not presume to answer it. One of the first things we are taught is that a homosexual tendency must be distinguished from a homosexual act. A homosexual tendency may be completely repressed and turned into a variety of other expressions, including a great aversion to emotion.” By invoking the power of psychiatry, Van Waters acknowledged the shifting meaning of homosexuality from an act to an identity and from a crime to a mental disorder. At the same time, she tried to avoid a labeling process that would mark close friends, mannish women, and those who had crushes on other inmates as confirmed homosexuals. Responding to further questions, she explained that a woman’s mannish dress and preference for men’s jobs resulted from early childhood neglect, not homosexual desire^9
Whether consciously or not, Van Waters’s testimony represented a form of resistance to the use of accusations of homosexuality to discredit nonconforming women. Rather than sacrifice some “mannish” women or close female friends by calling them homosexuals, latent homosexuals, or women with homosexual tendencies, she firmly opposed labeling. At the same time, like psychologists of the period, she did so by accepting a definition of true homosexuality as a pathology.
When the superintendent evaded the labeling of homosexuality, she also sidestepped implicit questions about her own sexual identity. In her personal life, Van Waters had refused to label her love for a woman as a form of homosexuality, despite her long-term romantic partnership with Geraldine Thompson, who was known publicly only as a wealthy benefactor and a supporter of Van Waters’s reforms. Thus, she hesitated to assume that other women who appeared to fit the definition really were homosexuals, a term she reserved for women’s pathological, although curable, sexual aggression toward other women.40
In March 1949, a special panel appointed by the governor exonerated Van Waters of all charges and reinstated her as superintendent. During the two years of publicity concerning the “doll racket” at Framingham, however, the image of the homosexual woman criminal had been widely disseminated by both local and national media coverage of the Van Waters hearings. In the aftermath of the Van Waters case, prison lesbianism came under greater scrutiny, with white as well as black women subject to the charge. A few months after the hearings, for instance, the Massachusetts parole board taunted a white woman they suspected of homosexuality by asking whether she ought to have a sex-change operation because of her “boyish swagger.’^1 In addition, popular media further stereotyped inmates as lesbians. The Van Waters case directly inspired Caged, the prototypical women’s prison film, in which older, aggressive lesbians compete for access to an innocent young inmate. The lurid True Confessions tales of reform school lesbians also followed in the wake of the Van Waters case.
The image of the “aggressive homosexual,” along with greater surveillance by the Massachusetts Department of Corrections and the public, helped erode the earlier tolerance toward prison lesbianism among the Framingham staff. In the 1950s, despite Superintendent Van Waters’s continuing belief that healthy recreation could divert women from situational homosexuality, the reformatory capitulated to the antihomosexual climate by attempting to transfer lesbians out of the institution. Previously, even evidence of homosexual relations did not disqualify an inmate as a candidate for parole. Now, however, when a white woman on parole “made a connection with a married woman with the result that the woman left her husband,” Van Waters’s staff
refused to keep her at the reformatory. Labeled “hard-core,” these women were now transferred to county jails to serve their additional terms without benefit of reformatory programs.42
These efforts to weed out hard-core lesbians did not protect the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women from further political scrutiny. In July 1957, an escapee fighting extradition claimed that alcohol, drugs, and homosexuality made her afraid to return to the reformatory. Newspapers had a field day with the ensuing investigation. “Charge Sex Fiends, Boozers Run Wild in Women’s Prison” and “Girl Inmates ‘Wed’ in Mock Prison Rites,” the headlines read. A committee chaired by a conservative woman legislator accused “aggressive homosexuals” of “escaping, assaulting officers and practicing unnatural acts!” The committee recommended greater security as well as the segregation of “aggressive homosexuals and belligerent nonconformists.” Even though such activity was “not rampant” at the reformatory, the legislators argued that the “real factor to be considered here” was “not the extent but the fact that it appears to have been overlooked.” They stated that “there have been mock marriages; there have been unnatural acts witnessed and reported by members of the staff, and there have been numerous indications of parolees carrying this type of activity outside the institution in association with others who had never participated in such actions before.”43
Because these lesbians — significantly unidentified by race — were believed to corrupt other inmates and spread homosexual contagion into the broader society, officials now called for sexual, rather than racial, segregation. By 1959, after Van Waters had retired, the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women instituted a lecture on sexuality for young inmates in which a psychiatrist warned them about experimenting with lesbianism because “it is a sick way of life” and one that could never lead to happiness.44 as in the larger society, in which McCarthy era campaigns identified homosexuals as the source of communist subversion and moral ruin, in the microcosm of the women’s prison, the lesbian became a scapegoat for the demise of institutional order and gender propriety. The very term “women’s prison” would long evoke an image of lesbian aggression. The association of lesbianism and criminality may have served as a warning to women who might be tempted to acknowledge their homosexual desires. To do so meant to lose both class and, for white women, race privilege, to descend into a criminal underworld vulnerable to the control of police and parole agents.
