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Olivia Wright

PhD in American Studies, Faculty of Arts

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Research Summary

Current Status

PhD (full-time) - currently registered

Research Topic

'We Asked for Life!': American Women's Prison Zines as sites of Art and Protest 1920-2017

Research Summary

Confinement, prejudice, and social alienation render incarcerated women the most invisible members of American society. Yet despite their invisibility, and in some ways as a direct response to it, incarcerated women have for over a century produced prison zines that shine a light on a largely obscured and forgotten world. My PhD analyses over 75 publications from across the US, arguing that the prison is a unique environment for creative production that leads to a distinctive and compelling sub-genre of American literature. I examine how they dismantle and expand upon various genres including collective autobiography and lesbian and feminist print culture in order to connect, educate and resist, depicting a complex protest aesthetic that calls for wider social change beyond penal reform.

Prison zines are short collections of art and literature produced by inmates that circulate in the prison where they are produced, in other penal facilities in America, and even among the general public. Over the past century the production of women's prison zines has varied with the emergence of externally edited zines in the 1960s signifying a shift away from the more traditional, 'in-house' publications. The writers of these externally edited zines worked in collaboration with outside organisations or individuals such as 'The Santa Cruz Women's Prison Project' and 'The Chicago Books to Women in Prison Project' for technical and organisational support in an attempt to overcome prison censorship. The zines cover a broad range of topics in addition to the criminal justice system, such as race, motherhood, physical and sexual abuse, addiction and education. The cacophony of voices in zines adds detail to the tradition of women's prison writing, beyond the popular autobiographies of Assata Shakur and Angela Davis, and beyond the statistics and stereotypes that pervade popular perceptions of female prisoners.

My PhD expands on the research I have already undertaken at masters level on women's prison zines from the 1970s by plotting the entire literary tradition from the earliest publication, through the twentieth century, and into twenty-first century mass incarceration. Where a handful of scholars have traced male prison zines back to nineteenth-century debtors' prison publications, early women's prison zines are often overlooked. In the formative years of female incarceration, women were generally held in small sections of men's prisons instead of independent female facilities and were almost entirely ignored by authorities as a result. Despite some women contributing to the publications that came out of these co-ed prisons, scholars have identified the first women's prison zine as the Eagle in 1935, when independent women's incarceration facilities were becoming more widespread. However, my preliminary research has found several zines that predate even the Eagle, suggesting that this tradition is far richer and more extensive than previously thought. Zines were evident in women's prisons across the United States as early as 1900, with their frequency mirroring the growth of incarceration numbers during certain periods. Following the thirties and the Reformatory movement, significant periods of female incarceration (and zine activity) can be seen first in the sixties and seventies with the rise of many social movements and the start of mass incarceration for women, and from the eighties onwards, a period that has seen a significant increase in the number of women in prison owing to the 'tough on crime' and 'war on drugs' policies.

The enclosed world in which zines are produced provides a unique environment as incarcerated women are both physically and psychologically confined. In the literal sense they are denied spatial freedoms and restrained behind bars and cages. But more significantly, these women are stripped of identity and confined by stereotypes that label them as 'fallen women' and bad mothers. They are denied political influence and forgotten or ignored by larger society. In this identity vacuum the women can self-define through zines, writing about issues that concern them and give themselves a voice. But prison zines also have value for the larger community for a number of reasons. Sociologically and historically they can give a sense of the culture and concerns of distinctive periods in the way that they handle issues such as race, sexuality, motherhood, violence and the criminal justice system in ways that are both continuous and original. In doing so, they represent what imprisonment meant and means for women, not merely in prison but in the United States at large, and are particularly relevant in 21st Century America as issues of policing and the judiciary system are becoming increasingly prevalent. Most importantly perhaps, they represent the human desire to record, protest, engage and create: to gather, speak and refuse simply to accept, even at the darkest hour.

Research Interests:

  • 20th C. African American Literature
  • Lesbian and Feminist Print Culture
  • Incarceration Literature
  • Zines
  • Collective Autobiography
  • 20th C. American Women's Writing

Research Supervisors:

Professor Zoe Trodd (The University of Nottingham)

Dr Graham Thompson (The University of Nottingham)

Research Institutes and Clusters:

  • The Centre for Research in Race and Rights at The University of Nottingham
  • The Rights and Justice Research Priority Area
  • Print and Visual Culture at The University of Nottingham
  • The British Association of American Studies
  • The Feminist and Women's Studies Association

Primary Funding Source:

Midlands3Cities PhD Studentship (2016-19)

School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies MRes Studentship (2015-16)

Research Activities

MRes thesis research trip to the Rubenstein Library at Duke University funded by School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies and Graduate School (2016)

PhD thesis research trip to Chicago, Madison and Minneapolis funded by M3C (2017)

Scholarly / Public Engagement Activities:

Year: 2016 - 2017

  • Women's History Month Director for the Centre for Research in Race and Rights
  • Co-organiser of the University of Nottingham's M3C CDF funded American Studies Retreat 2017
  • Postgraduate Co-Director of the Rights and Justice Research Priority Area

Year: 2017 - 2018

  • Established a Women and Gender Reading Group based at the University of Nottingham
  • Co-organiser of the University of Nottingham's M3C Cohort Development Fund (CDF) funded American Studies Retreat 2018

Conference Papers & Presentations

Year: 2015 - 2016

  • 'Radical America: Revolutionary, Dissident and Extremist Magazines', NAPs Symposium, 20th May, The Keep, University of Sussex

Year: 2016 - 2017

  • British Association of American Studies Annual Conference 2017, 6-8th April 2017, Canterbury Christ Church University

Year: 2017 - 2018

  • EBAAS Annual Conference 2018, 4th - 7th April, Kings College London

Publications and Prizes:

2018:

  • Review of Liberation in Print: Feminist Periodicals and Social Movement Identity by Agatha Beins for The Journal of American Studies (Upcoming 2018)
  • Feminist and Women's Studies Association Essay Competition Winner: ''Freedom in her Mind': Women's Prison Zines and Feminist Writing in the 1970s'. Publication in the Journal of International Women's Studies (Upcoming 2018)

Teaching:

Year: 2016 - 2017

  • 2-hour workshop for the second year American Studies module 'African American History and Culture' on African American Print Culture, Visual Culture and Prisons, Spring Term 2016-17

Year: 2017 - 2018

  • Teaching Affiliate on 'Approaches to Contemporary American Culture: An Introduction', Autumn Term 2017-18

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