A Fraction of a Man: Dieting the Female Prisoner, 1843-1913

Nadja Durbach (University of Utah)
4 May 2017

Historians have argued that the system of mass feeding that emerged in prisons over the course of the nineteenth century was a model of utilitarian efficiency, industrial progress, and time-discipline. But the prison dietary was in fact far from uniform. Differences of sex, age, physical activity, and length of sentence were central considerations in the preparation of suitable dietaries and exceptions were frequently made for those that fell outside the classificatory norms. Prison authorities were animated by, and reinforced, not a vision of the human body as a uniform machine, but rather a variety of bodily imaginaries predicated on human difference that had effects well beyond the walls of the prison. This paper focuses on the dieting of female prisoners in Britain from the introduction of the Graham dietaries in 1843 to the height of the suffragette movement in the years before WWI. While prison dietaries were formulated with the needs of the male body in mind, prison officials could not ignore the presence of female inmates and were forced to consider how they should be rationed. This opened up questions about the nutritional requirements of female versus male bodies, whether women’s bodies could be, and in practice were being, subjected to hard labour, and the relationship between food and women’s psychological and emotional well-being. The answers to these questions were inconsistent across time and space, revealing that while there existed a widespread belief in sex differences, no logic underpinned how to translate this into appropriate feeding practices.

Food History seminar series

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