From Rebecca Onion in Slate, a great piece about inmates at America’s oldest women’s prison rewriting the history of its benevolent Quaker founders. Prisoners researching the history of the institution found that the common story didn’t line up with what they found:
“a feel-good story” about Quaker reformers rescuing women from abuse in men’s prisons and turned it into a darker, more complicated tale.
This article on the Quaker two Quaker women who started a prison in Indiana in 1873 who turn out not to be the benevolent figures handed down by history should not be terribly surprising.
A lot of 19th century Quaker reformist activity was equal parts interesting and horrid. There was a lot of condescension toward lower classes–Quaker scientists did some of the earliest eugenics studies and one working in South Jersey coined the word “moron” to label people of inferior genetics.
Another type of Quaker social work consisted of scrubbing the ethnicity and quirkiness out of social inferiors. There’s a great set of before and after pictures in Still Philadelphia: A Photographic History, 1890–1940 that shows an immigrant slum kitchen after the Quaker-connected Octavia Hill Association got through with it. They took down wallpaper and swept the place–as if mantlepiece clutter were to blame for the institutionalized poverty and racism these immigrants faced.
And yet… Some of these reformers’ work looks good on paper. The Octavia Hill renovation included adding a new window in the kitchen. Cleaning up ghettos and acclimatizing new immigrants to the unwritten norms of their new homeland is useful. I wonder if part of the problem is that these reformers weren’t asking the more radical questions–Why were immigrants fleeing here? Why were they being offered better jobs? Who profited by keeping them scared and desperate?
The twenty-first century inmates writing this new history have some perspective on this. They’re asking why women committing petty crimes were incarcerated while one of the prison’s co-founders lived off of the gains of an husband who embezzled large amounts of money.
In many ways this echoes the current discussions of white privilege. Crime was not then and is not now enforced equally. In Ferguson most of the town was literally classified as criminals based on the most subjective of broken laws. As pillars of the community Quakers were given a pass, both by outsiders and within our own ranks. We must ask hard questions about seemingly-neutral conflicts which result is ongoing patterns and we must constantly pay attention to who’s defining the definitions.
Also of interest: a long account of Rhonda Coffin (pictured), the prison co-founder whose husband lost the fortune (and who was later drummed out of Friends). She’s a fascinating and complicated figure at the forefront of the tectonic changes then occurring among Indiana Friends: wealthy, Evangelical, a social reformist and support of revivals. She argued for feminine values when establishing a prison and yet was stepping out of “traditional” female role herself by doing this work.