"Plunged into a vortex of iniquity": Female Criminality and Punishment in Pennsylvania, 1820-1860
Hayden, Erica Rhodes
This dissertation explores female criminality and punishment in Pennsylvania from 1820 to 1860. I argue that antebellum society’s definitions of proper womanhood dictated women’s experiences as offenders and as convicted inmates. At the same time, female offenders, through their criminal behavior, actively, albeit unknowingly, helped to shape the same antebellum definitions of acceptable womanhood by exemplifying how not to behave. Once fallen from the realm of proper womanhood, female offenders faced continuous opposition in their pursuit to redeem their reputations. Societal expectations and definitions of respectability influenced the reasons why female offenders committed crimes, how they were treated as defendants during their criminal trials, their experiences as inmates in county and state prisons, and their relationships with reformers. This dissertation emphasizes the actions and experiences of the female offenders themselves, in an attempt to recover the experiences of the women – a shift from past studies focusing on the structure and leadership of penal institutions and reform organizations. My project takes into consideration not only antebellum gender issues, but also the influence of race, ethnicity, and class on female offenders’ experiences.