Career of Miriam Van Waters
Womens prisons differ significantly from voluntary separatist institutions, but they reveal larger patterns in the history of female reform. I had written about the origins of these institutions in my first book, Their Sisters’ Keepers, and a decade later I returned to the subject to write a biography of Miriam Van Waters. By then, an expanding historical literature on twentieth-century women’s politics was calling into question the usefulness of national enfranchisement in 1920 as a turning point, especially for women outside the white middle classes. As I explored Van Waters’s career, I was struck by similarities between her values and those of earlier women prison reformers. This essay builds upon Miriam Van Waters’s exceptional story to generalize about the survival of women’s personal and political networks in the era between the 1920s and the 1960s.
in November 1945, a group of college students who were conducting research on women and social reform paid a visit to the Framingham, Massachusetts, women’s prison. They went to meet with the superintendent, Miriam Van Waters, a prominent juvenile justice and prison reformer. In 1927, Van Waters had served as president of the National Conference on Social Work, and she currently presided over the American League to Abolish Capital Punishment. Talking with the students about their projects gave Van Waters a chance to reflect back upon her career. That night, writing in her journal, she posed an intriguing historical question: Why, she wondered, were there no longer any great women leaders in social work, women of the stature of Florence Kelley, Jane Addams, and Julia Lathrop?1 Van Waters’s sense that the
Previously published as Estelle B. Freedman, “Separatism Revisited: Women’s Institutions, Social Reform, and the Career of Miriam Van Waters,” in U. S. History as Women’s History: New Feminist Essays, edited by Linda K. Kerber, Alice Kessler-Harris, and Kathryn Kish Sklar (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 170-88. Reprinted by permission of the University of North Carolina Press.
golden age of women and reform had passed by the 1940s has been echoed by historians, who generally date the ascendance of American women’s public moral authority in the mid-nineteenth century and its decline sometime after the enactment of suffrage in 1920. Yet both Van Waters’s own career and recent scholarship on the twentieth century suggest the persistence of women’s contributions to social reform in the postsuffrage era. Even during the rise of professionalized social work and the provision of welfare by state and national governments, women’s local, voluntary associations continued to play an important role in sustaining progressive reform. To explore this premise, I would like to look more closely at continuities in women’s contributions to social reform after 1920. I draw particularly on the career of Miriam Van Waters to do so, placing her life within a larger historical landscape.
the role of women in American social reform has a long and complex history. In the antebellum period, religiously motivated middle-class women began to provide the impetus for local and national reform movements. White women formed associations to achieve temperance and prison reform, while black and white female antislavery societies appealed to women to work for abolition. At the turn of the century, African American women’s clubs crusaded against lynching and provided critical local social services such as health, education, and day care in southern black communities. In the North, elite and working-class white women cooperated in movements for protective legislation for workers, while white middle-class women’s clubs sponsored a variety of “child-saving” measures, including local juvenile courts and state child labor laws. Women’s voluntarism and reform campaigns not only filled a significant gap in American political life but also gave disfranchised women a degree of public authority. In the settlement houses, through the National Consumers League, and in the U. S. Children’s Bureau, reformers like Addams, Kelley, and Lathrop brought women’s maternal vision of social justice into the mainstream of American life and helped lay the groundwork for a welfare state.2
After the waning of progressivism and the attainment of suffrage in 1920, however, organized womanhood seemed to play a less influential role in social reform. Women’s clubs, which had once led the movement for juvenile justice, now gained a reputation as mere recreational groups. Rescue homes founded by nineteenth-century Protestant women missionaries closed or were taken over by male authorities during the 1920s and 1930s. Even as women entered the new profession of social work, they lost a measure of their older moral authority. Among professional social workers, male domination began to “insinuate itself” in the 1920s, and it deepened during the depression.3 What one historian has termed the “female dominion in American reform” may have culminated in the New Deal steps toward a welfare state, but in the process, male officials attained increasing state authority over concerns once left largely in the hands of women volunteers. According to another historian, women “surrendered to government functions that had belonged to the woman’s sphere” and thus lost their separate political culture.4
The explanations for this shift from female to male authority in reform vary, from the personal — for example, a decline in women’s interest in serving — to the structural — such as economic competition for social work jobs during the depression. I have previously argued that women’s postsuffrage efforts to integrate into male organizational structures undermined their autonomous political base since separate women’s networks and institutions are critical to the survival of the women’s movement.5 New historical research, however, has shown the ways that separatism, or female institution building, did, in fact, survive as a reform strategy after 1920. Indeed, where separatism in some form persisted, women continued to influence social reform and politics to an extent that earlier histories have underestimated. The persistence of women organized for reform complicates and challenges a monolithic interpretation of the decline of women’s moral and political authority after the suffrage victory.
