Gender, Class and Incarceration

It’s September and thousands of young women are settling into institutions of higher learning, committed to making the best possible lives for themselves. Since the 1970s, women have increasingly outnumbered men on college campuses. The present female-male ratio is 55 percent to 45 percent. At Columbia University where I’ve taught for over 20 years, more and more women are the academic stars.

There’s a very different sort of institution in which women have also been outperforming men. It’s an institution fueled by gender inequality in which women are ignored and mistreated and any hope they have for self-improvement withers and dies.

The reality is that more and more women with economic and social advantages attend institutions of high learning, and women without those advantages increasingly find themselves in penal institutions.

The difference between these two groups is not just economic, it’s also gendered. Studies of impoverished women worldwide show that when girls are encouraged to reject traditional roles, their economic power increases. In the U.S., recent studies offer evidence that restrictive gender roles contribute to the persistence of poverty among women.

As a volunteer in Columbia’s Justice-in-Education Initiative, I know something about the challenges my incarcerated students faced as girls. I hear stories of abuse, self-medication, and lack of encouragement, but also the need to find a man and have a kid. The girls who wanted to have sex with girls were bullied to have boyfriends, the ones who wanted to shed traditional gender roles were told to be normal. My students’ personal essays are full of stories about fathers telling them to be more lady-like and boyfriends expecting them to attend to the kids.

The difference between 1970 and now in the opportunities available to U.S. women is extraordinary. Experts site a variety of factors in the rise of women’s rate of higher education. But fundamentally the point is this: since 1970 middle to high-income women have shed traditional gender restrictions. Between the 1950s and 1970s, college educated women tended to marry within a year of graduation. By 1985, the average age was 25 and has been slowly rising ever since. The shift in expectation about the appropriate age for marriage and children—and even whether women would have children—allowed many to reconsider their goals in school.

The availability of birth control and the possibility of having a career made it rational for young women to invest time and energy in their education. Instead of following in their mothers’ footsteps, they aimed to have careers and not just jobs. Girls begin to prepare themselves in high school to maximize their options and attain economic power. Despite nagging discrimination, they are now excelling.

Contrast this progress with the plight of women in impoverished communities. Disadvantaged women—whether they’re from Appalachia, south Texas, or Detroit—are segregated into low paying jobs with little opportunity to enter traditionally male career paths—like construction, mechanical repair, or energy —that promise stable benefits and bigger salaries.

And now an increasing number of these women are finding their way to jail.

Since 1970, the number of female prisoners held in local jails—where people are booked and held prior to conviction—has increased 14-fold, accounting for roughly half of U.S. women behind bars. Many of these women are jailed because they’re too poor to pay bail. At least 60 percent of them are Black and Latina.

A recent report by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Safety and Justice Challenge reveals startling facts about jailed women and their treatment. A shocking 86 percent have suffered sexual violence. Nearly 80 percent have young children. Unlike their male counterparts, most are single parents struggling to make ends meet. They are often arrested, in words of the Vera Institute “as a result of efforts to cope with life challenges such as poverty, unemployment, and significant physical or behavioral health struggles, including those related to past histories of trauma, mental illness, or substance use.”

Despite the trauma they’ve suffered, these women’s basic needs will not be met once incarcerated. The local authorities who oversee jails ignore basic facts about women’s bodies. Some fail to distribute adequate sanitary napkins and clean underwear during menstrual periods. Many are oblivious to the fact that women have more chronic illnesses than men, higher rates of drug and alcohol dependence, and a much greater chance of suffering from “a serious mental illness.” With staff untrained in women’s health issues, signs of PTSD and mental illness go unnoticed. The majority of jailed women—even survivors of sexual assault—must be stripped searched and probed while naked by men in uniforms.

As the Guardian has recently reported, “in addition to often entering jail in more perilous situations than men, women also tend to leave more damaged as well… even though women are much less likely than men to be in jail for the commission of a violent or otherwise serious crime.”

As a professor at Columbia, I work with low-income and first-generation students who are navigating the challenges of our elitist institution and the privileged people within it. It is not easy for them. But each and every one of the women with whom I’ve worked has someone in her life—whether parent, teacher, or coach—who told her she could be whatever she wanted to be. Although economically deprived, they had emotional and social support. A single father raised one of the most imaginative students I’ve ever had, supporting her through their years of homelessness, always insisting that her brilliance and hard work would pay off. He was right. She’ll graduate from Columbia College this May.

The radical difference between the two groups of women I teach is not hard to understand. When girls are encouraged, educated, and protected, they reimagine traditional gender roles and excel. When they’re ignored, victimized, and restricted to traditional roles, they do not. We need to attend to the economic needs and safety of all of our girls, but we also need to insure that they have the opportunity to escape the traditional gender roles that restrict their opportunities. 




Christia Mercer is the Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. She teaches philosophy and literature at Taconic Correctional Facilities as part of Columbia’s Justice-in-Education Initiative. She tweets @christiamercer8.