Thursday, October 04, 2012
Miriam Van Waters, ca. 1920Miriam Van Waters, ca. 1920

Miriam Van Waters, juvenile court and prison reformer, influenced extant penal education methodologies with her contention that remediation for criminal infractions commences with the holistic care and education of the offender. From 1932 to 1957, Van Waters served as the warden of the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women, where her students actualized her credo of the exigency of a progressive education while they served sentences for crimes ranging from stubbornness to murder. Miriam Van Waters graduated from St. Helen’s Hall in Portland, Oregon (1904), and the University of Oregon (1908 and 1910) and received a PhD in anthropology from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts (1913).

From 1913 to 1932, Van Waters devoted her career to manifold aspects of juvenile care and social reform. She served as a special agent for the Boston Children’s Aid Society, the superintendent of the Frazer Detention Home in Portland, Oregon, the superintendent of Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles County, California, the director of the El Retiro School for Girls in Los Angeles, and a referee of the juvenile court in Los Angeles. Van Waters also served on the juvenile delinquency section of the Harvard Law School Crime Survey, which began in 1926, and as a consultant on juvenile delinquency for the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (also known as the Wickersham Commission), from 1928 to 1931. Throughout this period, she contributed to other government and university committees and commissions, participated in various professional organizations, delivered speeches and lectures, and wrote two books, Youth in Conflict (1925) and Parents on Probation (1927).

Delving into Miriam Van Waters’s ideological convergence of penal reform and the Social Gospel movement serves as a case study in post-suffrage women’s civil history. She affiliated herself with private, religious, and activist groups to effect her agenda. In 1949, the case of Commissioner of Correction Elliott McDowell versus the head of the Women’s Reformatory at Framingham remained front-page news in Boston newspapers for many months, highlighting the superintendent’s legal case from her firing through to her appeal and reinstatement. 

Student Art Display at the Massachusetts Reformatory for WomenStudent Art Display at the Massachusetts Reformatory for WomenVan Waters’s testimony countered conservative scrutiny toward homosexuality at the reformatory and minimized further interrogations by deferring to the established psychological definition of homosexuality: homosexuals should not be prosecuted because they could be treated. In effect, she dismissed the theocratic opposition to homosexuality by reiterating the accredited medical and legal definitions of homosexuality and, in doing so, devised some political privacy for lesbian identity. Van Waters had herself recently destroyed numerous letters she considered among her dearest possessions: correspondence from 22 years with partner Geraldine Thompson. Epistemological analysis of Miriam Van Waters’s papers and photographs as we celebrate her quasquicentennial will prove gratifying for library patrons with diverse research interests.  

For more, please see the finding aid to the Miriam Van Waters Papers at the Schlesinger Library. 

Photographs are available through Harvard’s Visual Information Access database (VIA).