Wedlock has, in recent decades, come in for a severe critique from radical feminists, who have viewed it as a patriarchal institution for enslaving women and delivering them into "the prison of domesticity." So why is it that during the nation's remarkable retreat from marriage of the last thirty years-a headlong retreat generally hailed as emancipatory by feminist ideologues-the number of American women doing time in state and federal prisons has skyrocketed? What kind of emancipation puts ever more women behind bars? Such questions might well force themselves into the minds of readers of a new study of female incarcerations recently published in the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare by researcher Dorothy S. Ruiz of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Surveying available statistics for the nation's penal institutions, Ruiz limns "a dramatic increase in the number of incarcerations among women over the past three decades," an increase which has pushed the number of women being held in federal and state prisons from just 5,635 in 1970 to over 90,000 in 1992, an astounding 256% increase, reflecting a growth rate of over 11% per year since 1975. As a radical theorist, Ruiz blames this phenomenal increase in the incarceration on "racism and economic discrimination . . . intricately linked to sexism in our culture." Readers, however, may find it very difficult to believe that the forces of racism, discrimination, and sexism have acquired new and unprecedented power during the last thirty years. Some alternate and more plausible explanation of the explosion of the population of female prisoners seems in order. Fortunately, Ruiz provides us with the rudiments of such an alternate explanation.
Apparently without realizing how it turns attention away from her unholy trinity of racism, economic discrimination, and sexism, Ruiz acknowledges "family background characteristics play a major role in the incidence of [female] jail inmates." She notes that "nearly half of the women in both state prisons and local jails have never been married" (47% of those in state prisons; 48% of those in local jails). Another third of women in state prisons and local jails are divorced or separated (30% of those in state prisons; 33% of those in local jails). The picture looks only slightly different in Federal prisons, where 34% of the female inmates have never been married and 31% are divorced or separated. Though not exactly rare, married female prisoners constitute a decided minority: after subtracting female prisoners who are widows, we find that the percentage of women inmates who are married stands at just 29% in Federal prisons, 17% in state prisons, and 15% in local jails.
The nation's retreat from wedlock is implicated in the rising incarceration rate for women in a second way: Ruiz reports only half of Hispanic and white non-Hispanic female inmates grew up with both parents (45% of Hispanics and 51% of white non-Hispanics), while only a quarter of black non-Hispanics female inmates grew up in two-parent homes (27%).
Ruiz laments "the myriad health and social problems" encountered among female inmates and worries about the well-being of their children, over half of whom (53 percent) are living with their grandparents while their mothers are in prison. Ruiz reports that approximately 32,000 older women are already serving as "primary caregivers for grandchildren whose mothers are incarcerated," and she predicts that that number could balloon in the years ahead. Ruiz sees black grandmothers experiencing serious health problems, social distortions, and economic stress as "consequences of surrogate parenthood."
Although Ruiz would probably never admit it, it would appear that the traditional institution of marriage actually helped keep women free. It is the modern repudiation of wedlock that is putting women into penal institutions far worse than any "prison of domesticity."