The prison lesbian thus represented an inverse of the ideal white woman of the 1950s, the “reprivatized” suburban housewife who served rather than challenged men.45
The shifting racial construction of the prison lesbian, in which the role of sexual aggressor extended from black to all working-class inmates, raises larger historical questions about race and sexuality. Although the sources reveal little about how either black or white lesbians constructed their own identities or about racial distinctions in the treatment of lesbians in prison, they do point toward a fluidity in the racial construction of sexual boundaries. After the 1940s, prostitution and promiscuity seemed less problematic for white working-class women than they had before; white unwed mothers, for example, could now be forgiven and “cured.” In contrast, homosexuality among white working-class women loomed larger as a threat to social order, as evidenced by the negative portrayals of bar dykes, lesbian athletes, and prison lesbians. At the same time, for working-class black women, homosexual aggression now attracted less attention than did the newly emergent image of the black unwed mother on welfare. The literature on deviance reacted against both white women’s rejection of reproductive heterosexuality (lesbianism) and black women’s “excessive” reproductive activity (illegitimacy)^6
Specific historical contexts in the postwar period can help explain this shift, including the development of penicillin, which lessened fears about prostitutes, and the increased social costs of out-of-wedlock births in light of the establishment of government aid to dependent children. The pattern of reaction, however, can be found much earlier in American history, especially during the race suicide scare at the turn of the twentieth century, when mass immigration triggered admonitions to middle-class white women to bear children lest the foreign-born dominate American society. Similarly, the shifting sexual and racial demonizations during the 1940s responded in part to the continued northern migration of blacks. In addition, wartime economic opportunities may have contributed to fears about women usurping male prerogatives, so that the aggressive white lesbian became a symbol of excessive female independence.
The representation of the prison lesbian also suggests how class became a clearer marker of sexual identity. Middle-class women who resisted the labeling of lesbianism— as did Miriam Van Waters— may have avoided social stigma for themselves and protected some of the women under their supervision. Nonetheless, the image of the aggressive female homosexual made these reformers vulnerable to political attacks that eventually weakened their moral authority and lessened their ability to protect working-class lesbians in prison. At the same time, the emergence of the malignant image of the criminal lesbian widened the class gulfs among women. Many white women who loved other women gladly claimed their race and class privilege by disassociating themselves from a category that included bar lesbians and criminals. In the process, these middle-class women often denied their own desires or insured their own social isolation. For those who did acknowledge their lesbianism, maintaining middle-class status meant rejecting any affiliation with working-class lesbians and the butch-femme roles that had been pathologized by the 1950s.47
It was the prison lesbian, however, who paid the highest price for the greater cultural recognition of women’s sexual desires and the weakening of middle-class women’s public authority. Once ignored or tolerated, the prison lesbian became a symbol of social disorder, not unlike the prostitute of an earlier period. Even as subsequent generations of middle-class women first rejected the models of criminality and sickness in favor of lesbian feminism and more recently have elaborated a subversive “outlaw” identity, women in prison have continued to suffer from the older cultural construction. Prison lesbians, a 1987 study proclaimed, are “more criminalistic, more feministic and more aggressive” than other prisoners. These stereotypes help explain why lesbians serve longer terms than nonlesbians and why prison officials continue to treat lesbians more harshly than other women. The greater vulnerability of prison lesbians is suggested, as well, by the fact that implications of lesbianism have been part of the prosecution strategy in 40 percent of the cases of women currently awaiting execution in the United States^ The serious consequences of the persistent conflation of lesbianism and aggressive criminality are rarely addressed by either contemporary feminists or penologists because working-class women in prison remain largely invisible in critiques of sexual injustice. Ignoring the historical construction of the aggressive female homosexual, however, allows the specter of the prison lesbian to continue to police class and sexual boundaries, both inside and outside prison walls.