English, Department of


Date of this Version

Spring 4-2015


A THESIS Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Master of Arts, Major: English, Under the Supervision of Professor Julia Schleck. Lincoln, Nebraska: April, 2015

Copyright (c) 2015 Alicia Meyer


This thesis examines the experience of largely single women in London’s house of correction, Bridewell Prison, and argues that Bridewell’s prisoners, and the nature of their crimes, reveal the state’s desire for dependent, sexually controlled, yet ultimately productive women. Scholars have largely neglected the place of early modern women’s imprisonment despite its pervasive presence in the everyday lives of common English women. By examining the historical and cultural implications of early modern women and prison, this thesis contends that women’s prisons were more than simply establishments of punishment and reform. A closer examination of Bridewell’s philosophy and practices shows how it became a model for the use of women’s labor in the nation at large, and how women became major actors in the development of the British Empire, which simultaneously devalued and yet relied upon their labors.

In particular, the thesis examines the impact of Bridewell’s feminized incarceration policies on individual women, while keeping a close eye on England’s class structure by attending to the imprisonment of both aristocratic women and non-aristocratic women. By focusing on the biography of the aristocrat Eleanor Davies, poet and prophet, and by performing an analysis of Shakespeare’s character Juliet in Measure for Measure, the influence of class on an individual’s imprisonment is exposed. Although the prison served as a mechanism for patriarchal control, the thesis also ultimately shows that individual women could find sufficient agency to resist the system that held them. Finally, it addresses how English designs for mastery in the New World drew upon the Bridewell model, and initially upon Bridewell directly through the transportation of the poorest inmates, sold into marriage and labor. It contends that the continuation of the British Empire depended upon a tenuous balance of patriarchal oppression and the individual agency of poor women and, therefore, depended ultimately upon the model developed at Bridewell.

Advisor: Julia Schleck