As historians have shifted attention from the private, female sphere of the nineteenth century to the public, political activities of women in the twentieth century, they have clarified the contours of that amorphous term, the “women’s movement.” We now recognize the coexistence of many social movements led by women — some to protect women and children in the family or workplace, some to benefit larger social groups (such as workers or African Americans), and others committed solely to the goal of gaining equal political rights for women.6 Given this broadly defined women’s movement with overlapping memberships, the suffrage victory in 1920 seems like a narrow and inappropriate benchmark for periodizing women’s history.
Continuity as much as change characterized the pre – and postsuffrage decades for African American women, for example. In the South, suffrage did not usher in a new era, for political, economic, and social discrimination persisted, necessitating local social service and self-help programs that continued to rely on female leadership. After World War I, in response to the northern migration, middle-class black women formed new clubs that provided service to urban communities, and in several cities, working-class women organized Housewives Leagues to support black-owned businesses. In addition, educated black women worked within interracial groups, such as the Consumers League, the local juvenile courts, and the League of Women Voters; in the Young Women’s Christian Association (ywca), black women waged a fervent though largely unsuccessful campaign for racial equality.7
Among privileged white women, a variety of postsuffrage organizations continued to influence reform. Some groups — such as women’s clubs and the Consumers League — drew upon an older ideology of female difference, using maternalism as a basis for their contributions to politics and social reform. Others, such as the National Woman’s Party, embraced the newer ideology of “feminism,” which claimed that women merited political authority because they were equal to, not different from, men. Despite their ideological differences, however, both groups of women frequently relied on the separatist institutions of the earlier women’s movement to achieve their goals.8
The legacy of separatism can be seen, for example, where women reformers continued to draw upon the kinds of close personal networks that had long nurtured activists such as Jane Addams and Florence Kelley. The “emotional anchor” of friendship helped buttress women’s social service efforts within African American communities. Personal networks advanced women’s political goals in the 1920s and especially during the New Deal, when middle-class reformers such as Molly Dewson and Frances Perkins worked to extend the benefits of the welfare state to working women. In addition, formal women’s institutions, such as the Children’s Bureau in the Department of Labor and the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee, maintained the “female dominion” of reform through the New Deal era. At the other end of the ideological spectrum from these “social feminists,” the National Woman’s Party also drew on close personal networks and separate female organizing to support its lobbying efforts for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, providing a critical link to the reemergence of liberal feminist politics in the 1960s.9
Separate networks and institutions also sustained women’s quests for economic opportunities in the postsuffrage era. The National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, founded after World War I, sought equality at work through a separate women’s organization. Among working-class women, recent scholarship suggests, separate women’s locals best served the interests of unionized women, such as waitresses. Among California cannery workers, the continuing sexual segregation of labor helped create a female workplace culture of predominantly Mexican and Jewish women, which in turn facilitated union organizing during the 1930s and 1940s.10
Women’s social-service and social-reform organizations provide another example of continuity in separatist institution building after suffrage. Although the ywca had nineteenth-century origins as a separate women’s organization, it flourished after 1920, resisting efforts by the Young Men’s Christian Association to subsume it and adopting more explicitly political goals. In the 1920s, the college division of the ywca took the lead in opposing racial segregation in the South, and by the 1940s and 1950s, black and white leaders struggled over how to integrate the segregated ywcas without inadvertently taking autonomy away from important black community institutions.11
A final legacy of separatism is the survival of women’s intimate relationships in the twentieth century. Historians once argued that the emergence of a medical and psychiatric definition of lesbianism as a sexual perversion served to suppress the loving friendships that once flourished among white middle-class womend2 Although prescriptive literature may have stigmatized homosexuality in the early twentieth century, the naming of lesbianism simultaneously granted to women the capacity to have sexual relations with members of their own sex. More important than labels, when opportunities for economic self-support freed women from dependence on marriage, female couples proliferated. In settlement houses, during the Harlem Renaissance, among political activists of the New Deal, in the women’s armed forces during World War II, and in the lesbian bars of the 1950s, lesbian subcultures gradually emerged, laying the groundwork for the ho – mophile and lesbian-feminist political movements. Although female couples did not necessarily claim a lesbian identity, particularly before 1950, intimate relationships between women nonetheless continued to provide one means of support for activists, including social reformers/3
These examples of women’s networks and female institution building in the postsuffrage era, along with the women’s peace movement and the southern white women’s antilynching movement, force a revision of the modern history of women and reform/4 Rather than portraying only decline or erosion of women’s organizations and their role in social reform after 1920, we may need to tell a story that includes pockets of quiet persistence. Understanding where and why separate women’s organizations did survive may help explain the contours of reform in the twentieth century as well as the reemergence of feminism in the 1960s.
the career of Miriam Van Waters (1887-1974) illustrates the continuing importance of women’s networks and women’s institutions in modern American social reform. A nationally known juvenile justice reformer in the 1920s, Van Waters made headlines in 1949 when she successfully defended herself from dismissal as superintendent of the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women in Framingham. A series of dramatic public hearings inspired both a popular biography and the classic women’s prison film, Caged (1950), in which Agnes Moorehead created a remarkable facsimile of the high-minded superintendent. Miriam Van Waters continued to direct Framingham until her retirement in 1957.15 Throughout her career, she chose to work with and for women, and female institutions provided critical support for her reforms. An examination of separatism in her life suggests that historians may need to rethink the periodization of modern women’s history by looking more closely at women’s voluntary and political institutions between 1920 and 1960.
