II. The Scope of Feminist Criminology
Criminology has traditionally been one of the most androcentric (male-centered) fields of study in the social sciences. The majority of the research and theory have been based on the study of male criminality and criminal justice system responses to male offenders. Women, when considered at all, have been represented in negative and stereotypical ways, with a focus on their failure to adhere to “traditional” models of appropriate female behavior, as in W. I. Thomas’s (1923) paternalistic view of women. Furthermore, in its quest to be recognized as a scholarly field, criminology has focused on objective empirical research, using official records and large national surveys. The result has been a failure to consider important differences in male and female pathways into crime, types of crime, victimization, and punishments. Feminist criminology seeks to address this limitation by enhancing our understanding of both male and female offending as well as criminal justice system responses to their crimes.
Feminist criminologists seek to place gender at the center of the discourse, bringing women’s ways of understanding the world into the scholarship on crime, criminality, and responses to crime. In the following sections, the focus will be on the emergence of feminist criminology; the range of perspectives and methods used in feminist criminological research; and the maturing of feminist criminology, both in scholarship and in visibility.
II. The Scope of Feminist Criminology
It is readily apparent that males do indeed commit far more offenses, especially those deemed important to criminology, than females do (see Daly & Chesney-Lind, 1988). This focus has been in part due to the relationship of criminology with legislative and corrections systems. The field developed in part to help improve understanding of why people commit crimes so that policies could be enacted to reduce those crimes. Not only do women commit fewer crimes, but also they commit crimes that are of less interest to those concerned about public safety. Thus, women were largely ignored until the 1970s.
Additionally, the Weberian value-free approach to the study of criminology has failed to recognize that the experiences of the researchers themselves shape and formulate their own approaches to their research. This has resulted in an unreflective supposition that data and theories about boys and men would be generalizable to girls and women. Researchers and theorists have assumed that the study of male crime was the generic study of crime and that women who engaged in crime were more of an aberration than a subject to be studied in and of itself. Ultimately, the feminist approach to criminology emerged from the critique of this practice.
It has been only in the last 30 years that feminist criminology has developed into a recognized perspective in criminology. However, the term feminist criminology is somewhat misleading; it might perhaps be better to speak of feminist criminologies. Feminist criminology encompasses a wide range of theoretical perspectives and methodologies that place the ways in which gender shapes experience at the center of scholarly inquiry. It focuses on a broad range of issues related to women and crime, including theoretical explanations of crime, responses to female offending, programming in women’s prisons, women as workers in the field of corrections, and the special needs of women prisoners. Feminist thought is not a homogeneous approach; it incorporates the liberal feminist focus on equal opportunities for women, the Marxist feminist focus on class relations and capitalism as the source of women’s oppression, socialist feminists’ blending of male domination with political and economic structures in society as the source of inequality, and the radical feminist focus on patriarchal domination of women, to name the most well-known branches. However, these feminist approaches have in common their focus on the ways in which the gendered structure of society is related to crime.