Women inside, women outside

By Lily Foss '13 Feminist Columnist

The first time I went to the California Institution for Women, I was nervous. I’m taking a class called “Feminisms in Community” and part of the class is a bi-weekly writing workshop with the women inside the prison. I had never been to a prison before. What would it be like? How would I talk to these women?

I couldn’t get over how different we were. They were in prison—how could I even begin to imagine what that was like? And how would they feel about me? After we leave CIW, I go back to my room, watch some “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” maybe go to the Motley if I feel like some hot chocolate. They go back to their cells. Would they resent me for my freedom?

I didn’t know what to talk to them about. If I talked about school, would I be rubbing in their faces the fact that I go to this fancy college? If I mentioned my family, would that just make them miss theirs? What were we supposed to discuss, the weather? I had no idea.

It’s getting to the end of the class now, and while I still get anxious about my own privilege sometimes, I no longer dread going to CIW. Actually, out of all my classes this semester, the writing workshop is probably my favorite. Contrary to my expectations, the women inside are really...well, sweet. I’ve never gotten the sense that any of them resent me. They want to know all about me—my family, my classes, my friends. I thought we wouldn’t have anything in common, but I was so wrong. While they have a life in prison that I can’t even conceive of, they weren’t born there. They had a life outside too. And they like to talk about it. A lot of women tell me about their kids. On the first day of class, one elderly woman talked about living in Iran in the 70s, right before the Shah was overthrown. It was fascinating.

Last week we were working on a collaborative writing project and we decided to write about our holiday traditions. Once again I was worried that this would make the women from CIW sad. I’m guessing that holidays in prison aren’t particularly “merry” or “happy.” But the two women in our group loved writing about their families and communities. One wrote about her experience converting to Judaism in prison. Another told us about her Mexican community celebrating Las Posadas on the nine days before Christmas. I really loved her description of it: “And like, the whole town does it! And everyone has a candle—I didn’t even know all the people in the parade, but some guy just handed me a candle and I was like, ‘Okay!’ And it lasts for, like, a week—it’s so weird!” Hearing her talk about something that’s so important to her town made me really happy.

And that was the point at which I realized that these women and I aren’t as different as I thought. We all have families, cultures, traditions that mean a lot to us. They may be ‘women on the inside,’ but ‘inside’ doesn’t define them. They’re really just women. Like me.