If She Doesn’t Conform, The Prison Will Reform

Women are put behind bars for not staying in “their place.”

What Is A Women’s “Place?”

Through normal day conversation to the different forms of media, we’ve commonly heard the phrases “women should stay in their place,” “a woman’s place is in the kitchen,” “she should learn her place,” etc. These phrases are nothing new, in fact, we’ve most likely heard them more than once at one point or another. But what is this “place” that is expected and set so strictly for women? This phenomenon of women fulfilling their roles and being in their place can be traced all the way back to the ancient Greeks in which the playwright, Aeschylus, very similarly wrote “Let women stay at home and hold their peace.” Since then, society has carried out a specific set of standards for women to maintain strictly because of their gender. The “place” is where women are restricted to act and perform within certain guidelines and are only appreciated when doing so. Within these guidelines, women must play the perfect part of managing the household, reproducing the next generation, catering to their husband, and taking care of childcare responsibilities. All the while, females are supposed to conform to the stereotype of femininity which implies that women should follow the cultural standard of being inferior, sensitive, weak and undesirable as opposed to their partners. These descriptions have been so normalized within our society that we even see women in “their places” in movies, advertisements and other types of media. Women are almost not allowed to be anything other than these expectations, just as males can’t be anything but masculine, which is defined as the complete opposite of how femininity is described. Even if women were to have masculine characteristics, they would have to lose them which ultimately means giving up characteristics that make them who they are. “The idealized women…is stripped of her essential human qualities” says bell hooks in “The Imperialism of Patriarchy” (111). It is as if females need to act the part in order to keep things running smoothly in society. If they don’t or refuse to meet the expectations set up for them, they are looked down upon and punished for it by their husbands and others. Sometimes women were even put into prisons in order to try to reform them into being the typical female role.

Victim And Perpetrator

Angela Davis clearly describes the relationship between women being the victim and women also being the perpetrator when analyzing the prison system. She wrote that “women’s imprisonment constructs women prisoners as “female offenders,” while…male violence against women constructs women as “victims” of crime (Belknap 1996). In the first instance, women are perpetrators and in the second, they are victims” (5). A lot of the time we see women who are victimized, but they can also be seen as the perpetrator. Domestic violence within the home, in which a husband abuses their wife, is when the women is the one who is victimized, often times for not staying in their place. But when women fight back for their own sake or for their child’s, they are then the “female offender.” Sometimes women feel the need to protect themselves even if it means through violent actions or refusal, but in the end they get punished for it anyway by going to prison. In fact, in the state of California, “ a prison study found that 93 percent of the women who had killed their significant others had been abused by them.” Popular cases, such as the one with Marissa Alexander, receive plenty of attention because women who protect themselves are the perpetrators and are sentenced to prison for their act of defense.

Marissa Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband

Prison Reform

Many times, women were seen as insane for their actions and were sent to prison in hopes to be reformed into being the women that they are supposed to be. It was normalized for a man in prison to be seen as a criminal, while on the other hand, a women was seen as crazy because they didn’t fit their feminine roles. Men were thought to be tough and fight often and so it made sense that they became criminals, but once a women stops being the fragile and weak individual that is expected of her, she is mentally unstable. Prisons were meant to reform women and in order to do so they would make women do labor that fit their gender role. Davis states that “the reformatory cottages were usually designed with kitchens, living rooms, and even some nurseries for prisoners with infants” in order to get them back into the state of being the ideal women. Women prisons were made for women to reflect on their mistakes of stepping out of their roles, reinforce their gender roles and make them fit again to play their part in society.