Women, History, Invisibility and Prisons

Historical records evidence that the development of female prisons is closely related to the development of male prisons; however, denying a history of female prisoners in its own right fosters a stagnation in the discipline.

S Menis

Women, History, Invisibility and Prisons: A contribution to the Women’s History Month

Susanna Menis is a Lecturer in Law at Birkbeck London University, School of Law. Her recent book provides a revisionist prison history which brings to the forefront the relationship between gender and policy. It examines women’s prisons in England since the late 18th century to the beginning of the 20th century.

Historical criminology research on prisons in England comes across as genderless. Yet, these histories reflect the story of male prisons (Naffine, 1997) – not least because, there have been many historical records to draw upon. When we say the ‘invisibility’ of female prisoners, it is meant to suggest that the experiences and needs of women have been ignored. Many have argued that prisons are ‘a man’s world; made for men, by men’, and as a consequence, women have been subjected to regimes designed to deal with the needs faced by the larger prison population, that of men (Heidensohn and Silvestri, 2012; Priestley, 1999; Heidensohn, 1985). When attempts are made to examine the history of female prisons, because, as put by Zedner (1994:100) ‘to suggest that they [women prisoners] were simply “not foreseen” is patently implausible’ – requests are made for comparative analysis (Garland, 1993; Wiener, 1993). It is this sort of intellectual chastisement that has fostered the reproduction of theoretical frameworks shaped upon ‘a masculinist vision of the past’ (Spongberg, 2002:3).

The historiography of women in prisons in England is small (e.g. Smith, 1962; Heidensohn, 1985; Dobash et al., 1986). These (hi)stories however, have used at face value traditional and/or revisionist prison historiography to contextualise the history of female prisons: hence, failing to reclaim women’s subjectivity to a great extent (with the exception of Zedner, 1994). Instead, historical primary sources evidence that despite their small numbers in comparison to men, penal policy was as concerned, proportionally, with female prisoners as it was with the male prisoner (Menis, 2020).

The discourse of the invisibility of female prisoners has lots to do with the taking at face value, the (hi)stories told about the separate and the silent systems. These were prison regimes imported from America in the 1840s because they were financially convenient, requiring minimal contact with the prisoner. They were adopted inconsistently and interchangeably, initially, in the three national penitentiaries: Pentonville, Millbank and Brixton (Menis, 2020). We know lots about these regimes, because volumes have been written on them. However, what is missing from such narratives is that the few women sentenced to the national penitentiaries were subjected to a specific female-version of the regime; also, the majority of women, because of the nature of their offence, were sent to local prisons, where the two American prison regimes were applied unsystematically.

Social reformers such as Mary Carpenter, clearly acknowledged the importance of having in female prisons a different penal regime than in male prisons because ‘there is a very great difference between the inmates’ (1864: 207). Partly, this was informed by the understanding that imprisonment for women was recognised as a hindrance to social integration and the regaining of respectability for work and marriage purposes. Indeed, female convicts were transferred, towards the end of their sentences, to Fulham Refuge. This was aimed at ‘erasing the considerable stigma of being recognised as a female ex-convict’ (Zedner, 1991:171). As explained by Fulham Refuge’s governor, they hoped that people who might be intimidated by the idea of employing female ex-prisoners could ‘be induced to take them from a benevolent institution such as a refuge’ (Revd J.H. Moran (1854), quoted in Zedner, 1991:182). Also Du Cane (1885:170) considered that ‘these “refuges” were not prisons either in appearance or in discipline—they were homes and intended to afford the advantages of a treatment approaching in its characteristics to that of home influence’. However, from 1888 Fulham was reinstated as a ‘prison’, and for the next eight years female convicts were accommodated only in Woking prison; from 1896 it was only Aylesbury prison housing the small numbers of female convicts: on an average day in 1897, 202 women were recorded as present, having the yearly average reception standing at less than 50 (Report of the Commissioners of Prisons and Directors of Convict Prisons for the year 1896-1897, 1897:10, 43).