Like other middle-class women activists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Miriam Van Waters developed her commitment to serve women and children within the broader context of liberal Protestantism. Growing up in the rectory of her father’s Episcopal church in Portland, Oregon, Van Waters was exposed to both the late-nineteenth-century social gospel and support for the rights of women. In 1904, she graduated from an Episcopal girls’ school and entered the University of Oregon. Suffrage activism was gathering strength in Oregon, and as editor of the campus literary magazine, Van Waters urged women to participate in student government lest they be unprepared to voted6 A strong dean of women may have provided a model for Oregon students, for in addition to Van Waters and several of her women friends, a disproportionate number of the university’s female graduates pursued advanced degrees/7 After completing her M. A. in psychology at Oregon in 1910, Van Waters entered Clark University to study with the country’s leading psychologist, G. Stanley Hall.
Three years later, disillusioned with Hall’s scientific methods and dismayed by the second-class status accorded academic women, Miriam Van Waters completed her doctorate in anthropology. She joined a small but growing elite of highly educated American women. Like other early women social scientists, Van Waters wanted to put her academic expertise to “constructive” use.18 Inspired by Jane Addams, the suffrage movement, and juvenile court reformers, she began a lifetime career of working with delinquent women. After an internship at Boston Children’s Aid, she returned to the West in 1914 to direct the Frazer Detention Home in Portland, Oregon.
There she implemented sweeping reforms in education, recreation, and self-government. After 1917, Van Waters worked at the Los Angeles Juvenile Court, which, like its predecessor in Chicago, was the product of a reform campaign led by local women’s clubs. She directed Juvenile Hall and, as one historian has written, “quickly transformed this institution into one of the leading progressive detention centers in the country.”19 From 1920 to 1930, she served as court “referee,” a quasi-judicial position. In her capacity of recommending the disposition of cases of all girls and the younger boys brought to court, she favored probation rather than incarceration.
At Juvenile Hall, Van Waters worked with both girls and boys, but the project dearest to her was El Retiro, an experimental school for adolescent girls brought to the juvenile court. In 1919, she helped transform this former sanatorium into an unenclosed, rural, residential high school for girls, operated on a system of student self-government. El Retiro stressed education and economic self-sufficiency for its residents. Van Waters served as a surrogate mother to many of its students and as their advocate in juvenile court. She proselytized the El Retiro model nationally through the liberal press and in her influential studies of delinquency, Youth in Conflict (1925) and Parents on Probation (1927). Van Waters also investigated girls’ reformatories around the country, exposing punitive conditions and calling for improvements.20
As did reformers of an earlier generation, Miriam Van Waters found support for her work within a network of like-minded women. For over a decade, she operated within a circle of women lawyers, judges, and social workers who staffed the juvenile court and participated in an elaborate community of professional women in Los Angeles. Van Waters herself belonged to the Professional Women’s Club, the Women’s Athletic Club, and the Los Angeles Business Women’s Club. She shared a communal house with former juvenile court referee Orfa Jean Shontz and two classmates from Clark University, University of California at Los Angeles psychology professor Sara Fisher and Los Angeles school psychologist Elizabeth Woods. When Van Waters adopted a daughter, members of the household helped raise her. All supporters of the presuffrage “woman movement,^ the housemates continued to seek greater public authority for women in the criminal justice system and equal treatment of female delinquents. In the 1920s, their suburban home, “The Colony,” served as a latter-day salon for women reformers from around the world, such as Chicago philanthropist Ethel Sturges Dummer, who visited The Colony whenever she went to Los Angeles. Similarly, when Van Waters traveled around the country, she stopped at Hull House to stay with her colleague Jessie Binford and meet with Jane Addams, Edith Abbott, and other reformers. In Los Angeles or Chicago, these women exchanged information on the juvenile court movement and social legislation to improve the conditions of women and children.
