The Women's House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison

Regular price $ 19.99

by Hugh Ryan

Bold Type Books

5/9/2023, paperback

SKU: 9781645036654


This fascinating history of a now-demolished prison, and the women, transgender men, and gender nonconforming people who were held there -- including Ethel Rosenberg, Angela Davis, and Andrea Dworkin -- is a window into the policing of queerness and radical politics in the 20th century.

The Women's House of Detention, Greenwich Village's most forbidding and forgotten queer landmark, stood from 1929 to 1974, imprisoning tens of thousands from all over New York City. The little-known stories of the queer women and trans-masculine people incarcerated in this building present a uniquely queer argument for prison abolition. The "House of D" acted as a nexus, drawing queer women down to Greenwich Village from every corner of the city. Some of these women -- Angela Davis, Grace Paley, Andrea Dworkin, Afeni Shakur -- were famous, but the majority were working-class people, incarcerated for the "crimes" of being poor and improperly feminine. Today, approximately 40 percent of people in women's prisons identify as queer; in earlier decades, the percentage was almost certainly higher.

Historian Hugh Ryan explores the roots of this crisis of queer and trans incarceration, connecting misogyny, racism, state-sanctioned sexual violence, colonialism, sex work, and the failures of prison reform. At the same time, The Women's House of Detention highlights how queer relation and autonomy emerged in the most dire of circumstances: from the lesbian relationships and communities forged through the House of D, to a Black socialist's fight for a college education during the Great Depression, to the forgotten women who rioted inside the prison on the first night of the Stonewall Uprising nearby. This is the story of one building and so much more: the people it caged, the neighborhood it changed, and the resistance it inspired.


"Using records documenting poor, white, Black, and Latina women incarcerated for criminalized lives, Hugh Ryan shows us the profound injustices of prisons themselves and how lesbians have been demeaned and yet tried to survive. A game-changer from a community-based historian." -- Sarah Schulman, author of Let the Record Show and Conflict is Not Abuse

"[A] thoroughly researched archival treasure." -- them.

"Ryan dives into the archives created by those incarcerated in the House of D and the people who put them there, giving us the gift of rich context for these stories and countless hidden queer histories. Placing the prison in a quintessential queer community, The Women's House of Detention illuminates prisons as queer spaces and queer resistance through acts of autonomy, care, and collectivity, offering queer abolitionist organizers working to close jails and prisons across the country a glimpse into the long legacy they are living--and the inspiration to keep fighting until there are no more houses of detention." -- Andrea Ritchie, co-author of Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States

About the Author:

Hugh Ryan is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn. He is the Founder of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, and sits on the Boards of QED: A Journal in LGBTQ Worldmaking, and the Museum of Transgender History and Art. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Buzzfeed, the LA Review of Books, Out, and many other venues. The author of When Brooklyn Was Queer, he is the recipient of the 2016-2017 Martin Duberman Fellowship at the New York Public Library, a 2017 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, and a 2018 residency at The Watermill Center.