By Sarah Robertson
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Unruly Women

This article is over 10 years, 6 months old
Karlene Faith
Issue 364

The aim of this book, in the author’s words is to “examine female transgressions against social order and the ways by which women’s crimes and punishments refract the ideological constructions of gender”.

Eighteenth century England obligingly provides a crude example of this – a woman who “scolded” her husband (thereby disobeying his authority which extended from God through the King to all men) “could be chained and whipped in a public square, or made to wear the ‘brank’, a metal apparatus which fit over the head and into the mouth, with sharp points that cut into the woman’s tongue if she attempted to speak”.

The book is a commendable attempt to expose the varying ways women experience the sexism of the system that criminalises them, and the extent to which sexist ideas pervade the criminal justice system, medical professions and social institutions.

In the early 19th century, Elizabeth Fry’s “reformative” punishments attempted to solve the problem of criminal women by teaching them some “feminine” manners. One institution organised a “Clean Speech Society”, which dished out “clean speech” badges. “Good girls” could earn points towards early release, and the best behaved prisoners earned the privilege of serving the matron as her personal maid.

These ideas still shape women’s treatment in prisons, with imprisoned women being twice as likely to be punished for disobedience and disrespect as imprisoned men. The types of vocational courses on offer to women in prisons today are sewing, beauty, hairdressing, clerical work and industrial cleaning.

An analysis of the witch hunts in the 17th century and the horrifically misogynistic rhetoric surrounding them leads the author to make a tentative link with the recent emergence of the premenstrual syndrome defence for women, noting the fact that throughout history women’s deviant or criminal behaviour has been explained by some spiritual or medical deficiency.

One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry when a professional psychiatrist “treating” women in prisons explains a prisoner’s heroin addiction as the use of a heroin needle as a phallic substitute to satisfy her “penis envy”.

Incarceration is always a dehumanising experience. Women have the added burden of being vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation while incarcerated. Today sexual abuse and the exploitation of criminalised women by the police and prison officers are largely carried out with impunity. The uphill struggle to be believed when making a report of sexual abuse is multiplied tenfold if the woman is already a convicted criminal.

Unruly Women is published by Seven Stories Press, £12.99

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