Maternal Justice: Miriam Van Waters and the Female Reform Tradition

Estelle B. Freedman, Author University of Chicago Press $39 (476p) ISBN 978-0-226-26149-2
In her biography of Miriam Van Waters, an obscure Massachusetts prison reformer, Stanford history professor Freedman rescues her subject from obscurity and uncovers a life story representative of a cohort of women. The daughter of an Episcopal minister, Van Waters believed in individual and cultural transformation through good works. Add to that her advanced education (she earned a doctorate in 1913) and a personal and political inheritance that maintained the power of maternal nurture, and you have the formula for the ""new woman"" turned ""municipal housekeeper."" Freedman recounts all the requisite themes: a conflict between a buoyant public image and a deep private insecurity; administrative travails that came with newfound authority; the painful lessons of playing politics with the big boys; and the family of women that nurtured and sustained her. Freedman's attention to this classic set of concerns makes Van Waters's ouster from her position as superintendent of the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women in 1949 an almost inevitable, epic climax. A failure, a loss and a betrayal, followed by a struggle for vindication, that crisis colors every strand and strain of Van Waters's life. Freedman's poised and accomplished book may sacrifice some of her subject's originality--she appears, at times, to be living a plot line--but this sympathetic biography reclaims Van Waters for history. (May)
Reviewed on: 05/13/1996
Release date: 05/01/1996
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