The community of women reformers in Los Angeles during the 1920s extended beyond paid, professional workers like Shontz, Fisher, Woods, and Van Waters. An extensive network of women’s clubs, whose members came from both elite and middle-class families, took up the cause of the female juvenile delinquent, largely at the urging of Van Waters in her frequent addresses to local women’s organizations. For example, the Friday Morning Club — with 1,000 members, the largest women’s club on the West Coast — offered political support for her efforts to improve conditions at Juvenile Hall. Van Waters chaired the juvenile court division of the California Federation of Women’s Clubs and took special pride in her relationship with the Colored Women’s Federation, which sought to establish a training school for “colored girls.”22 Church-affiliated women’s auxiliaries sustained both the social gospel and the moral authority of Protestant women when they brought pressure to bear during recurrent conservative attacks on the El Retiro experiment. Van Waters also made an ally of the local Council of Jewish Women, which funded a court social worker. In her most effective use of women’s professional networks in the 1920s, she helped convince the Los Angeles Business Women’s Club to fund a residential home where young women released from El Retiro could live on their own while they became self-supporting, thus preventing their return to hostile or abusive families. Through such efforts, separate women’s organizations in Los Angeles supported both the professional and political advancement of women like Miriam Van Waters and maintained a female voice within social-reform efforts.
However supportive the Los Angeles women’s community, local politics ultimately impinged on Van Waters’s reform efforts, destroying the El Retiro experiment in 1927. Frustrated by the failures she witnessed in the juvenile court movement and drawn into national service on both President Herbert Hoover’s crime commission and a Harvard Law School crime survey, Van Waters shifted her career in two directions: from California to Massachusetts and from juvenile to adult corrections. In 1932, at the age of forty-four, she accepted the position of superintendent at the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women in Framingham. For the next twenty-five years, she made Framingham a testing ground for her reform philosophies and innovative social work methods. Van Waters vowed “to bring our neighbors into our planning, to have the community flow into us, and our institution into the community.’^ She drew local students, college faculty, clergy, and women’s groups into the prison as volunteers; introduced psychological counseling and therapeutic recreational groups for inmates; and established intensely close familial relations with the women whom she called “students” and in whom she invested unusual trust and responsibility for their daily lives. Her efforts to create an alternative correctional institution at Framingham echoed the visions of the nineteenth-century women prison reformers who had founded the reformatory, but her methods contrasted sharply with the disciplinary style of prison administration that prevailed during the 1930s and 1940s. Critics accused Van Waters of coddling prisoners and defying state authority. Even some supporters marveled at the extent of her regal command over the Framingham reformatory. Repeatedly Van Waters conflicted with the parole board and the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, and as in Los Angeles, she often mobilized women’s networks to support her reforms.
Although the Framingham prison was an involuntary women’s institution, under Van Waters it often resembled a voluntary community. Hundreds of women, imbued with a mission to rehabilitate incarcerated women, chose to work there as interns and staff members. In many ways, Van Waters modeled Framingham as much on Hull House as on El Retiro. Indeed, over the years, residents of various settlement houses visited or interned at Framingham, as did women college students in search of meaningful work. One such woman, a recent graduate of Cornell, recalled her first impression of Framingham in the mid-i93os: “I think from the moment I walked in there was something about the atmosphere. I just thought. . . ‘This is wonderful.’ . . . It was more like a progressive school. There was no prison atmosphere whatsoever. . . . The whole atmosphere was one of growth and excitement and new experience, you know, and people coming in and out.”24 This woman stayed as an intern, then joined the staff; after receiving a social work degree, she spent the rest of her career as a devoted employee of Van Waters at Framingham. Similarly, interns from Vassar, Smith, Wellesley, Simmons, and other colleges went to the reformatory to teach classes on current events, ceramics, art, and psychology. Van Waters herself enjoyed the opportunity to lead weekly literary study groups. Like progressive educators, she tried to make the entire institution a learning experience. The nursery, which housed children born in prison, became a training ground for teachers and health workers. The nearby woods provided an incentive for well- behaved and trusted inmates who aspired to join the nature study club that took weekend hikes. In the 1940s and 1950s, Van Waters incorporated elements of group therapy and the self-help model of Alcoholics Anonymous into her programs for inmates. “Only delinquents can solve the problems of delinquents,” she wrote, and so she offered jobs to former “students,” some of whom chose to return to the institution as staff members.25
As much as it was like a school, Framingham was also a social welfare institution in the broadest sense. Many of the women committed by the courts were simply homeless, pregnant, or alcoholic. Van Waters and other staff members preferred to view them as women in need of supportive services instead of as women in need of punishment. “Framingham presents all the problems of the modern world,” Van Waters once reflected, noting that its residents shared with other women the dilemma of finding adequate child care to enable them to go to work.26 Since poverty and inadequate health care plagued the residents, Van Waters pressed for both medical and mental health personnel to address their problems. Job training became a central goal, and she developed a “furlough system” that allowed many “students” to work for pay on the outside.
