The angel paradox: Elizabeth Fry and the role of gender and religion in nineteenth-century Britain
Matheuszik, Deanna Lynn
This dissertation analyzes intersections of religion, gender, and public policy in nineteenth-century Britain through the life of Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), a Quaker minister and prison reform activist who founded the British Ladies Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners. It examines gendered distinctions between public and private and the strategies women used to open up spaces within this “separate spheres” paradigm; attitudes about the relationship between private moral principles and public action; and the role religion and gender played in the tension between reformation and punishment in the criminal justice system and who was qualified to make knowledge claims about the female criminal. Religion played a key role in Fry’s prison reform activities, yet previous scholarship has not analyzed how religion became important to her identity. This dissertation draws on gender performativity scholarship to examine how Fry created her personal moral code and then manifested that ethic. When she began working in London’s Newgate prison in 1813, the venue was unusual for a woman—particularly one with young children. Her work in Newgate to improve prison conditions and reform prisoners, coupled with the public attention she received after an article about her work appeared in The Times in 1817, transformed her into an internationally-recognized activist for prison and criminal justice reform. In an era when legal and institutional barriers restricted women’s public sphere activities, Fry’s expert status enabled her to inspect over 100 prisons across the United Kingdom, work with government officials to enact criminal justice reforms, write about the importance of “women’s work,” and testify three times before Parliament. This dissertation deconstructs the meaning of and challenges to Fry’s celebrity during her lifetime. While celebrity was instrumental in making her activism possible, it was an unstable commodity that Fry actively managed in order to protect her personal reputation and public authority. Finally, the dissertation analyzes Victorian–era biographies of Fry, which constructed ideologically-driven narratives of her life that either championed her as a proto-feminist icon or hailed her as a model Christian woman.