Woven into the Web: A Short Chronology of Women and America’s Carceral Society

By: Nia Kaudo

Angela Davis
(Source: Getty, FBI’s Most Wanted posting for activist and scholar Angela Davis)

The month of March marks the International Celebration of the brave and resilient women of the world, who have fought against gender-based discrimination and survived calculated suppression and marginalization by every known civilization. This year’s Women’s Month was notably more salient as voices rang out far and wide against the harassment and violence in a wave of unity that will surely be remembered by the generations of women born out of this powerful moment of dignified reclamation. For the past year, BARS has strived to illustrate the plethora of issues conceived within America’s contemporary carceral society and how the interconnectedness of these elements reinforce the barriers protecting it. Therefore, it is both an honor and a responsibility to attempt to unearth the truth about women’s carcerated conditions in this land, beginning far before the idea of democracy was uttered on these shores.

The linkage between the Trans-Atlantic and later domestic American slave trade of black bodies and the massive rise of penal captivity has been the subject of increased scrutiny and focus in recent decades. The convergence of indigenous, European, and African women in overlapping spaces worked to create racial and class hierarchies and deterred potential alliances between the different groups of women. Notably, Native and Black women in 17th century North America were susceptible to enslavement and frequent relocation to the burgeoning colonial projects in the Caribbean and South American territories. New England in particular facilitated the capture of feared natives, who resisted the encroachment and destruction of their homes. Women taken from Africa were legally distinguished from white women in 1643 when the labor of Black women became taxable and was cemented in 1662 when it was declared children born to enslaved women would take the status of their mother. These laws worked to created what historian and Penn professor Dr. Kathleen Brown calls a cycle of “perpetual bondage”, which we recognize has continued into the present day[1].

White women were also subjected to conditions that historians often liken to a form of domestic slavery. Indentured servants from Great Britain in the 17th century made up a sizeable portion of the workforce. The women among these servants were exposed to harassment, violence, and often labor-induced death that rendered them disposable outliers in a white supremacist society where their unestablished privilege had yet to hold any substantial value.[2] It wasn’t until the trans-racial collaboration of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1675 induced widespread panic, that sources of servitude shifted from a mix of indentured servants from Europe to mostly just enslaved people from Africa.[3] Slavery continued to reduce the wellness, mobility, and lifetimes of women and girls born into its trap through the tail-end of the 19th century.

The turn of the century ushered in vocal proponents of women’s rights, who held conventions and protests to be endowed with political rights, namely the vote. With the industrialization of the North, poorer women also joined men in demanding the enactment of labor laws.[4] These women were seen as agitators and their gender did not preclude them from being targeted by the criminal justice system. Following abolition, sharecropping tied many Black women and their children to the land where their families had been enslaved during previous centuries, essentially regenerating a condition of servitude and dependence. Civil Rights legend Fannie Lou Hamer worked on a plantation her entire life and could pick 200-300 pounds of cotton a day by the time she was 13 years old in 1930. Hamer would go on to move the nation at a 1964 credentials committee meeting for the Democratic National Committee speaking on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, where she detailed how she was detained by Mississippi police for attempting to register voters and brutally beaten with a blackjack by two male inmates until they became tired out.[5]  Fannie Lou Hamer was among countless women during the 60s and 70s who were brutalized and subjected to some form of detainment as movements such as the Civil Rights, Chicano, Asian American, American Indian, Feminist, Gay Rights, Sexual Revolution and Anti-war protests surged on.

Women in Incarceration

After Nixon’s 1972 declaration of the War on Drugs women became subject to incarceration at significantly higher rates as the graph above indicates. Black women and Latino women were especially vulnerable to arrest following the overnight appearance of drugs throughout America’s urban environments.[6] In fact studies show, that despite the percentage of all women who were detained in state prisons for drug offenses increasing by 433% between 1986 and 1991; the increase for Black women was a staggering 828%, for Latino women 328%, while white women jumped to 241%.[7]The expansion of the carceral state had many implications, especially in regard to healthcare. Another study showed “incarceration and reentry affect not only the health of female prisoners, but also the much larger population of women with incarcerated male partners”.[8] Women’s role and relationship to the carceral exemplifies the pervasiveness of this issue. It illuminates the way in which America is willing to disregard its values and allegedly fundamental creeds to feed a system that is intent in consuming the vulnerable citizens sacrificed by society.

[1] Brown, Kathleen M. “Engendering Racial Differences” in Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill, Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, by the University of North Carolina Press.

[2] Slavery and Indentured Servants: Law Library of Congress. Accessed March 26, 2018. https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/awlaw3/slavery.html.

[3] “Bacon’s Rebellion.” Africans in America. Accessed March 26, 2018. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1p274.html.

[4] Cowie, Jefferson. “Working Class Interregnum” in The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics. Princeton University Press, 2016

[5] DeMuth, Jerry. “Fannie Lou Hamer: Tired of Being Sick and Tired.” The Nation. April 2, 2009. Accessed March 26, 2018. https://www.thenation.com/article/fannie-lou-hamer-tired-being-sick-and-tired/.

[6] Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2012.

[7] Chesney-Lind, Meda, and Lisa Pasko. The Female Offender: Girls, Women, and Crime. Sage, 2013.

[8] Rich, Josiah D., MD, MPH,Cortina, Sandra C., RN, MPH,Uvin, Zoe X,Dumont, Dora M., PhD, MPH, Rich, Josiah D, Cortina, Sandra C, Uvin, Zoe X, and Dumont, Dora M. “Women, Incarceration, and Health.” Women’s health issues. 23, no. 6 (n.d.): e333–e334.


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