Online on Zoom.
“less easy to tame than the creatures of the jungle”?
Portraits from below and from above of the disturbed and the disturbing (1860s-1910s).
Séminaire avec Alice Bonzom (PRAG, Université Lumière Lyon 2)
Online on Zoom.
Women often appear as footnotes in the history of 19th and early 20th century criminal justice. This may be accounted for by the fact that there weren’t many women in prison throughout the period. In the 1860s, 20% of those sentenced to imprisonment (i.e. for less than two years) were women. For convicts (who had been sentenced to more than three years), the proportion of women was around 11%, and the numbers decreased throughout the century. Yet, the minority of women who found themselves behind bars were seen as particularly problematic by prison governors, matrons, doctors, but also by journalists, reformers and philanthropists. “Less easy to tame than the creatures of the jungle”: this is how 1860s women convicts were described by contemporary journalist F. W. Robinson (whose book was falsely presented as the genuine testimony of a prison matron). If women represented a small portion of late Victorian and Edwardian prisoners, they were nevertheless a thorn in the side of many prison administrators and other moral entrepreneurs. Criminal women were often perceived as double deviants who had both flouted criminal law and moral law.
But once in prison, they also raised specific issues due to their supposed ‘natures’; portrayed as ‘women on the edge’ – of normality and femininity, but also of a nervous breakdown – they confronted the authorities with disciplinary issues that were interpreted as specifically feminine. They were portrayed as disturbed and disturbing. A bottom-up perspective on these women shows, however, that their disobedience often rhymed with defiance, and that their supposed instability was nothing more than non-conformity.