Most women, however, were sent to the 65 local prisons around the country. The second Prison Commission report for 1879 and Susan Fletcher’s memoir (1884) provide a valuable insight into the regime applied in these local prisons. By the end of 31 March 1879, only 63 prisons also housed women, and only Westminster gaol was a female-only prison. These prisons could have had a daily average population of as few as one woman (e.g. Southwell) and as many as 500 women at one time (e.g. Westminster and Liverpool). The Report tells us that only Lancaster goal employed women in gum breaking and cotton picking; otherwise, policy informed by (as we identify it now) stereotypical understanding of femininity and womanhood, meant that female prisoners were subject predominantly to employment in housekeeping. Susan confirms that also later in the century, the ‘hard labour’ she was sentenced to was ‘rather a myth’; as far as she was concerned, she ‘did a little knitting’ because she liked it, ‘but not an hour’s hard labour during the twelve months’ (1884:337).

Historical records evidence that the development of female prisons is closely related to the development of male prisons (Menis, 2020); however, denying a history of female prisoners in its own right fosters a stagnation in the discipline. The uncritical assertion of women’s ‘invisibility’ has led researchers to neglect the contribution of policy specifically concerning the female prison population in the shaping of mainstream prison policy. However, let us not confuse ‘bad’ with ‘different’; prison regimes have left much to be desired for, whether you were (are) a man or a woman. When first arriving to Westminster gaol, Susan Fletcher was faced with the ‘filthy horrors of the reception’. She describes in her memoir how ‘all wash from one tank, and wipe on one towel, and the poor women, wild with grief, or crazy with delirium-tremens, are screaming in the reception-cells’. Despite still being served bacon and beans during her stay (in 1879 the Prison Commission requested for these items to be removed), Susan thought that the food was not nutritious; her ring, which ‘fitted so tightly’ when she had just arrived to prison ‘came off very easily’ after only a week in custody. While waiting to progress to a position of trust (e.g. work in the kitchen and laundry), Susan had to spend 23 hours of the day in her cell. In that regard, she said (1884:320-1, 329):

A saint might grow more saintly by such a discipline, perhaps; but even a saint’s body could hardly get more healthy. Common men and women, social beings, with all their best instincts unsatisfied and blighted, must be made worse in every way by such unnatural conditions.

Women’s History Month raises awareness by documenting, acknowledging and celebrating women’s lives; it is about reclaiming historical ownership for experiences which have been kept muted. To find out more including relevant events:

Women Making Waves https://www.rmg.co.uk/see-do/women

Alternative arts http://www.alternativearts.co.uk/womens-history-month/4581216304

Women’s History Network https://womenshistorynetwork.org/



Carpenter M (1864) Our convicts. London: Longman, Vol 2.

Dobash RP, Dobash ER and Gutteridge S (1986) The Imprisonment of Women. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Du Cane E (1885) The Punishment and Prevention of Crime. London: Macmillan and Co.

Fletcher SW (1884) Twelve months in an English prison. Boston: Lee and Shepard.

Heidensohn F (1985), Women and Crime. London: Macmillan.

Heidensohn F and Silvestri (2012) Gender and Crime. In Maguire M, Morgan R, and Reiner R (ed.) The Oxford handbook of criminology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 5th edn, pp.336-361.

Menis S (2020) A History of Women’s Prisons in England: The Myth of Prisoners Reformation. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Naffine N (1997) Feminism and Criminology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Rafter NH (1983) Prisons for Women, 1790-1980. Crime and Justice 5: 129-181.

Priestley P (1999), Victorian prison lives. London: Pimlico.

Smith A (1962) Women in Prison. London: Stevens & Sons.

Spongberg M (2002) Writing Women History since the Renaissance. Palgrave Macmillan.

Zedner L (1994) Women crime and custody in Victorian England. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Second Report of The Commissioners of Prisons (1879). London: HMSO.

Report of the Commissioners of Prisons and Directors of Convict Prisons for the year 1896-1897 (1897). London: HMSO.



Susanna Menis, School of Law, Birkbeck, University of London

Email: s.menis@bbk.ac.uk


Images: courtesy of the author and permission given by artist, for Woman in a cell © Noriko Hisazumi 2019

Do we know enough now?

Academics need to engage with policy makers and the public to implement what we already know about the causes of crime and the implications of law and order policies.

