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Prison Reform & Feminism (Prison Reform vs. Feminism?)

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In Daniel Lazare‘s smart and biting review of books about America’s incarceration culture, appearing in last week’s Nation, he highlights an incendiary argument from Marie Gottschalk’s book, The Prison and the Gallows (which I have not yet read but which is on my Amazon wishlist. Hint hint). Here’s Lazare’s take on Gottschalk:

Gottschalk’s assault on ’70s feminism is sure to raise the most eyebrows. She argues that the women’s movement helped facilitate the carceral state by promoting a punitive approach to sexual violence that was unmitigated by any larger political considerations. This single-minded focus led to what The Prison and the Gallows describes as unsavory coalitions with tough-on-crime types. In the State of Washington, women’s groups successfully marketed rape reform as a law-and-order issue so that, when the measure finally passed in 1975, it was “in part by riding on the coattails of a new death penalty statute.”

In California a new rape shield became known as the Robbins Rape Evidence Law, in honor of one of its legislative sponsors, a conservative Republican named Alan Robbins. In pressing for limits on the cross-examination of alleged rape victims, feminists “generally did not consider what effect such measures would have on a defendant’s right to due process,” Gottschalk adds, even though due process at the time was under assault from a growing war on crime. More radical elements, meanwhile, strayed into outright vigilantism. In Berkeley, antirape activists picketed an accused rapist’s home. In East Lansing in 1973, they “reportedly scrawled Rapist on a suspect’s car, spray-painted the word across a front porch and made warning telephone calls late at night.” In Los Angeles, a self-styled “antirape squad” vowed to shave rapists’ heads, cover them with dye and then photograph them for posters reading, This Man Rapes Women. A feminist publication called Aegis ran a notorious cover showing a gun with the warning, “You can’t rape a .38; we will defend ourselves.”

The National Rifle Association was no doubt delighted. Gottschalk contends that such activists wound up “profoundly co-opted,” since “by framing the rape issue around ‘horror stories,’ they fed into the victims’ movement’s compelling image of a society held hostage to a growing number of depraved, marauding criminals.” She notes that feminists threw themselves into the battle for the Violence Against Women Act, which passed in 1994 as part of an omnibus anticrime bill that “allocated nearly $10 billion for new prison construction, expanded the death penalty to cover more than fifty federal crimes, and added a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ provision mandating life imprisonment for federal offenders convicted of three violent offenses.” Yet feminists’ involvement was relatively modest two years later when a few liberals tried to rally opposition to Clinton’s plan to abolish Aid to Families With Dependent Children, which heavily benefited poor women. Like their nineteenth-century forebears, who advocated bringing back the whipping post to deal with wife beaters, late-twentieth-century feminists got more excited about punishment than defending the welfare state.

The trouble for me is this: Gottschalk is probably on to something. Which bothers the prison reformist part of my brain. But the fact that the feminist movement would be criticized for doing its part to protect women’s sexual autonomy also rankles me — men’s sexual power over women, sometimes expressed through rape, is a big part of what the second wave feminist movement was fighting against (and what third- and post-wavers continue to fight). This conflict is perhaps nowhere clearer than in my posts about exonerations: because of the availability of DNA in their cases, the vast majority of those exonerated were wrongly convicted of rape or rape/murder. The fight to hastily “get” alleged rapists and to make examples of them clashes with the desire to ensure that defendants’ due process rights are not infringed.

Prison reform and criminal defense work are not the only areas in which feminists have forged odd alliances in order to facilitate their goals (and in which they have allowed themselves to be co-opted after doing so). Most notoriously, Catharine MacKinnon worked with conservative Christians in her fight to ban pornography. But her alliance came back to bite her: the first books and films confiscated under the Canadian law based on her theories were from gay and lesbian shops.

Most damning to feminists, I think, is the movement’s general passivity (which Lazare notes) when it came to opposing laws that would hurt (predominantly poor and minority) women, like the 1996 Welfare “reform”. It’s not fair to feminism to make generalizations about the movement based on the old trope of the middle class white feminist leader. Feminists were, in 1996, on the whole opposed to the parts of the welfare law that incentivized marriage and allowed further intrusion into women’s private and sexual lives. Still, Gottschalk’s portrayal is not far off: historically, it’s been easier to rally the feminist movement offensively than it has been defensively. Reproductive rights advocacy is a stark exception to this, since we have always been on the defensive. But it’s not an exception that I think we should hold up as a model of effective feminist activism.

What to make of all of this? The tension I feel is a microcosm of the tension in the feminist movement: at what price women’s autonomy? Or at what price a less aggressively carcereal state? I’m not sure. This is uncomfortable and, I think, should remain so. Problematic alliances and mis-steps are part of any political movement. The question is how to resolve a tension that sometimes seems intractable.

(Also at Feministe)

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