MATERNAL JUSTICE by Estelle B. Freedman


Miriam Van Waters and the Female Reform Tradition
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 Freedman (History/Stanford), author of a previous book on prison reform, tackles the commanding Miriam Van Waters, an early prison reformer and feminist. Van Waters grew up in Oregon, the eldest child of an open-minded minister and a mother who suffered from nerves. After obtaining her undergraduate and master's degrees in philosophy, Van Waters obtained a Ph.D. in anthropology. Whether it was from some innate sense of duty or from years of caring for her siblings and her mother, Van Waters became an ardent believer that even the most hardened female criminal was salvageable. She returned to the West Coast for a tour of duty in California's juvenile court system, where she obtained the rank of judge and was famous for her tongue-lashings of men who had abandoned pregnant girlfriends. She left in 1932 with her adopted child, Sarah, and made her way to the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women, where she would become superintendent. A compelling presence, Van Waters used such basic tools as trust and friendship to effect a change in the prisoners, whom she elected to call ``students.'' This period of Van Waters's work is the most exciting, complete with a political effort to remove her from office on charges that she condoned homosexuality in the prison. However, Freedman avoids a fuller account of Van Waters's prison and focuses instead upon proving, with diary entries and letters, that Van Waters was herself a lesbian. The reformer's letters to Geraldine Thompson, her benefactor and a friend to Eleanor Roosevelt, are frankly obvious, and the legacy of Van Waters's prison reform becomes a bit lost amid long evaluations of this relationship. A fascinating and brilliant woman, whose personality shines through sometimes plodding and digressive prose. (40 photos, not seen)

Pub Date: May 15th, 1996
ISBN: 0-226-26149-2
Page count: 456pp
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1996