Military Service and Punishment As Alternatives for Disposing of Men

face of a prisoner

Historically, almost all persons that political authorities have sent into deadly battle, often far from home, have been men. The ratio of men to women disposed in punishment (executed, banished, in prison) has tended to be higher when men are not needed for military service. Disposal of men in military service helps to explain the sex ratio of persons suffering life-disposing punishment.

In England and Wales over the past three centuries, major wars were associated with a reduction in men per woman among persons disposed in punishment. For example, during the first part of the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1801) the ratio of men per woman executed was 19, compared to a ratio of 32 in preceding years. The ratio of men per woman banished (transported) similarly fell, from 5.6 men per woman to 2.5 men per woman. In the twentieth century, execution was much less common, banishment didn’t occur, and imprisonment was much more prevalent. Nonetheless, military service continued to substitute for punishment. Before, during, and after World War I, the sex ratio among prisoners in England and Wales was 6.8, 4.5, and 7.6, respectively. Before, during, and after World War II, the sex ratio was 14.9, 9.3, and 16.6, respectively.

U.S. punishment data are more difficult to interpret, but also generally show a similar pattern of substituting military service for punishment. During the three time periods of about seven years before, during, and after the American Revolutionary War, the ratios of men to women executed in the U.S. were 24, 14, and 18, respectively. The ratio of men to women executed in the U.S. rose across five-year periods before, during, and after the Civil War (14, 20, and 37 men per women for those three periods, respectively). Executions during civil war, however, probably conflate criminal punishment and military punishment (execution for treason). Yearly data for New York state prisons show a 46% drop in the ratio of men to women in prison from 1861 to 1864, and then a return to the 1861 sex ratio in 1867. Yearly prisoner data before, during, and after World War II also show a drop in the ratio of men to women in prison during war.

Contemporary authorities on criminal justice recognized a relationship between wartime and criminal prosecutions. Sir Stephen T. Janssen, who was elected Lord Mayor of London in 1754, organized yearly execution totals for London and Middlesex from 1749 to 1771. He contrasted years of war with years of peace. Janssen noted:

It is worth observing that as a great many idle men and lads are taken into the Sea & Land Service during a War, so we find the gangs of robbers soon broken & that the Business at the Old Bailey {the Central Criminal Court of England} gradually diminishes to half its duration in time of peace, nor are half the number of criminals condemned; For in some years of War they have not amounted to 20, whereas in peace they have arisen to 70, 80, and 90. It is farther observable that at the conclusion of a War, through very bad Policy, when we turn adrift so many thousand Men, great numbers fall heedlessly to thieving as soon as their Pockets are empty, and are at once brought to the Gallows. ^

Janssen didn’t specify how “idle men and lads are taken into the Sea & Land Service during a War.” A disciple of John Howard, who in 1812 extended Janssen’s series to 1806, recognized a martial effect while discounting it:

The example of the American War, and of the Year 1802, are sufficient to prove, that the Increase of Capital Offences cannot be traced exclusively, or even principally, to the different Operation of War or Peace; though it is natural to suppose that the first may have some effect in diminishing, and the latter in increasing them.^

The increase in (charges of) capital offenses differs from the ratio of men to women condemned to capital punishment. The ratio of men to women condemned to capital punishment provides some control for sex-biased criminal justice processing. Sentences of capital punishment also more directly relate to the disposal of men in military service.

Other evidence also indicates that disposal of men in military service substituted for disposal of men in punishment. The age distribution of property offenders for males and for females typically shows a large peak across the ages 15 to 25. During the Napoleanic Wars, among English property offenders that peak disappeared for males, but not for females.^ In a process akin to the plea-bargaining that dominates the current U.S. criminal justice system, men seemed to have submitted to military service rather than face indictment and potential penal punishment. During the Seven Years War, 1755-1763, British Crown correspondence shows that 43 men who faced death or transportation were given the alternative of serving in the military.^ In a month and a half in 1777, the journal of a summary court in London noted that seven males suspected of property offenses were impressed into military service. Four had been accused of picking pockets, two of stealing watches, and one of stealing a fairly large amount of money. Consistent with the extralegal nature of the process, some of them were not formally indicted for crimes before being sent to military service.^ A London newspaper in 1790 tellingly declared, “press gangs are better magistrates than the Middlesex justices.”^ Press gangs were better than magistrates only in the sense that they more usefully disposed of men.

