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Name: Olivia Wright

PhD:  American and Canadian Studies

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


Thesis Description:

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. 


Supervisors and Institution(s): 

Professor Zoe Trodd (The University of Nottingham)

Professor Graham Thompson (The University of Nottingham)




  • Review of Liberation in Print: Feminist Periodicals and Social Movement Identity by Agatha Beins for The Journal of American Studies (May 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 (Vol. 19, No. 1, 2018)
  • (Forthcoming) ‘“Literary Vandals”: American Women’s Prison Zines as Collective Autobiography’, Women’s Studies: An interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 48 (March 2019)



Year: 2016 - 2017

  • Leading a workshop for the second year American Studies module 'African American History and Culture' on African American Print Culture, Visual Culture and Prisons

Year: 2017 - 2018

  • Teaching Assistant on the first year undergraduate module 'Approaches to Contemporary American Culture: An Introduction'

Year: 2018 - 2019

  • Delivered one lecture and two seminars on the topic 'zines' for the third year module Magazines in America

Conferences (Presented at):

20 May 2016: ‘We Asked For Life!’: American Women’s Prison Zines as Sites of Art and Protest

'Radical America: Revolutionary, Dissident and Extremist Magazines', NAPs Symposium, University of Sussex

6-8 April 2017: ‘Literary Vandals’: Women’s Prison Zines as Sites of Resistance

British Association of American Studies Annual Conference, Canterbury Christ Church University

4-7 April 2018: ‘We will not become slaves again’: Black Power, Protest and Collective Autobiography in American Women’s Prison Zines

European and British Association of American Studies Bi-Annual Conference, Kings College London

24-27 May 2018: ‘Literary Vandals’: American Women’s Prison Zines and Collective Autobiography

American Literary Association Annual Conference, San Francisco

16-17 November 2018: ‘We will not become slaves again’: Continuing the Black Protest Literature Tradition in American Women’s Prison Zines

Black Atlantic Authorship and Art (1818-2018) International Symposium, The University of Edinburgh


Conferences (Organised):

2019 - 

  • 'Women’s Transatlantic Prison Activism Since 1960', 1 day symposium at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University. Funded by the RAI.


Year: 2016 - 2017

Year: 2017 - 2018
  • Co-organiser of the University of Nottingham's M3C CDF funded American Studies Retreat 2018
  • Director of the Postgraduate Women and Gender Reading Group based at the University of Nottingham
  • Postgraduate Representative for the British Association of American Studies (2018-2020)
  • Unbarred Volunteer

Year: 2018 - 2019

  • Rights Lab Student Internship Coordinator 


Other Research Interests:

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



University email address:



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