Confining Women: Labor, Motherhood, and Resistance in the 19th-Century Penitentiary

AHA Session 331
Sunday, January 8, 2017: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Mile High Ballroom 1C (Colorado Convention Center, Ballroom Level)
Theresa R. Jach, Houston Community College
Telisha Dionne Bailey, University of Mississippi

Session Abstract

These three papers are part of an edited volume about women in prison. The pieces consider the experiences of women imprisoned during the 19th century in three different states. The Virginia Penitentiary in Richmond, Louisiana State Penitentiary in Baton Rouge, and the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, were not only separated geographically, but also founded on distinctive ideological principles that impacted each prisoner’s sentence. The panelists address women in prison by examining the role of labor, motherhood, and resistance during imprisonment. 

In the first paper, “Captive Motherhood: Pregnancy, Labor, and Imprisonment in 19th century Virginia,” Hilary Coulson presents research on the Virginia Penitentiary and how the institution responded to the labor shortage created after the abolition of slavery. Coulson shows that the number of women in the penitentiary increased after the Civil War and explores the changing notions of womanhood and labor over the course of the 19th century. In the second paper, “Born in the Penitentiary: Women and Children Incarcerated in Louisiana, 1833-1862,” Brett Derbes discusses women and children in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Derbes argues the penitentiary in Louisiana incarcerated more African-American women with life sentences than any other southern state during the Antebellum Era and explores the presence of children in the institution. Derbes’ work discusses the implications of a large population of female inmates in prison and the reaction of the State to the children conceived and born in that institution during the Antebellum Era. Lastly, Erica Rhodes Hayden’s paper, “Letters from Inside: The Prison Writings of Elizabeth Velora Elwell of Eastern State Penitentiary, 1862,” examines a rare collection of letters from a female inmate in the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia in the midst of the Civil War. Hayden uses the letters of inmate Elizabeth Velora Elwell to explore the ways in which inmates resisted penitentiary regime that insisted on silence and reflection by finding their voice through the pen. Hayden observes the function of letter writing in the lives of inmates and those they communicated with—both inside and out of the prison walls. 

Our panel confronts a timely issue—the role of mass incarceration in American society.  Women are currently the fastest growing demographic of prisoners in the United States and examining the roots and functions of the prison system are crucial for understanding this growing trend. Analysis of women’s labor, the role of motherhood, as well as the role of female resistance to authority are all central components for understanding the genesis and evolution of mass incarceration in the United States. Together, these papers offer examples of women’s prison experiences in three different institutions. 

This panel will appeal to scholars interested in the 19th century, crime, punishment, institutions, labor, motherhood, gender, the South, reform movements, the Pennsylvania system, class, slavery, abolition, resistance, and the law.

See more of: AHA Sessions