Men in the U.S. during major wars were similarly sent to military service rather than to prison. A New York Prison Association member who inspected the Erie County Penitentiary in 1863 found fewer men than women. He explained that this sex ratio was:

a reversal of the proportions usually found, and to be accounted for probably by the withdrawal of many small offenders, accustomed to find homes in this and similar institutions, into the ranks of the army, where it is hoped the better discipline to which they are subjected, will elevate and prepare them for more honorable lives in the future.^

A thorough and detailed investigation of U.S. prisons about 1866 observed:

During the late tremendous civil war, there was a diminution of male prisoners in all the state prisons, of ten to fifty per cent. This, by no means, indicates a diminution of crime. Criminals were as numerous, perhaps more numerous, than ever; but convictions were fewer. This was due to several causes. One of these causes was tersely expressed by a sheriff, who observed to one of us during the progress of the strife, that the penalty of crime now-a-days was to enlist in the army, and get a large bounty. This was, perhaps, “putting too fine a point upon it;” but there was an element of truth in the remark. Mr. Prentice, of the Ohio penitentiary, thus explains the matter: “Local committees have secured young men from punishment for minor offences, on condition that they would enlist. Others have fled for refuge to the army, and have thus avoided arrest. Old criminals have sought the army not only for refuge, but as a field for fresh depredations.” The number of female convictions increased during the war; though this increase was less marked in the state prisons, than in prisons of an inferior grade, where minor offences receive their punishment.^

National-wide conscription, which began in the U.S. with the Enrollment Act of 1863, generated only 46,347 men personally conscripted into military serviceduring the Civil War.^ That number was about 2% of Union servicemen. The number of men brought before the U.S. criminal justice system in 1860 was at least several hundred thousands.^ Men brought before the criminal justice system and directed to military service probably amounted to a sizable share of the total formally drafted.

This plaque at Eastern State Penitentiary (U.S.) honors inmate-soldiers, but only by inmate number.
This plaque at Eastern State Penitentiary (U.S.) honors inmate-soldiers, but only by inmate number.

Better institutionalized conscription regimes did not eliminate substitution of military service for imprisonment. The Menard Times, a newspaper published by prisoners in the Illinois State Penitentiary, reported that at least 2,942 male felons in Illinois had been paroled to the army during World War II. Observing that fact during the Vietnam War, the Menard Times surveyed men in the Illinois State Penitentiary. It found that 3 out of 4 were willing to be paroled into the army to fight the Viet Cong.^ That survey points to the common structure of men’s disposability. Highly sex differentiated compulsory commitment to prison and military service is deeply rooted in contemporary public deliberation about punishment and about U.S. Selective Service law.

Stability of Punishment Hypothesis vs. Sex Ratio in Punishment

face of a prisoner

A simple model suggests that the ratio of men per woman suffering civilian punishment is proportional to the overall number of men per woman in civilian life. Scholars have considered variants of this simple model for nearly two centuries. It has come to be called “the stability of punishment hypothesis.”^ ^ ^ The most common variant of this hypothesis loosely states that the ratio of persons punished to total population is constant. Abstracting from the political process that defines crimes, abstracting from the bureaucratic process that administers justice, and abstracting from the social process that endorses the results, suppose that men and women have natural average propensities per person to suffer life-disposing punishment. Then a reduction in the ratio of men per woman in civilian life would produce a reduction in the ratio of men per woman suffering civilian punishment.

The stability of punishment hypothesis doesn’t account well for changes in the ratio of men to women suffering life-disposing punishment in civilian life. From 1805 to 1815, in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, about 12% of U.K. men ages 15 to 39 served in the military. During World War I and World War II, about half of U.K. men of those ages served in the military. Despite this large difference in the extent of male mobilization, the ratio of men to women disposed in punishment in England and Wales fell similarly — by about a third — during the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, and World War II. Moreover, immediately after the Napoleonic Wars, the ratio of men to women banished temporarily more than quadrupled. After World War I, the ratio of men to women in prison returned to close to its pre-war level, but then trended upward so that during World War II it was nearly twice what it had been during World War I. These changes in the ratio of men to women in prison, as well as even larger ones across the whole of the twentieth century, occurred with little change in the ratio of men to women civilians.

The stability of punishment ignores many factors that affect punishment and the sex ratio of persons punished. Among other factors, the value of men in military service affects the social choice to dispose of men in punishment.

Women Persuading Men to Fight Other Men

face of a prisoner

While much recent historical research has emphasized women’s neglected contributions to history, women’s contribution to persuading men to fight other men still has not been adequately appreciated. Women have encouraged and incited men to fight in a variety of ways. In 1756, an English magazine presented a humorous, imaginary parlor conversation discussing how women should encourage men to fulfill their proper roles of fighting and dying in wars. The specific war of concern at this time was England’s war against France. The female hostess, a voice of the male editor, states:

‘Tis our business rather to inspire them {men} with courage, by listening to the addresses of those only who have discovered a proper regard for our religion and liberties, either by arming, or exciting others to arm, against the profess’d enemies of both.

