September 2011

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

nonfiction

Unruly Women: The Politics of Confinement and Resistance by Karlene Faith

Karlene Faith’s ongoing theme in Unruly Women: The Politics of Confinement and Resistance is the vibrancy of female life as it butts against the restrictive social controls meant to contain it, a contrast beautifully captured in the photograph that covers the book’s latest edition from Seven Stories Press. The undated photograph shows a graffiti painting of female faces, their mouths open in song, that meld into each other in a cascading tumble, the many faces making up a single woman who grips a guitar. This composite woman is rooted in -- or being sucked into, depending on one’s reading of the photograph -- the wire fence that abuts the graffiti wall. Looped across the fence’s top is the familiar, iconic barbed wire claw that marks prison grounds. There is trash along the bottom of the fence, though the eye at first fails to see it, drawn instead by the colors in the graffiti. The photograph serves as a kind of Rorschach for the book to come. Is the woman growing from the fence, flourishing out of the barren prison landscape, or is she being pulled back into it? Do you see the triumph of the human spirit, or the futility of resistance? Hope, or despair?

Originally published in 1994 by the now-defunct Canadian women’s publishing collective Press Gang, Unruly Women is a sweeping survey of how women’s lawbreaking has been construed and constructed over time. Faith’s early academic training was in anthropology, but her Ph.D. work was at the interdisciplinary History of Consciousness program at the University of Santa Cruz in the late nineteen-seventies, and she seems most animated by the connections she herself perceives in women’s experiences worldwide. Her stated aim for the book is to “examine female transgressions against social order and the ways by which women’s crimes and punishments refract the ideological constructions of gender.” If that aim seems as unbounded as it is ambitious, the book reflects that, veering wildly across time and place. It opens with a historical chapter that touches on medieval European witch-hunts and the codifying of PMS into the DSM before moving on to contemporary understanding of prostitution, property crimes, and drug use. Having established this chronological orientation, Faith abandons it entirely for a list of topic categories that sometimes seem the product of a brainstorming session. A discussion of types of confinement veers into a discussion of types of women, then violence between them. This leads into an analysis of the representation of female rulebreakers in movies before turning to an extended account of Faith’s experience at a particular California prison from 1972 to 1976. Most of the book addresses Canadian conditions, or sometimes the United States, but sprinkled throughout it are references to conditions in Thailand, India, and other far-flung locales.

Reading the book -- following the book -- I felt yanked along by the hand by Faith, led here, then there, then there. No sooner had I become interested in one topic than we were off to the next. As a guide through the prodigious information she recounts, Faith is like the overeager friend so consumed with the magnitude of what she must share that she loses the thread of the story in it.

This passion and eagerness make the book exciting to read, but they sometimes lead Faith to dubious assertions. She goes on at length, for example, about the limitations imposed by classifying prisoners as “female offenders.” “[To] indiscriminately attach the label ‘female offender’ to all convicted criminal lawbreakers who are female is to deny women’s diversity and to promote gender-based objectification and stereotyping,” she writes. This is a difficult point to make in a book that is, after all, about women, has the word “women” in the title, and lumps together crimes as wide-ranging as prostitution, alleged witchcraft, and murder in its analysis, simply because women commit them. “[It] is best to avoid labels,” Faith chides, and that may be so, but the prison system -- a system explicitly of classification and control that must group and move large numbers of people -- runs on labels. (So, too, does the book-titling business.)

Reading Unruly Women, I thought often of another nonfiction book, Random Family, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s brilliant and evocative account of an extended family in the Bronx. For all their social ties, LeBlanc’s characters are isolated by their struggles to survive, blind to the larger systems of restraint that constrain them. They insist on their continual fresh starts, even as the reader watches them be blocked and caught at every turn. We watch a woman named Coco struggle to make her life in a system that seems to be conspiring against her. Confronted by injustice everywhere in the social conditions that surround Coco, the reader quickly begins to see illegal choices as valid options. Crime begins to lose its moral approbation, as so much she’s surrounded by is morally wrong, and what the law deems illegal and what the law itself enforces seems an arbitrary distinction. In her book, LaBlanc paints this condition. In Faith’s book, she can show us just how widespread it is, not an accident but systematic.

LeBlanc’s characters deny history even as they re-enact it, Faith offers us enough glimpses across time and place to help us see what we already sense: that systems of social control have long trapped women, and continue to. Seeing the system in such relief, understanding its historical underpinnings, one can hardly blame Faith if she gets so caught up in the volume of what must be said that she loses track, at times, of how to say it. Faith has spent her career studying women like Coco, likely feeling for three decades the frustration and sadness the reader of Random Family need only feel for a few hundred pages.

Still, it’s hard not to wish that Faith, with her extensive knowledge of all that imprisoned and law-breaking women face, didn’t seize the opportunity to end her book with some guiding statement forward, some prescription to help cure these ills. At the very least, she might have updated the book beyond its preface, to acknowledge the major changes that have occurred in the prison system in the past fifteen years. The chapter that does end the book -- on Faith’s experiences in prison in the early seventies -- was out of date by the book’s first publication, and is only more so now. It is interesting as history, if no longer an untold tale. But the barbed wire on the book’s cover still exists. The faces of singing women, both painted and flesh, still rise from within the prison gates. Each day women like Coco and her family members make their lives. Faith is a knowledgeable and impassioned advocate for them. I wish she’d told us even more.

Unruly Women: The Politics of Confinement and Resistance by Karlene Faith
Seven Stories Press
ISBN: 978-1609801373
368 Pages