Material support was only part of Van Waters’s program. A deeply spiritual woman, she spoke of her mission as “Christian Penology.” As she recorded in her journal: “Here I intend to build — ‘a kingdom of heaven on earth’ — that is to say—a world of order, protection, fluid understanding, where both spontaneity and discipline — express the service of justice.’^7 Central to achieving her goal of creating “The Framingham Symphony” was the personal charisma of conductor Miriam Van Waters. As one observer noted, the “faith and friendship of the superintendent” were key to the “informal rehabilitation” that characterized Framingham. In the words of one inmate, “The Superintendent has so much faith in me that I can’t ever let her down.”28 Van Waters maintained a sincere respect for “the child of God” in each woman in the institution. In many cases, her charges responded to this personal approach with extreme loyalty, deep adoration, and idealization of their saintly superintendent.
Personal charisma alone could not have maintained such an unusual institution. Van Waters repeatedly relied on a variety of middle-class women’s networks and organizations to support her earthly kingdom. Smith, Wellesley, and other women’s college graduates, who often worked for room and board plus a small stipend, made possible the educational programs at Framingham. Outside the institution, club women offered support. In 1947, the Altrusa Club of Boston, consisting of fifty-four prominent businesswomen, raised money to hire women workers from the reformatory since, as one club member wrote, “men in institutions have the privileges of earning and saving money through their labors while such privileges are not given to women.”29 Similarly, the Massachusetts League of Women Voters protested both the injustice of imposing heavier penalties for women offenders (for crimes such as adultery and cohabitation) and the fact that “only poor women are prosecuted for these crimes,” many of whom were “foreign speaking.”30 Van Waters also mobilized church women to support her reforms, as she had learned to do in Los Angeles. In a state with long-standing tensions between Catholics and Protestants, she won the respect of every denomination. A striking example of how club women’s networks operated appears in a letter to Van Waters from Willa W. Brown, who had once heard the superintendent give a college commencement address. Learning that Van Waters might lose her job in 1949, Brown wrote to offer help. “You do not know me,” she began. “I am a member of the Boston Wheelock Club, the Florence Crittendon League, the Women’s Charity Club, the Bright and Helmstone Women’s Club, & the Women’s Association of the Brighton Congregational Church. So you see I would be able to obtain a great many signatures in your behalf.’^1
Aside from relying on community support, Van Waters turned to religious, personal, and political networks to bolster her efforts. At the invitation of settlement worker Vida Scudder, she joined the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, a select group of reform-minded Episcopalian women who nurtured a spiritual commitment to social justice and class reconciliation.32 Professionally she remained in touch with her former Los Angeles colleagues and with her first benefactor, Ethel Sturges Dummer, who funded small research projects at Framingham. After 1930, however, Van Waters’s main emotional and political sustenance came from her “dearest love,” Geraldine Morgan Thompson (1872-1967).
A former suffragist and an activist in the New Jersey women’s club movement, Geraldine Thompson devoted her life and her considerable wealth to the cause of charitable institutions. She helped found the Monmouth County Organization for Social Services in 1912 and served on its board until 1952. Thompson took a special interest in the treatment and cure of tuberculosis and in juvenile justice and women’s prisons. As a member of the Board of Control of the State Department of Institutions and Agencies (the first woman appointed to a state board in New Jersey), she helped oversee the women’s reformatory at Clinton Farms. Although a lifelong Republican and a national committeewoman during the 1920s, Thompson had close ties to the New Deal White House for she had grown up near Hyde Park and remained a warm friend of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt”
Geraldine Thompson met Miriam Van Waters in the mid-1920s, and the two women gradually became intimate friends as well as reform allies. Thompson supported Van Waters’s reform efforts at Framingham. She often visited the institution and addressed staff meetings and student assemblies, speaking about politics and public service. Thanks to Thompson, Eleanor Roosevelt also spoke at the institution. Thompson’s philanthropy provided stipends for interns, funded a part-time psychiatrist, and supplemented the educational and nursery budgets.
In addition to involving herself in the life of the institution through contributions and visits, Thompson provided a physical and emotional refuge for Van Waters. When the superintendent felt overwhelmed by institutional responsibilities and the stress of providing for the close relatives who lived with or near her, she could recuperate at Brookdale, the Thompson estate near Red Bank, New Jersey. The two friends would take early morning horseback rides and long walks, talk of their work and their spiritual beliefs, and take comfort in each other’s love. Thus, after a day at Brookdale, Van Waters wrote in her journal: “I am deeply at peace, cherished and blessed beyond words by Geraldine’s love and care.”34 After Thompson’s husband died in 1936, the two women regularly vacationed together, and they continued to attend conferences throughout the United States and in Europe. Through letters and telephone calls, Thompson provided a well of “strength” for Van Waters. As they aged in the 1950s, Van Waters and Thompson, along with close women friends from the reformatory staff, spent weekends at Audubon Camps in New England and delighted in the company of nature and each other.
