Incarcerated at Women’s House of Detention:
6 days in July, late 1960s

date of birth: December 11, 1922
date of death: August 22, 2007

Grace Paley, writer, activist, mother, and feminist, was jailed at the Women’s House of Detention in the late 1960’s (although Paley herself “can’t quite seem to remember the year” [1]) in protest of the Vietnam War. Her writing and legacy as a storyteller was shaped by the forces of politics, women’s rights, and social and economic unrest. Paley’s works reflect the natural, truthful, and simple method of her writing, using voice to engage with issues and characters. Her published writing, consisting mostly of short stories and poems, includes: The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), Later the Same Day (1985),and Leaning Forward: Poems (1985).

Paley often wrote about the ordinariness of everyday life, especially about women and motherhood, highlighting their frustrations and joys, and dirty kitchen floors. [2] Paley’s compassion and vitality animated her poetry and short stories, making her a beloved American writer: “In her stories, it is usually women who speak, and the city, usually New York, speaks through them.” [3] For a short time, Grace studied at The New School under the guidance of poet, W.H. Auden, [4] who encouraged Paley to find and use her own voice in her writing. [5]

grace_peace_demo

Women from the Greenwich Village Peace Center, 1968. Grace is in the middle. [Source]

Arrested for civil disobedience for blocking a military parade in protest of the Vietnam War, Paley was sentenced to six days at the Women’s House of Detention. In her essay, read by Katha Pollitt, “Six Days: Some Remembering,” Paley describes her time at the House of  Detention, sharing her perspective and interactions with women who were also imprisoned. [6] As resident of Greenwich Village, Paley’s account acknowledges and examines her own privilege. It is from this point of view through which insight is given to the experiences of the other prisoners. The essay talks about the women she meets, the reasons they are imprisoned, and their interactions shouting to and from the prison windows out onto 6th Avenue. Paley talks of her beautiful 23 year-old prostitute cellmate and her pimp; a prisoner whose daughter is ashamed of her because of drugs; and a woman by the name of Rita who would sing a ballad about her prison sweetheart that she would soon be leaving, and a man, her lover, on the outside.

Paley talks about how she had to have a medical examination upon entering the prison. She acknowledges that the examination was not all that terrible, thanks to the efforts of Andrea Dworkin who had publicly fought the brutality of her own examination after also being held in The Women’s House of Detention. Paley goes on to say that although Dworkin had been ridiculed for her struggle, the women in the prison had said that the humiliating practices had improved.

Although not wanting to complain, Paley admits to the empty feeling of not having books, or pen and paper, and bobby pins to fix her hair. She expresses the comfort she feels in being able to look out the window and see her children walk to school and neighbors go about their day. Evelyn, a prisoner in the cell diagonal from Paley, even exclaimed to her what a great idea it was to have a prison right in her own neighborhood.

Paley expressed that she felt privileged to live among the women for a period of time. The portraits of the women she met reveal their entanglement in the institutions that Paley committed her life to battling:

“Now there is a garden where the Women’s House of Detention once stood. A green place, safely fenced in with protective daffodils and tulips…. The big women’s warehouse and it’s barred, blind windows have been removed from Greenwich Village’s affluent throat. I was sorry when it happened. If there are prisons, they ought to be in the neighborhood near a subway, not way out in distant suburbs where families have to take cars, buses, ferries, trains. And the population who considers themselves innocent, forgets. Denies. Chooses to never know that there is a whole huge country of the bad, and the unlucky, and the self hurters. A country with a population greater than that of many nations in our world.”

The beauty and simplicity of Grace Paley’s writing provides a considerate and empathetic glimpse of life inside the Women’s House of Detention; a connection toward the women, showing that everyone has a story that should be told. Portraying the day to day life of women while challenging the social institution of incarceration is a quintessential legacy of Grace Paley. [7]

 


[1] 2007 tribute to Grace Paley, Katha Pollitt reads “Six Days: Some Remembering.”

[2] Obituary: Tender Impiety By Rachel Rubin pg. 30

[3] Obituary: Tender Impiety By Rachel Rubin pg. 30

[4] The New School Archives Catalog from 1940 (potential class Paley may have taken).

[5] https://www.thenation.com/article/grace-paleys-crowded-world/

[6] 2007 tribute to Grace Paley, Katha Pollitt reads “Six Days: Some Remembering.”

[7] 2007 tribute to Grace Paley, Katha Pollitt reads “Six Days: Some Remembering.”

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