Gender and Crime


I. Introduction

II. Male-Based Criminology and Explanations of Female Criminality

III. Pathways and Women’s Crime

IV. The Nature and Extent of Women’s Crime

V. Women and Equity in the System

VI. Female Inmates

VII. Women as Victims

VIII. Conclusion and Bibliography

I. Introduction

The study of the nature and extent of crime has largely been the study of the nature and extent of male crime. The results of largely male-based studies have been used to craft programs, interventions, and punishments that would be applied to all offenders. These male-based interventions have historically been merely used to respond to girls’ and women’s crime on the basis of the assumption that a one-size-fits-all model of crime, punishment, theory, and intervention works for both genders. Researchers in the 20th and 21st centuries, though, have challenged the notion that female offenders are the same as male offenders, that the two commit crimes for the same reasons and should be treated in exactly the same manner by the criminal justice system.

The subject of gender and crime is complex, multifaceted, and certainly worthy of serious scholarly attention. For the sake of cohesiveness and general education, this research paper focuses on women and crime; specifically, it outlines the historical lack of specific focus on female criminality and the complications this paucity of attention has thus created for female offenders. Attention is paid to important theoretical perspectives informing the field of gender and crime; female pathways to crime; recent trends in female criminality; and, finally, women’s experience of the criminal justice system, including important trends in the imprisonment of girls and women.

II. Male-Based Criminology and Explanations of Female Criminality

As this research paper is being written, we can say that a lot is known about the nature and extent of criminal offending. The earliest thinking about crime came from religious leaders and philosophers; often, these perspectives speculated on both the origins and morality of criminal acts as well as the proper sort of responses to these offenses. The first true empirical studies of criminal offending were conducted by Cesare Lombroso, who believed that there was an important link between biological factors and crime causation. In other words, it was believed that certain offenders were born criminal and could be identified by certain biological defects, such as high cheekbones, baldness, and shifty eyes. Scholarship on the nature and extent of crime has moved far beyond these appearance-based biological factors. Contemporary thinking about crime causation is much more complex and often involves a mix of sociological or psychological factors.

Regardless of the scope of the theoretical perspective taken or the variables included, criminology has historically been a field dominated by male scholars seeking to explain the criminality of other men. Girls and women who committed crimes were for too long the forgotten offenders. Indeed, the term the invisible offender is often used by feminist scholars to describe the lack of scholarship on and knowledge of female offenders. Women were either eliminated from samples or data on them were excluded from analyses seeking to explain crime or understand the effectiveness of the criminal justice system. The result of this andocentric focus is that theories of crime and justice were really theories of male crime and justice. The specific focus on female offenders began in the 1970s largely because of the work of feminist scholars. Indeed, the number of scholars labeled feminist criminologists has continuously increased during this time span and has resulted in a widening of the research agenda for scholars exploring the topic of gender and crime. Prior to this era, research on girls or women and crime tended to be haunted by stereotypes about “evil” and “bad” women, and the work focused almost exclusively on prostitution. Feminist scholars, by contrast, began to explore whether girls and women committed crime for different reasons than boys and men; they also focused on a wider range of offenses. Thus, part of feminist scholarship in this area was and is to question criminological knowledge that was male based and male informed as well as to build a new criminology with female offenders squarely as the center of inquiry. Feminist scholars also began an exploration of girls’ and women’s experiences in the criminal justice system, most specifically, the experience of women in prison.

From the beginning, feminist criminologists addressed the paucity of research and theory regarding female offending. They also called attention to the fact that men, too, have a gender, and thus they propelled a new line of research— masculinities research, which explores the role played by masculine expectations in certain forms of male crime. Although the term feminism often evokes negative connotations in the lay population, feminist scholarship in criminology foregrounds gender; that is, feminist criminologists do not assume that the factors that are significant in explaining male criminal behavior will necessarily also predict female crime. Feminist scholarship also assumes that gender is constructed and is shaped by history, culture, and the sociopolitical climate. One’s gender often enhances or limits opportunities and social participation in very important ways, and these systems of male privilege and the ways in which they interface with the policing of women are also important to feminist criminologists.

Some of the more salient aspects of gender, relative to crime and the criminal justice system, highlighted by feminist research include the notion that girls and women in the criminal justice system are more likely than boys to have histories of sexual and physical victimization; that women in the criminal justice system are frequently sole caregivers of dependent children; and, finally, that the abuse that characterized their childhoods continues on into adulthood. Along with these differences, criminalized girls and women share with their male counterparts certain attributes: Girls and women who commit crimes are likely to come from economically marginalized communities, many have very spotty employment histories, and many of the girls and women in prison are members of racial minority groups. Important as these insights are, there is no single feminist approach; instead, feminist criminology, as a part of feminist theory, has been informed by a variety of feminist perspectives.

Some scholars have approached the study of girls, women, and crime from the liberal feminist perspective. This perspective views the disadvantage, as well as other social problems, faced by women as a direct result of a society that views women as unequal to men and believes that, if discrimination against women is the problem, then laws mandating equal treatment on the basis of sex are the solution. Scholars adopting this tradition often point to the myriad examples of women and men being treated in unequal ways by the criminal justice system, such as the failure to allow women on juries until the middle of the 20th century and the difficulties that women experienced getting admitted to law schools during most of the 20th century. Advocates of the liberal view use education, integration, and litigation to address gender inequality.