Then the (male) narrator declares:

I was just going to commend my ward for her sensible observations, when a lively little Thing, who had cast several glances at me, in order, I suppose, to make a conquest of me, notwithstanding my age, and the gravity of my deportment, thus prevented me. – “All arts, said she, to induce men to fight for their country, should I think be allowed; and I think moreover, that all leers, nods, ogles, winks, and taps, should be tolerated and encouraged for the welfare of the state, and not deem’d coquettish, immodest, and unbecoming”^

Both women’s abstract political discourse and women’s flirtatious bodily gestures can encourage men to fight other men. In Britain in 1914, Baroness Orczy, the leader of the Active Service League, declared:

Women and girls of England, you cannot shoulder a rifle, but you can actually serve her {England} in the way she needs most. Give her the men whom she wants…use all the influence you possess to urge him to serve his country.^

This appeal was part of a well-organized campaign to enlist men to fight in World War I:

{Baroness Orczy} offered a military style badge and a place on the League’s “Roll of Honor” to any woman or girl who pledged to “persuade every man I know to offer his service…and never to be seen in public with any man who being in every way fit and free…has refused to respond to his country’s call.” The baroness succeeded in enrolling 20,000 women and for her efforts received a letter of commendation from the king. Yet Orczy was merely one of a multitude of commentators and patriots who bade women to persuade their men to enlist and to scorn those who refused.^

In their appeals to women, recruiting campaigns recognized women’s power over men:

If you cannot persuade him to answer his Country’s Call and protect you now Discharge him as unfit! {excerpt from recruiting leaflet}

Women of Britain Say – ‘Go!’ {text from recruiting poster} ^

Much more so than the lives of different ethnic, national, racial, and religious groups, women and men’s lives typically are closely intertwined. In nearly all times and places, men and women have engaged intimately with each other. Men’s relationships with women greatly affect what men do.

In England during World War I, women gave young men not in military uniforms white feathers to shame them and show contempt for them as cowards. Women encouraging men to serve in the military could take crude forms such as this notice in the London Times in 1915:

Jack F.G. If you are not in khaki by the 20th I shall cut you dead. Ethel M.^

Giving a white feather, in contrast, was a highly stylized public gesture. The women who performed this gesture imagined themselves to be patriotic women serving in the Order of the White Feather, also known as the White Feather Brigade. Leading public figures supported the white-feather campaign. Among the white-feather proponents was Mary Augusta Ward a leading British novelist (Mrs. Humphrey Ward). She founded the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League in 1908. Another white-feather proponent was Emmeline Pankhurst. She founded in 1898 the Women’s Social and Political Union, a militant suffragette organization. Thousands of women participated in the white-feather campaign. Speaking in the House of Commons in 1916, Winston Churchill praised British women for “unchecked and indiscriminate voluntary recruiting — enforced by every form of social pressure, equal almost to the power of compulsion of law.”^

Personal stories testify to the effectiveness of the white-feather campaign as well as its indiscriminate pursuit. A father of three young children had volunteered for service, but was turned down on account of his nearsightedness. He applied again a day after being given a white feather. A fifteen-year-old boy who lied about his age to get into the military was sent home after he caught a fever during a retreat from a deadly battle:

“I explained to them that I had been in the army and been discharged, and I was still only 16. Several people had collected around the girls and there was giggling, and I felt most uncomfortable and … very humiliated.” He walked straight into the nearest recruiting office and rejoined the army.^

In Hyde Park Corner in London, a young woman speaking out to urge men to enlist gave a seventeen-year-old male dressed in civilian clothes a white feather. A few days later, having joined the service, the young man returned dressed in military uniform to the same spot:

she recognized me and in front of the crowd round her stand she came up to me and asked for the return of her feather. Amidst mixed cheering and booing I handed it to her. She had tears in her eyes as she kissed me and said, ‘God Bless.’^

In another instance, a woman business owner standing on a train upbraided a man for not offering his seat to a wounded soldier. The man stood up and showed her a severe, fresh war wound down near his buttocks. The woman evidently deeply regretted her mistake:

the woman took {the man} to her room, “put a bottle of whiskey {at} the side of the bed took {off} all clothes and got in bed and said do as you like you earned it.^

Apparently, being wounded in war was worth much more than just a kiss for enlisting in the army.

Some women showed more cultured appreciation for the value of men. Because a woman was disinfecting her husband’s uniform, he had been dressed in civilian clothes while having tea with her in a café in London. Three white-feather-carrying young ladies confronted the woman’s husband. She repulsed them, telling them “they ought to be in a Munitions Factory making Ammunition for the Soldiers to defend themselves.” She ordered the young ladies to return to the café the next day. That day the husband was there smartly dressed in his military khaki, “with all my Decorations.” According to the husband, the ladies were ashamed and they:

told my wife they would pay for our teas my wife told them that my Husband would pay for us as it would be an Insult to take their money they little knew what I had gone through in the first year of war always wet through from frost snow rain wounded at Neuve Chappel and how many battles I had been in I was wounded 2 and gassed 2.^

This woman loved her husband, probably decided what he wore, and understood his public value. She would not allow others to pay for her tea: “my wife told them my Husband would pay for us.” She understood that her husband fulfilled his manly duty by paying for her and suffering horrendously in war. She represented an alternative form of woman’s leadership of men.