‘What Shall We Do with the Young Prostitute? Reform Her or Neglect Her? ‘: Domestication as Reform at the New York State Reformatory for Women at Bedford, 1901–1913

Research conducted at the New York State Reformatory for Women at Bedford under the direction of founding superintendent Katharine Bement Davis produced some of the most influential data on prostitution in the Progressive Era. While Davis and Bedford have figured prominently in histories of the women’s prison reform movement, historical studies of the social response to prostitution in the Progressive Era, and feminist biographical accounts of women in early twentieth century reform crusades, the relationship between penal reform and the changing social organization of labor has been overlooked. This paper undertakes a critical reexamination of the Bedford data, demonstrating that while Davis advocated a social scientific approach to reform, she systematically displaced the significance of structural factors at two crucial levels: her studies of inmates and her own philosophy and practice of reform. Studies of inmates discounted the role of economic factors for women’s entry into prostitution in favor of explanations that emphasized familial and personal weakness. The institutionalization, training, and parole of inmates functioned not simply to place inmates in domestic service but to effectively disqualify them from other sources of respectable employment. Viewed through the lens of a social organization of labor perspective, a previously neglected dimension of the logic and practice of reform is illuminated.

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