Thompson also provided a link to larger women’s political networks. Van Waters met Eleanor Roosevelt when the couple dined at the White House in 1940. When Massachusetts politics threatened to undermine the mission at Framingham, Thompson would remind Mrs. Roosevelt of Van Waters’s good works and ask her to intervene. In 1945, for example, when Thompson feared that the governor might remove Van Waters from office, she wrote to Roosevelt. “Miriam,” Thompson explained, “is not only a liberal, but a radical, and a fighting radical, at that. . . . She is, and has always been, an ardent supporter of yours and Franklin.” A brief note to the governor, Thompson suggested, could let him know how much Mrs. Roosevelt appreciated “the type of philosophy and administration which has made Framingham the outstanding Women’s Reformatory in this country.’^5 Van Waters remained in office, at least partially due to Eleanor Roosevelt’s intervention.
Although Miriam Van Waters staved off political attack through the 1940s, her methods had long infuriated conservatives in the Department of Corrections. From 1947 to 1949, critics of the reformatory made her the subject of state investigations, newspaper exposes, and a series of three public hearings at which she defended her administration. The attack began in 1947, when state officials charged that Van Waters had exceeded her authority by indenturing women in jobs outside the reformatory and allowing some of them privileges such as occasional dinners and movies in town. They also attacked the superintendent for hiring former inmates and for allowing released “students” to visit friends at the reformatory. The most controversial charge was that she condoned homosexual relationships between inmates, a practice that, opponents claimed, had led to the suicide of one inmate. In January 1949, the commissioner of corrections dismissed her from office.
Van Waters defended herself against these charges effectively, standing up in public hearings for her belief in educational rather than punitive treatment and gaining national attention for her work at Framingham. Meanwhile, influential friends throughout the country rallied to stand by her. Testimonials and contributions arrived from women active in reform and politics, including Geraldine Thompson, Ethel Sturges Dummer, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Frances Perkins. Both men and women in the field of social welfare mobilized on her behalf, as did dozens of Boston area Episcopal, Catholic, and Jewish clergy and local college faculty and students. Organizational endorsements included those of the Massachusetts State Federation of Women’s Clubs, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Massachusetts Society for Social Hygiene, the ywca, the Massachusetts Council of Churches, and the Americans for Democratic Action. Outpourings of faith and admiration arrived daily— in handwritten notes from former inmates, on engraved stationery from the wives of prominent men, and in typed letters from professional women. When Van Waters won reinstatement as superintendent in March 1949, letters from supporters around the country poured into her office. Her close friend Felix Frankfurter claimed that the cause of democracy was served through her reinstatement. Having withstood the attack by conservative politicians, Van Waters became a symbol of “progressive penology.” Along with her prominent liberal supporters, dozens of former prisoners, local housewives, and complete strangers wrote to congratulate the superintendent on the “vindication of your principles.”36
At Framingham, Van Waters continued to mobilize local middle-class women’s organizations to support her reforms. In the 1950s, for example, members of the Friends of Framingham not only volunteered at the prison but also lobbied the state legislature to preserve the day work system. But hostile state officials, resentful of Van Waters’s victory, monitored the prison
closely and tried to impede her most innovative reforms. Like other Cold War politicians, her critics repeatedly raised the specter of sexual deviance, claiming that homosexuality was rampant at Framingham in order to sensationalize their charges. In 1957, just two months before Van Waters retired, Boston newspaper headlines charged: “Sex Fiends, Boozers Run Wild in Women’s Prison.” A state legislative investigation soon condemned “aggressive homosexuals” at the facility and led to the resignation of the deputy superintendent, a protege of Van Waters.37 These attacks reflected a new climate for women reformers that was in many ways symptomatic of a larger postwar critique of women’s work outside the home, women’s sexual independence, and female political authority. The Van Waters case and its aftermath left a public image that conflated wage-earning women, lesbians, and the threat that strong female leaders encouraged both.
each stage of Miriam Van Waters’s dramatic career — first as an influential figure in the juvenile justice movement, then as a champion of women’s prison reform, and finally as a reformer under attack— illuminates the history of women and social reform in modern America. Van Waters’s decision to apply her education to the provision of social services, and in particular her work with female clients, made sense in terms of the tradition of women’s reform. By the time Van Waters came of age professionally, however, the relationship between women reformers and the state had begun to change in critical ways. Women like Florence Kelley and Julia Lathrop had moved beyond the voluntarism and outsider politics of the past, while the expansion of state social services during the Progressive Era, and later during the New Deal, drew women into paid, professional, and often highly politicized roles. As voluntary reformers, settlement workers such as Jane Addams and Vida Scudder had enjoyed a measure of immunity to male political authority. With the professionalization of social work and its centralization within state agencies, a younger generation of reformers, including Miriam Van Waters, entered administrative hierarchies, usually headed by men, under the watchful eyes of state legislators. As a result, women expanded their public authority through integration into the male political culture but lost some of the administrative autonomy that earlier, voluntary reformers had enjoyed. Thus, new obstacles confronted Van Waters at critical points in her career, in the 1920s and the 1940s, when state officials attempted to undermine her reforms or oust her from office because of her sympathies toward prisoners and her innovative methods.
