The Ph.D. Program in History

at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York

GC EventsHistory Program Events

Dr. Mary Gibson on “Is Punishment Gendered? The Case of Modern Italy”

The ARC Seminar Presents:

               Dr. Mary Gibson

               Professor of History, John Jay College and the Graduate Center, CUNY

               Thursday, April 21 at 4:30

               ARC Seminar Room 5318




Modern prison history has rarely incorporated gender as “a useful category of analysis,” in the classic phrase of Joan Scott. Beginning with Michel Foucault, accounts of the transition from corporal punishment to incarceration have focused almost exclusively on the male experience. This paper proposes to explore how a gendered analysis challenges central claims made in prison historiography about the periodization of changing modes of punishment, the purpose of incarceration, and the role of work in inmates’ lives. It does so by examining the introduction of confinement in modern Italy from the last decades before unification until the First World War. Initially conceived as a female institution, the prison was refashioned after unification to mold the male citizen. This reversal in the privileged object of prison reform was closely tied to the gendered expansion of human rights outside of prison walls.


This paper focuses on the Italian capital of Rome to compare modes of female and male punishment. In terms of periodization, the earliest Roman prisons were built for women, with the modern objectives of work and reform, while men continued to serve their sentences in traditional bagni, or hard labor camps. Administered by nuns, women’s institutions inculcated religious conversion and moral reform while male prisons, once they were established, sought to shape a male citizen who would contribute to the new secular state. Inmates’ work reflected these gendered objectives, with women relegated to handwork and domestic tasks while men were trained in trades that would allow them to join the new manufacturing economy of liberal Italy. The Italian trajectory was similar to that of other Catholic countries, both in Europe and Latin America, and directs our attention to gendered nature of prisoners’ rights in global history.