“Why Should a Man Rule ‘The Castle’?”: Early Twentieth-Century Debates over the Appointment of Female Governors and Medical Officers in Women’s Prisons

Debates over the Appointment of Female Governors and Medical Officers in Women’s Prisons

Rachel Bennett

In February 1913 Ida Smedley, the Secretary of the Federation of University Women, wrote to the Home Secretary, Reginald McKenna, on behalf of the Federation. She informed him that, for some time, they had been concerned by the fact that the higher administrative offices in women’s prisons were entirely filled by men. She added that the Federation believed that women possessed natural advantages in dealing with other women and that, in the positions of Governor and Medical Officer, they would have the ability to better understand the needs of female prisoners. She asked that the Home Secretary offer some assurance that, when the next vacancy appeared for either of these positons, a woman would be appointed if she possessed the administrative ability and personal fitness required for the role. In his reply to her letter in April 1913, the Home Secretary informed her that, currently, all prisons except two were either for males only or for both sexes and that women formed only a small proportion of the total prison population. He added that, where men formed any part of the prison population, it was essential that the Governor and the Medical Officer were men. However, although both the Governor and the Medical Officer in Holloway and Aylesbury women’s prisons were also men, he assured her that the immediate control of female prisoners, whether in female-only prisons or in mixed sex prisons, fell to female staff. Within this, the direct governance of female prisoners and female staff was entrusted to a Principal Matron.[1]

Debates over the appointment of women to Governor and Medical Officer roles in women’s prisons

The first half of the twentieth century witnessed reoccurring debates over the appointment of women to the higher administrative roles of Governor and Medical Officer in women’s prisons. They were driven by groups including the Suffragettes and, following the First World War, the issue intensified with groups including the Women’s Freedom League playing a key role in petitioning the Home Office and the Prison Commission. A reading of some of the petitions and the responses they received, and the correspondence of these groups in other printed discourse, can greatly inform upon contemporary beliefs about administration in women’s prisons in this period. For example, in making the point, detailed above, that the direct control and contact with women in prison fell to female members of staff, the Home Secretary was acknowledging, to some extent at least, that the daily administration of the prison required some differentiation based on gender even though the positions of Governor and Medical Officer continued to be held by men.

Gradual appointment of women to senior roles in women’s prisons

In 1908 Dr Mary Gordon became the first female Inspector of Prison and Inebriate Reformatories. In addition, in July 1914 the Home Secretary, on the recommendation of the Prison Commission, appointed Dr Selina Fox to be the Lady Superintendent and Deputy Medical Officer of the Aylesbury Borstal Institution for Females. She would later become the first female governor of the same in 1916. However, the gradual appointment of women to more senior roles in the prison system was not without continued debate and outside lobbying at various junctures in the first half of the twentieth century, including over the administration of medical care in women’s prisons. In June 1918 Evelyn Ruggles-Brise, Chairman of the Prison Commission, wrote to the Under Secretary of State to highlight the great difficulty increasingly arising in the medical examination of female prisoners in Holloway. He stated that the importance of engaging the services of a female doctor was becoming increasingly evident due to a growing disinclination on the part of women prisoners to be examined and treated by male doctors, particularly in cases of venereal disease. He added that this was likely due, in some part, to the “more and more active and declared opinion in the press and otherwise, against male treatment in the case of women.” Therefore, the Prison Commission recommended the appointment of Dr Edith Caroline Hudgell for the position of Deputy Medical Officer in Holloway, a position she took up in February 1919.[2]

The daily running of women’s prisons by women

Women were responsible for several aspects of the daily running of the prison, including the more hands-on care in the prison hospital, which not only demonstrates some contemporary acknowledgment of their importance to the institution, but also suggests an acknowledgement of their ability to carry out certain crucial tasks. However, the highest positions of Governor and Medical Officer continued to be primarily held by men and the issue continued to garner debate. When news emerged in July 1921 that the vacant position of Governor of Holloway was to be filled by Mr Shortt, the prison’s current Medical Officer, the Women’s Freedom League petitioned against the decision. Their Secretary, Florence Underwood, wrote to the editors of the Manchester Guardian to publicly state the League’s belief that penal reform would not have a chance as long as the governors of women’s prisons continued to be men. She added, “surely if a woman is needed anywhere, it is in the control of a women’s prison!”[3] However, in their reply, the Prison Commission assured the members of the League that two Lady Superintendents would be employed to serve under Mr Shortt and would oversee prison discipline and the daily running of the prison hospital.[4]

The first woman Governor of Holloway prison

Again, the appointment of women to be responsible for the disciplining of female prisoners and the daily administration of medical care in the hospital does reveal some acknowledgment of the specific requirements involved in the running of women’s prisons. However, due to the historically small percentage of the total prison population women accounted for, and perhaps a broader hesitancy based upon longer standing ideological gender biases, there continued to be some reluctance to appoint women to the most senior positions. It was not until 1945 that Dr Charity Taylor became the first female governor of Holloway prison. She had previously been appointed the Deputy Medical Officer in 1942 and later the Medical Officer. Despite her appointment, the issues surrounding the specific physical and mental needs of women in prison continued to be, and in many ways remain, complex areas of debate.

Image: Daily Herald, 29 July 1921

[1] The National Archives, Kew HO 45/24643.

[2] The National Archives, Kew HO 45/19977.

[3] Manchester Guardian, 1 August 1921.

[4] The National Archives, Kew HO 45/24643.

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