Maternal Justice: Miriam Van Waters and the Female Reform Tradition

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Celebrated prison reformer Miriam Van Waters made history for her sensational battle to retain the superintendency of the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women in 1949. Maternal Justice provides a compelling biography of this early lesbian activist by moving beyond the controversy to tell the story of a remarkable woman whose success rested upon the power of her own charismatic leadership.

Estelle B. Freedman draws from Van Waters's diaries, letters, and personal papers to recreate her complex personal life, unveiling the disparity between Van Waters's public persona and her agonized private soul. With the power and elegance of a novel, Maternal Justice illuminates this historical context, casting light on the social welfare tradition, on women's history, on the American feminist movement, and on the history of sexuality.

"Maternal Justice is as much a work of history as it is biography, bringing to life not only a remarkable woman but also the complex political and social milieu within which she worked and lived."—Kelleher Jewett, The Nation

"This sympathetic biography reclaims Van Waters for history."—Publishers Weekly

"The Van Waters legacy, as Freedman gracefully presents, is that she cared about the lives of women behind bars. It is a strikingly unfashionable sentiment today."—Jane Meredith Adams, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, Editor's Recommended Selection

"This finely crafted biography is both an engrossing read and a richly complicated account of a reformer whose work . . . bridged the eras of voluntarist charitable activism and professional social service."—Sherri Broder, Women's Review of Books

"This is a sympathetic, highly personal biography, revealing of both the author's responses to her subject's life and, in considerable detail, Van Waters's family traumas, illnesses, and love affairs."—Elizabeth Israels Perry, Journal of American History

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In her biography of Miriam Van Waters, an obscure Massachusetts prison reformer, Stanford history professor Freedman rescues her subject from obscurity and uncovers a life story representative of a cohort of women. The daughter of an Episcopal minister, Van Waters believed in individual and cultural transformation through good works. Add to that her advanced education (she earned a doctorate in 1913) and a personal and political inheritance that maintained the power of maternal nurture, and you have the formula for the "new woman" turned "municipal housekeeper." Freedman recounts all the requisite themes: a conflict between a buoyant public image and a deep private insecurity; administrative travails that came with newfound authority; the painful lessons of playing politics with the big boys; and the family of women that nurtured and sustained her. Freedman's attention to this classic set of concerns makes Van Waters's ouster from her position as superintendent of the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women in 1949 an almost inevitable, epic climax. A failure, a loss and a betrayal, followed by a struggle for vindication, that crisis colors every strand and strain of Van Waters's life. Freedman's poised and accomplished book may sacrifice some of her subject's originality-she appears, at times, to be living a plot line-but this sympathetic biography reclaims Van Waters for history. (May)
Library Journal
Freedman (history, Stanford) has written a readable and scholarly biography of the crusader who devoted her life to applying progressive methods to the rehabilitation of incarcerated women and children. Van Waters's innovations often met with disapproval from conservative critics, and the belief that she tolerated homosexuality at the Farmington, Massachusetts, Reformatory for Women culminated in her dismissal from her post as head of that institution in 1945. Her appeals against this dismissal became a cause clbre in Massachusetts and resulted in her reinstatement. Although attempts to discredit her did not cease, neither did her efforts to help less fortunate women. Burton Rowles's 1962 biography of Van Waters is out of print, recommending this thorough work for all libraries.-Sharon Firestone, Ross-Blakley Law Lib., Arizona State Univ., Tempe
A biography of the women's prison reformer and superintendent of the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women, touching on her career, her relationships with important figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt, her life as a single mother of an adopted child, and her lesbian relationships. Draws on Van Waters' diaries, letters, and personal papers, and contains b&w photos. For those interested in the social welfare tradition, women's history, and the history of sexuality. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226261508
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/1998
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 476
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Estelle B. Freedman is the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in US History at Stanford University and the author of No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women.

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Table of Contents

Part I: 1887-1917
1. The Family Legacy
2. An Educated Woman
3. A Graduate Degree in Life
4. A New Career
Part II: 1917-1932
5. Surrogate Mother
6. A Colony of Reformers
7. In Conflict
8. In Love with a Child
9. Most Precious Possession
Part III: 1932-1949
10. Building the Framingham Symphony
11. Mother of Us All
12. Guardian Angel
13. Storm Center in Framingham
14. The Van Waters Case
15. In the Matter of the Removal of Dr. Miriam Van Waters
Part IV: 1949-1974
16. End of an Era
17. Lifeline
Epilogue: The Superintendent's House

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