Radical feminists see an existing social system, especially one rooted in patriarchy (institutional arrangements that enforce male privilege), as crucial to understanding women’s status (and women’s crime). Radical feminists thus move beyond simply using the social structure as an explanatory framework and directly challenge the existing system as one way to equalize men’s and women’s power and status within society and thus elevate the overall status of all women. Scholars adopting this perspective have been responsible for informing the nature and extent of female victimization (in particular, wife battery and sexual assault) at the hands of males, often in intimate and power-imbalanced relationships.

Marxist scholars view capitalistic systems as particularly problematic for societies in general. The unequal class relations, whereby individuals in the upper classes have the power to control those in the lower classes (e.g., through wages and access to lawmaking and other power establishments), prove problematic in myriad ways for people without power. Clearly, this perspective focuses on the crimes of the powerful, which are often not prosecuted, while the crimes of the powerless are hyped and heavily policed. In line with this view, Marxist feminists observe capitalism as the most important social structure, one that places women at a societal disadvantage over men because they are even more economically marginalized than their male counterparts.

Socialist feminists point out that two of the most important social structural conditions, capitalism and patriarchy, place women at disadvantage. Thus, these scholars tend to take a more holistic view of how women are situated in society in terms of power and status. At an aggregate level, women in general occupy lower power and status relative to men; thus, socialist feminists see the disadvantages faced by women as a direct result of this placement. From this perspective, society would need to be completely restructured away from both capitalism and patriarchy to alleviate both gender and class inequities.

Third-wave feminists focus on how gender, race, and class intersect to put some women at greater disadvantage than others. For many feminist scholars this perspective marked an important improvement over others, because the prior implication had been that all women were situated equally within society. Third-wave feminists, however, have made the important point that salient distinctions should be noted in class and ethnic differences. In other words, although women, relative to men, are placed at a disadvantage, not all women are equally placed and valued within society. Gender certainly has a significant impact on a person’s placement within the social, class, and power systems of a society, but so do race, ethnicity, and class.

It is important to note that the study of masculinities also emerged as feminists focused on the role that gender plays in crime causation. Through the study of gender, crime, and victimization, feminist scholars refocused attention on male offenders and the role played by male gender expectations in crime. Again, much of criminological thought has taken for granted that criminal behavior is simply male criminal behavior. Few ever questioned how specifically male or female socialization lead to participation in crime and violence. Again, it is important to note that although there is no one feminist theory, all of these feminist-based theories have gender, typically the female gender, as the overriding concern central to their scholarly inquiry. Within criminology and criminal justice, these feminist theories specifically consider the disadvantages that girls and women face in society and how these relate to victimization and to criminal careers. Finally, these theoretical perspectives often offer suggestions to improve the plight of girls and women in society so as to reduce their need to engage in criminal conduct.

Drawing from these and other important feminist perspectives, gender-specific explanations of female criminality include both theoretical frameworks within which to understand offending behavior as well as ideas for change that stem from these perspectives. Feminist criminologists have remained concerned with questions of whether, in fact, male-based theories of crime apply to explanations of female criminality; why gender matters so much in official measures of crime; why women are victimized at much higher rates than men; how and whether women are treated differently within the criminal justice system; and why women appear over- and underrepresented relative to men in certain crimes. This is certainly not an exclusive list, but it creates a streamlined method of summarizing the primary concerns of the majority of feminist criminological work to date.

The feminist focus on women arguably began with a focus on women’s victimization in a largely patriarchal system. The focus on female victimization inevitably led to the discovery of an important link between girls’ and women’s victimization and their later histories of offending. Furthermore, this focused inquiry on female offending highlighted the lack of much needed scholarly attention to women’s crime. Specifically, feminists have been concerned with how a gender-based social structure (i.e., one dominated by patriarchy) has influenced women’s social participation in ways that disadvantage them. In this realm, gender is accepted as something socially constructed and different than biological sex. Gender—masculinity or femininity—is imbued with deeply embedded social meanings and expectations.

Indeed, it is important to note that feminist scholarship, regardless of its form, has helped transcend the dichotomy between crime as male and victimization as female. Indeed, feminist scholarship has refocused attention on men and crime and what “doing gender” means for both. Unfortunately, the lack of research and other scholarly attention to women’s crime has yielded consequences. First, scholars, instead of attempting to understand why women commit crime, have labeled women “bad” if they committed crime. Women have historically and unquestionably been treated in overly controlling ways, especially in patriarchal systems that value “good” women, that is, those who are largely subservient to men and to male-created institutions. Second, policies, practices, and programs designed for male offenders have been applied to female offenders in largely unacknowledged ways. The number of women as arrestees and as members of correctional populations has gone largely unnoticed or studied, even when their numbers have grown at rates faster than men. Contemporary scholarship has moved beyond the invisibility of female offenders, though. The rest of this research paper outlines what we know about women’s pathways into crime; their patterns of victimization; the nature and extent of female offending; and their participation in the criminal justice system, including their experiences in jail and prison.

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