Van Waters, Miriam (1887–1974)

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Van Waters, Miriam (1887–1974)

American prison administrator, reformer, and social worker. Born on October 4, 1887, in Greensburg, Pennsylvania; died of pulmonary disease on January 17, 1974, in Framingham, Massachusetts; daughter of George Browne Van Waters (an Episcopalian minister) and Maude (Vosburg) Van Waters; University of Oregon, A.B., 1908, A.M., 1910; Clark University, Ph.D., 1913; children: Sarah Ann (adopted 1932).

A leader in women's corrections from the 1920s through the 1940s, Miriam Van Waters was born in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, in 1887. Her father was an Episcopal minister who believed in social responsibility, and in 1888 he moved the family to Portland, Oregon, where he began church colonization work. An adventurous child who enjoyed her new home, Van Waters once went with her father on a cougar hunt in the middle of the night. She was educated at home and then attended St. Helen's Hall, a local school founded by her father, from which she graduated in 1904. As a teenager, she assumed many domestic responsibilities because her father's pastoral career required him to travel frequently and her mother Maude Vosburg Van Waters often returned to Pennsylvania to be with her family. With the help of two uncles, Miriam managed the home and cared for her sisters, while administering to the needs of the rectory and visiting clergy.

Van Waters attended the University of Oregon, where she edited a literary magazine, wrote articles for the college newspaper, and acted in school plays. In 1908, she graduated with honors in philosophy and then earned an A.M. degree in psychology in 1910. She next applied for and won a fellowship at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, where the psychology department was headed by G. Stanley Hall, and also studied with anthropologist Alexander Chamberlain. Van Waters earned her Ph.D. in 1913 with a dissertation on "The Adolescent Girl among Primitive Peoples," which recognized the validity of other cultures and showed an awareness of the power of female sexuality. In this, she anticipated the work of later anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead .

Van Waters was more interested in social reform than an academic career, however. In 1911, she visited the Boston Juvenile Court and noted the results of parental neglect and poor education. Two years later, she became an agent of the Boston Children's Aid Society and was placed in charge of young girls who were appearing before the court. She discovered that the girls charged with delinquency had also been suspected of unproven sexual offenses; not only were they considered "morally insane," they were deemed incapable of changing their behavior. Disagreeing with this assessment, Van Waters worked to improve court health-care services and to find foster homes for the girls. She became well known as a reformer, but the work exhausted her, and in 1914 she went back to Portland to run Frazer Hall, the county juvenile detention center. Soon after this, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and took three years off from work to recover.

In 1917, she passed a civil-service examination in Los Angeles, where she had gone to stay with friends. She was appointed superintendent of the county juvenile home, and successfully improved conditions there, leading to her appointment in 1919 to head El Retiro, another county home for delinquent girls that worked to prevent future delinquency. Van Waters tried to give the girls a sense of home and belonging and allowed them to govern themselves. Paying them wages, she also offered them a choice in their vocational training. She encouraged cultural activities, such as plays and poetry readings, and she saw that special occasions were celebrated. She opposed double standards that punished women more severely than men for sexual offenses and sought to validate and guide the young women's sexuality instead of repressing it. Her work at El Retiro attracted the attention of philanthropist Ethel Sturges Dummer , who funded Van Waters' national study of schools for delinquent girls, "Where Girls Go Right," published in 1922. Dummer provided additional aid as Van Waters wrote two other books, Youth in Conflict (1925) and Parents on Probation (1927), in which she found a correlation between the increasing mechanization of society and the increase in delinquency.

In 1920, Van Waters passed the California Bar Exam and was appointed referee of the Los Angeles Juvenile Court. She spoke at penal and social work conventions, and was invited by Justice Felix Frankfurter to examine juvenile facilities in Boston as part of the Harvard Law School Crime Survey. In 1929, she became a consultant to the National Commission on Law Enforcement, and prepared a study of juveniles who had broken federal laws. In The Child Offender in the Federal System of Justice (1932), she wrote about the failure of district courts to use juvenile court procedures or to supervise juvenile reformatories.

In 1932, Van Waters became superintendent of the Massachusetts Women's Reformatory in Framingham. She continued the liberal policies instituted by the previous superintendent, Jessie Hodder , and increased medical and psychological services. She also organized clubs for inmates, whom she referred to as "students."

At the same time, as the mainstay of her family, Van Waters paid for her siblings' education and support when her father's investments failed, and gave jobs at Framingham to her brother and his wife. She did not marry, but in 1932, she adopted a ten-year-old girl, Sarah Ann, whom she had met when the child was seven and a ward of the Los Angeles Juvenile Court.

On November 10, 1947, when a prisoner committed suicide at Framingham. Van Waters' methods of governing the prison were investigated by political opponents, and she was charged with condoning lesbianism, illegally hiring former inmates as employees at the prison, and failing to supervise indenture for day work or adult education. In January 1949, she was fired, but the decision was reversed by a special governor's commission. Friends and supporters rallied to her defense, and she was cleared of most of the charges at a final hearing. Van Waters returned to work at Framingham and was welcomed emotionally by the inmates. She served as superintendent until 1957, earning praise for her liberal principles and receiving several honorary degrees. She lived near the prison until 1974, when she died of pulmonary disease.


Freedman, Estelle B. Maternal Justice: Miriam Van Waters and the Female Reform Tradition, 1887–1974. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Kelly Winters , freelance writer