The career of Miriam Van Waters illuminates not only new obstacles but also certain continuities in women’s reform strategies. Van Waters repeatedly relied on women’s personal and political networks to advance her programs. Before suffrage, she both created and was supported by strong ties to women — in her family, in school, and in the juvenile court movement. After 1920, she continued to draw on both close personal ties to women and extensive outreach to women in churches and in social service organizations. That Van Waters could bring such an array of women’s community-based organizations into a prison reminds us of the rich yet still largely untapped history of middle-class women’s voluntary associations in the twentieth century.38 Among the women in these organizations — few of whom joined the expanding female paid labor force or the small feminist movement— separate institution building persisted, as did support for women’s social-reform efforts.
Van Waters’s individual character, the nature of women’s prison reform, and the local contexts in which she operated might account for the continuing influence of separatism throughout her career. But the fact that she could mobilize so many women’s voluntary, religious, and political organizations from the 1920s through the 1950s suggests that Van Waters’s story may not be entirely unique. Rather, her life may reveal larger patterns that require at least two kinds of further historical inquiry: first, to learn what common experiences inspired and sustained the work of this cohort of reformers; and second, to compare the approaches of pre – and postsuffrage women reformers.
Van Waters belonged to a generation of women reformers who followed in the shadow of Addams, Kelley, and Lathrop. These activists continued to work for women’s interests, often based in women’s institutions though constantly maneuvering through the obstacles of male political authority. In the labor movement, this generation included women who came out of the workers’ education movement of the 1920s, such as organizer Rose Pe – sotta and researcher Theresa Wolfson, as well as Women’s Bureau director Esther Peterson. In civil rights, it encompassed the careers of Mary McLeod Bethune and Charlotte Hawkins Brown, each of whom remained rooted in African American women’s clubs as they worked through the 1940s to achieve racial equality. In criminal justice, Edna Mahon, a protege of Van Waters, drew on women’s organizations to protect her reforms at the New Jersey Reformatory for Women. The career of Dorothy Kenyon, a feminist lawyer and public official, illustrates the devastating impact McCarthyism could have on this generation^9
Common dilemmas and survival strategies characterized members of this generation of reformers. Despite the decline of the old social gospel, religious values continued to inspire and sustain reform efforts for Van Waters, as it did for others, such as another minister’s daughter, labor activist Mary Van Kleeck, who also belonged to the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross. Intimate female partnerships among white middle-class women survived the modern “lesbian taboo” to nourish reformers — as did the Van Waters-Thompson relationship and the partnerships of Lillian Smith and Paula Snelling, Mary Dreier and Frances Kellor, and psychologists Jessie Taft and Virginia Robinson.40 Whatever degree of consciousness these women had about their sexual identity, like Van Waters, they could become vulnerable to veiled accusations of lesbianism, especially during the antigay atmosphere of the McCarthy erad1 Whether in couples or alone, some women of Van Waters’s generation resolved the family-career dilemma by raising adopted children, often with the support of women friends, as did, for instance, Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandtd2 Whatever personal strategies supported them, I suspect that the members of this generation provided an unrecognized legacy for the founding mothers of the new feminism. How often do the ywca, Hadassah, black women’s church clubs, the Women’s Bureau, and the League of Women Voters appear in the genealogies of later activists who were inspired, as was historian Ann Scott during the 1940s, by “women of such force and power’^3
In addition to revealing the survival of women’s networks and institutions in the twentieth century, turning our historical attention to the generation of postsuffrage women social reformers that included Miriam Van Waters may revise our understanding of continuity and discontinuity in reform strategies from the Progressive Era to the Cold War. To compare pre – and postsuffrage reform movements requires at least three kinds of historical analyses: analyses of institutions, ideology, and political authority. The clearest evidence of continuity in women’s reform is the survival of separate women’s networks, clubs, and formal institutions. Despite the emphasis on political integration in the 1920s and the professionalization of women’s reform, particularly through social work, older forms of voluntary associations continued. While many professional women worked within male institutions after 1920, nonemployed and nonprofessional women kept up local, voluntary, and often church-based female institutions. In addition, the formation of national institutions such as the Women’s Bureau, the Children’s Bureau, the League of Women Voters, the National Woman’s Party, and the Business and Professional Women’s Clubs suggests that not all politically active or professional women were willing to turn over the tasks of social service and policymaking to men.
