College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences Theses and Dissertations

Graduation Date


Document Type


Department/Program Conferring Degree

Women & Gender Studies


Rebecca Latimer Felton, women's prison reform movement 1865-1900, Convict lease reform, white supremacy and prison reform, black women prisoners


The main argument of this thesis is that The Women's Prison Reform Movement, from 1865-1900, was constructed around both gendered and racial ideologies that linked so-called "proper" womanhood to whiteness and marked black women as subhuman, impure, and unable to be reformed, and that this served to exclude black women from the designation of 'woman' and therefore from the Women's Prison Reform Movement. I also argue that overt acts of racism, as well as systematic white supremacy, were foundational in the movement from the beginning. In a brief examination of the early prison and convict lease system in the Southern United States, I explore how the racial and gendered ideologies surrounding black womanhood, carried over from slavery, affected the treatment of black women in prisons based on both their race and sex. This caused black women to experience mistreatment in a heightened way that neither black men prisoners nor white women prisoners experienced. The racial and gendered ideologies present within the prison and convict lease systems were also present in the formation of the Women's Prison Reform Movement, and therefore the movement excluded black women prisoners. I chose to focus this thesis specifically on the prison and convict lease system in the Southern United States and on the activism of Southern prison reformer Rebecca Latimer Felton. Through the lens of Rebecca Felton's activism I explore how one prominent Southern white woman prison reformer struggled to make sense of certain gendered and racial ideologies and how these ideologies influenced her decision on whether or not to include black women in her prison reform activism.