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An instructive study on women and crime in the Victorian era

Partial Justice: Women in State Prisons, 1800-1935, by Nicole Hahn Rafter. Boston: Northeastern University Press. 269 pp. $22.95. What we make a crime and why says something about our society, but we would be hard pressed to say just what. It is even harder to interpret the standards of another time.

In her new book, Nicole Hahn Rafter, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University, describes how criminal codes dealt with and punished women in the years between 1800 and 1935. While her analysis is a tired mix of Marxist and feminist clich'es, the story she tells is extraordinary, and her research impressive.

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Her studies show that half the offenses that landed women in one New York reformatory were acts of sexual misconduct. Most of the women were not prostitutes; the offenses included truancy, premarital pregnancy, adultery, and keeping bad company. Many of the offenses were not crimes for men, and the few that were would not likely have been punished by prison terms.

But women were sent to prisons, and to reformatories. Ms. Rafter traces the development of both. Of Albion, the New York reformatory, she writes: ``. . . the institution served two primary functions: sexual and vocational regulation. It attempted the first by training `loose' young women to accept a standard of propriety that dictated chastity until marriage and fidelity thereafter. It tried to achieve the second by training charges in homemaking . . . techniques used to achieve these ends were usually indistinguishable.''

Using the treatment of men as a standard, she concludes that only partial justice was afforded women: Milder but more intrusive punishment was meted out for violations of a more exacting code. For women of those times, a small step off the Victorian pedestal made for a long fall.

The source of the vigor and appeal of Ms. Rafter's book is that her research goes deep enough to give a sense of the thinking of the time -- the social standards, and the culture. She has clearly broken ground with this study. And, having been funded in part by the Justice Department, it may do much to remedy the injustices she sees in today's prisons. But for all that, no research can verify some of her assumptions or nail down some of her broad conclusions.

She assumes, along with some feminists, that the liberation of women is primarily sexual. She also assumes, along with most Marxists, that the upper classes hold an almost mystical control over such things as codified law. Ms. Rafter concludes that the laws in the 1800s and early 1900s enforced a bourgeois sexual morality. She characterizes the reformatory as an attempt to invade the very psyche of women in prison. It was, she complains, a calculated or unconscious effort to acclimate them to middle-class values.

To train them in homemaking made them a solution to the servant problem felt by middle-class ``social feminists'' who dabbled in reform with their new-found free time. Their causes did not, however, include challenging the status quo or traditional gender roles.

``Indeed,'' Ms. Rafter asserts, ``if the fallen woman was not a victimized `sister' but rather an autonomous, deliberately sexual being, then the raison d'^etre of social feminists -- their concept of womanliness and, with it, the justification for their work -- was built on air. An unconscious sense of this danger also accounts for the reformers' fixation on the fallen woman and their desire to remake her in their own image.''

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Ms. Rafter leaves us with the pedestrian conclusion that the imprisoned women she describes were just fun-loving, cosmopolitan girls caught in the wrong century. For her, sexual morality was an arbitrary convention of the ruling class, tied more to class struggles than spiritual struggles. Morality has no business, therefore, being enforced by heavy-handed criminal codes, she feels.

Yes, it may be that sexual morality cannot and should not be enforced by criminal law. But that doesn't mean that sexual morality has no spiritual or religious underpinnings. It does not mean that morality is all habit and form.

However, a reader needn't agree with Ms. Rafter's anaylsis to find her book absorbing, and in it a well-researched warning. We should take care with our criminal codes. The language in them is often as vague, the offenses as trivial, and the punishment as unjust as Ms. Rafter found during the years from 1800 to 1935.

Carol DesLauriers Cieri has a law degree and some experience in criminal law.