The ideology underlying these women’s institutions, however, did not necessarily resemble that of their predecessors. In the nineteenth century, women’s reform rested in large part on ideals of female difference from and moral superiority to men, as well as on a social authority based on the common experience of motherhood. Within a modern gender system that no longer rested solidly on an ideology of separate spheres, women’s moral authority had to derive from more than gender. As Nancy Cott has shown, the idea of a unitary female identity gradually disintegrated after 1910 as feminists both claimed equality with men and recognized diversities among women.44 The rhetoric of both professional and voluntary women’s groups reflected this shift. Although Van Waters and others continued to focus on service to women and children, they were less likely to invoke their own womanhood as a justification for their efforts. Even as Van Waters drew women’s groups to her aid, she called on their humanitarian (or, in her terms, “Christian”) sympathies; an earlier generation would have called on Christian “womanhood.” Privately, however, gender consciousness did not disappear; in her journal, for example, Van Waters compared her minority status as “an isolated female Penologist” to the status of a racial minority, and she once — but only once — requested that a public official testify on her behalf by invoking his support for “the rights of women.”45 Her public rhetoric often played down gender and spoke in neutral terms of the parenthood of the state and the importance of scientific insight into delinquency. I suspect that other reformers similarly mixed their strategies in order to survive in the climate in which they operated. At a time when female bonding was suspect rather than esteemed, reformers relied on women’s separate support systems even as they denied the significance of gender in their reforms. Perhaps women’s institutions seemed to disappear in the postsuffrage era because separatism had disappeared from women’s rhetoric, if not always from their sustenance.
Women’s institutions survived, their rhetoric modified, but what kind of political authority did they wield, especially in comparison with women’s authority during the era of Addams, Kelley, and Lathrop? Historians have suggested that red-baiting undermined women’s political authority during the early 1920s and that by the end of the decade, the national women’s lobby failed to maintain its gains, as evidenced by the loss of state support for maternal health care with the defeat of the Shephard-Towner Act in 1927. Even the New Deal, which can be seen as a culmination of women’s social welfare goals, fell far short of meeting the needs of working and poor women.
Whether through the success or the shortcomings of welfare politics, women’s political authority on the national level suffered serious blows.
Nonetheless, two important questions about the persistence of women’s reform influence are suggested by the career of Van Waters. First, to what extent did women maintain legislative influence and administrative authority at the state and local levels after 1930? Only further case studies will reveal how many women like Van Waters remained in office, how they did so, and what obstacles they faced. Recent revisionist histories suggest that separate institutions did support women who were able to maintain formal political authority. Susan Hartmann has pointed out that many female legislators who sponsored bills to advance women’s opportunities in the 1940s (such as Representative Chase Going Woodhouse of Connecticut and Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine) gained their political expertise in the League of Women Voters, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the women’s colleges, or the Business and Professional Women’s Clubs.46 For them, postsuffrage women’s institutions fueled female political authority. The second question concerns women’s power outside traditional political institutions. When did women wield authority in neighborhoods, communities, unions, churches, and nascent social movements, and did their power derive in part from separate women’s institutions? Again, historical inquiries have just begun, but, as Sara Evans notes, during the 1950s, diverse groups of women mobilized their private networks for political ends, ranging from New Mexico Chicanas who took leadership in the miners’ strike depicted in Salt of the Earth, to San Francisco lesbians whose social network formed the basis for the Daughters of Bilitis, to southern black members of the local Women’s Political Council, which became critical to the Montgomery bus boycott.47
As in the past, separate women’s institutions did not have a unified politics, nor did they always work to promote the interests of women and children. Women’s organizations, informal or formal, could support class or race supremacy and gender inequality, and they could be used by conservative politicians/^ My focus here, however, is the role that separate women’s institutions have continued to play in the service of social reform. In this essay, drawing on the career of Miriam Van Waters, I have tried to suggest that where women continued to organize as women — even without an explicit ideology of gender difference — they had the power to facilitate social reform in their local communities and even in state and national politics. Although women’s movements for reform were smaller, more beleaguered, and more vulnerable after 1920, they developed new strategies for navigating within male political cultures, strategies that in turn helped lay the groundwork for yet another surge of women’s political activity after 1960.
In 1945, when Miriam Van Waters lamented the passing of great women leaders in social reform, she was at least partially correct in her historical assessment. Gone were Addams, Kelley, and Lathrop, the nationally visible leaders of movements to protect women and children through state-sponsored reforms. Yet Van Waters may have overlooked an equally important historical phenomenon that flourished in her own backyard: grassroots, local, and voluntary women’s institutions. These separate organizations continued to nurture an American women’s reform tradition well into the twentieth century.
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