Miriam Van Waters

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Miriam Van Waters (1887–1974) was an early American feminist social worker and Episcopalian leader of the Social Gospel movement.[1] She served as superintendent of the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women at Framingham (1932–1957). Estelle Freedman wrote a biography of Van Waters in the mid-nineties, and provided historical and social context for her professional work as social worker and prison superintendent in her earlier social history of women's prisons.

Early life and career[edit]

Miriam Van Waters was a liberal mainline Protestant Christian, daughter to a member of the clergy, Rev. George Browne Van Waters, an Episcopalian priest. She was a practitioner of the "Social Gospel" associated with that current of Christian faith, and believed in prisoner rehabilitation as an important element within a broader context of social reform. She earned a doctorate in anthropology from Clark University, then went on to work as a probation officer at the Boston Children's Aid Society. With other female social reformers, she developed a number of specialist juvenile rehabilitation and reform facilities in California, such as the Frazer Detention Home (Portland, Oregon) and El Retiro School for Girls (Los Angeles), which sought to assist girls to develop self-esteem and embark on the road to rehabilitated social behavior. She also served as a referee at the Los Angeles Juvenile Court (1920-1930).

Massachusetts Reformatory for Women: 1932-1957[edit]

In 1932, Van Waters began a long-term appointment as superintendent at the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women at Framingham, succeeding Jessie Donaldson Hodder. She served as superintendent of that institution for the next quarter-century. Most of the inmates were serving time for prostitution, extramarital sex, or alcoholism. Her feminist principles led to an emphasis on rehabilitation during her period as superintendent, and are reflected in her active staff recruitment programmes. She developed a donor base amongst female philanthropists, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Addams, Margaret Mead, Ethel Sturges Dummer, and Frances Perkins.

While inmates worked on industrial concerns like manufacturing clothing and flags, or working in the kitchens and prison farm unit, Van Waters also developed educational opportunities for the inmates, such as an art and crafts course, literary class, drama class, prison newspaper, hikers club and a parole club, which networked with other Massachusetts social reform and rehabilitation agencies outside the prison. She also pioneered separate accommodation for younger inmates as well as nursing mothers, who were allowed to keep their children with them until the latter were fostered out at two years of age. When the state legislature tried to separate infants from nursing mothers, Van Waters successfully lobbied against the proposed legislation.

Van Waters was also a closeted lesbian during this period, and in fact, it was a 'moral panic' against 'prison lesbianism' that almost led to her dismissal as a superintendent in 1949. At this time, her successful female networks were to prove indispensable in prompting widespread protest from Episcopal, Jewish and Catholic clergy, the Massachusetts State Federation of Women's Clubs, Massachusetts Council of Churches, National Council of Jewish Women and Americans for Democratic Action.

Bain News Service/LOC ggbain.31906. Geraldine Thompson

However, Van Waters herself eluded 'outing' although she sacrificed mementos of her past, such as two decades-worth of romantic letters from her lifelong companion, Geraldine Thompson (1872–1967). Given strong public support, she weathered this storm. It was to be another eight years before she entered well-earned retirement after her life of public service.

Retirement: 1957-1974[edit]

After her retirement, Van Waters moved into an apartment with two former inmates and staff members from the Massachusetts Reformatory. According to her biographer, Estelle Freedman,[note 1] she did not slow down in retirement, and tirelessly still campaigned for greater prison reform, civil rights, and abolition of the death penalty, which she abhorred. She respected Martin Luther King, but muscular dystrophy and a hip fracture meant that she was unable to personally participate in the cause of civil rights as much as she, a lifelong anti-racist, would have liked. This did not prevent her from participation in the Community of the Holy Spirit, a reform-minded Episcopal women's social service ministry, during the sixties.

As time went on, however, her friends began to pass away. Van Waters and Geraldine Thompson remained lovers, and participated in joint social activities like membership of the Audubon Society. Sadly, Thompson predeceased her, and died in 1967. In 1972, Van Waters experienced a minor stroke, but her remaining friends and associates were concerned at what it might mean. In January 1974, Miriam Van Waters died. Although Estelle Freedman relates that her former onsite superintendent’s house is still there, it has not fared well in a harsher and more punitive penal environment.


  1. ^ E. Freedman, Maternal Justice (1996).


  • Miriam Van Waters: The Adolescent Girl Among Primitive Peoples: 1913
  • Miriam Van Waters: "Where Girls Go Right": Survey Graphic 27 May 1922.
  • Miriam Van Waters: Youth in Conflict: New York: Republic Publishing Company: 1925
  • Miriam Van Waters: Parents on Probation:New York: Republic Publishing Company: 1927.
  • Estelle Freedman: Their Sisters Keepers: Female Prison Reform in America: 1830-1930: Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press: 1981: ISBN 0-472-10008-4
  • Estelle Freedman: Maternal Justice: Miriam Van Waters and the Female Reform Tradition: Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1996: ISBN 0-226-26149-2
  • Estelle Freedman: "Separatism Revisited: Women's Institutions, Social Reform and the Case of Miriam Van Waters", "The Prison Lesbian: Race, Class and the Construction of the Aggressive Female Homosexual (1915-1965)" and "The Burning of Letters Continues: Elusive Identities and the Historical Construction of Sexuality" in Estelle Freedman: Feminism, Sexuality and Politics: Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press: 2006: ISBN 0-8078-5694-0
  • Burton Rowles: The Lady at Box 99: The Story of Miriam Van Waters: New York: Seabury Press: 1962

External links[edit]

  1. ^ John F. Woolverton, Robert H. Gardiner and the Reunification of Worldwide Christianity in the Progressive Era (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press 2005) p. 8