Barry GodfreyBarry Godfrey is Professor of Social Justice and has published over twenty books on the history of crime. He is currently editing a Special Edition of the Howard League Journal on the impact of crime history.



There have been thousands of studies of criminal behavior and of society’s attempts to control it over the last two centuries. Academics think that even more research will enlarge, challenge, and refine our knowledge, and indeed it will. However, because – or perhaps despite of – the vast number of academics now involved in the criminological enterprise, there is considerable agreement about the causes and consequences of crime and punishment.

Historians of crime would find a similar consensus. The vast majority agree that crime is a social and historical construct; that institutions of control are shaped by their histories; that class, gender, and race all conditioned treatment in, and by, the criminal justice system (and still do); that economic inequalities were broadly linked to crime (and still are); and that society has long relied on ineffective nineteenth century forms of punishment (and still does).

I accept that these conclusions lack nuance. Different viewpoints, theoretical perspectives, and empirical wrangles are important, but I would suggest that any differences are dwarfed by the general agreement. Internal liturgical debates are important to us, but not to the general public and are confusing for policy makers (who often find our debates exclusionary, irrelevant, and frankly, bewildering). I am coming around to their point of view. At the very least, we should concede that our research is sometime incomprehensible to ‘outsiders’ and is not user-friendly to anyone who might transform it into practice or policy. Given that we have a common(ish) platform of academic understanding about crime, I would join others to argue that the greatest challenge for academics is for us to use our research to create a strong, meaningful, and persuasive dialogue which influences policy makers to improve the criminal justice system, and to engender more positive public attitudes towards offenders and ex-offenders.

In 2002 Paul Wiles noted that there was a growing gap between academic and public debate, lamenting that we have ‘lost the knack of engaging’. Sociology seems to do much better – according to Michael Burawoy in his Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association.  Later, in 2010, Uggen and Inderbitzen encouraged criminologists to follow the sociological lead in order to bring together “empirically sound research and comprehensible messages to diverse publics”. This meets the zeitgeist. The ‘impact agenda’ of various research exercises in the UK and elsewhere is of course a half-hearted and largely ‘half-arsed’ attempt to measure our worth in terms and criteria not of our choosing, but it has undoubtedly encouraged a greater level of engagement between academia and policymakers/practitioners. We are also in the business of making sure that our research ‘does something’ to improve policy and practice whether we like it or not. If we fail to engage with the policy realm, then are we at best academic parvenus, at worst a costly (remembering that most of our research is publicly funded) irrelevance?

Having influence over policy and practice is not easy to arrive by, of course. There are unforeseen consequences, and even the predictable outcomes are complex. Policy makers have different agendas, often serve political interests which are antipathetic to our own and require simplicity where we privilege complexity. For every example of the policy realm successfully using our research, there is a disaster story; yet for every disaster story, there is an example of our research being successfully used.

Teaching crime history and criminology may be the biggest impact any of us will have. Our lectures later become the common-sense attitudes towards crime that thousands of students take with them as they graduate from universities every year. However, we also know that sharper and more direct relationships with partners outside of the university can lead to more immediate positive impacts on society. Changing attitudes amongst the student body, hoping that our teaching will cause them to be more pro-social in the future, is a long game. To address the multiple crises society faces today, we need something quicker. We need to press our case. I am not, by any means, suggesting that we stop doing research. That would be perverse given the advantages and opportunities afforded by the second data revolution and the conjunction of readily available digitized crime records, the development of visual methods, and the number and increasing diversity of crime historians nationally and internationally. It would also, I suspect, go against the fundamental essence of being a researcher: research is what we like to do. However, we now have a broad consensus about the causes and consequences of crime, and the shaping of that consensus seems to demand action.  None of us are happy that there are still so many biases in the system, that Victorian penology still predominates, and that class and race still determine outcomes in the criminal justice process. So, is it now time to devote our efforts, not to collecting more and more evidence, but to use what we already know to influence others, and to bring about the change that we, and society, needs?


Professor Barry Godfrey, University of Liverpool

Email: Barry.Godfrey@Liverpool.ac.uk

Copyright free images courtesy of author