Feminist Criminology

III. Emergence of Feminist Criminology

Until the latter half of the 20th century, most criminological work focused on male offenders and criminal justice system responses to male crime. The lack of attention to female offending stemmed from the fact that most crime was committed by males. However, by the last two decades of the 20th century, female incarceration rates were skyrocketing, leading to a surge in research on girls, women, crime, and the criminal justice system. Many scholars point to the “war on drugs” and the federal sentencing reforms of the 1980s as the primary explanations of the large increase in female prisoners as well as of the emergence of feminist criminological scholarship. Clearly, the war on drugs and federal reforms are the driving forces behind the tremendous increase in the incarceration of women. However, the roots of feminist criminology predate these changes. They are instead found in second-wave feminism as well as in the radical criminology of the 1960s and the 1970s.

A. The Gender Equality Argument

In the 1960s, scholars began to argue that women were ignored in criminological theorizing and research. This early interest come not from within the United States but instead from Canada and Great Britain (cf. Bertrand, 1969, and Heidensohn, 1968). According to these scholars, the role of gender had been largely ignored, other than noting that males committed more crime. Thus, theories had been developed that could explain the gender gap in crime but that were sorely lacking in being able to equally well explain female crime. The second-wave feminism of the mid-20th century led to a renewed interest in female offenders. Two important books were published in the early 1970s, derived from second-wave liberal feminism’s focus on gender equality: (1)Adler’s (1975) Sisters in Crime and (2) Simon’s (1975) Women and Crime. Although they focused on different aspects of the issue and reached somewhat different conclusions, both argued that the mid-20th-century women’s movement changed both female participation in crime and perceptions of female participation in crime. Indeed, the central thesis of these two works was that women would engage in more crime as a result of women’s liberation. Also, with the focus on equal treatment, the criminal justice response to female offending would become harsher and less “chivalrous.”

Both books were important in bringing more attention to female crime and the criminal justice system’s response to female crime, but the focus on increased criminal opportunities for women coming out of the push for equality has been critiqued by feminist criminologists. Among the criticisms, two broad themes emerged. First, scholars questioned whether lower-class female offenders were acting out of a desire to achieve equality with male offenders or whether increases in female crime might be due to the “feminization of poverty,” because the composition of families in poverty became increasingly dominated by female-headed households. In addition, these scholars pointed out that lower-income female offenders tended to have more traditional and stereotypical views of women’s roles, calling into question the idea that these offenders were trying to compete with men in the realm of crime (Daly & Chesney-Lind, 1988). Second, careful analysis of data failed to support the contention that the gap between male and female offending was narrowing (Steffensmeier & Allan, 1996). The focus of feminist criminological thought began shifting to the ways in which social and economic structures shaped women’s lives as well as their participation in crime.

B. The Influence of Critical Criminology

The second major factor in the rise of feminist criminology during the 1970s was the emergence of the “new criminologies,” or the radical, conflict approaches to the study of crime. With intellectual roots grounded in conflict and Marxist theory, these perspectives viewed crime as the result of oppression, especially gender, race, and class oppression. Both radical criminology and feminist criminology emerged during the highly political, socially conscious 1960s and 1970s. In the United States and much of the Western world, this was an era of rapid social change and political unrest. Existing ideologies and power structures were challenged, and social movements emerged, including the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s liberation movement.

However, feminist criminologists quickly became somewhat disenchanted with what was perceived as the overly idealistic and still male-centered approach of critical/radical criminology. The “new criminology” view of the offender as a noble warrior engaged in a struggle with a powerful state (Young, 1979) also angered radical feminists working to end intimate violence and rape. Feminist criminology began instead focusing on the ways in which a patriarchal society enabled the abuse of women. Radical feminism, with its focus on the consequences of patriarchy, contributed to the burgeoning body of feminist criminological scholarship.

C. Radical Feminism and Feminist Criminology

During the early 1970s, radical feminist scholars and activists labored to reform the public response to crimes such as rape and intimate violence. Prior to the revision of policies and laws, rape victims were often blamed for their victimization. Two seminal works during the mid-1970s brought the victimization of women by men into the forefront of feminist criminology and were extremely influential in the development of feminist criminological thought. Susan Brownmiller’s (1975) Against Our Will was a searing analysis of the role of male dominance in the crime of rape. Similarly, Carol Smart (1976) critiqued mainstream criminological theories, not only for their failure to look at crime through a gendered lens but also for their assumption that victimization was a similar experience for all victims. Smart argued that mainstream theories failed to recognize how the patriarchal structure of society contributed to and shaped the victimization of women.

The contribution of radical feminism to the development of feminist criminology is important for two reasons. First, in collaboration with community activists, radical feminist scholars were able to effect social change. Violence against women became a matter of public concern. Shelters for battered women began emerging throughout the country, and rape laws were reformulated to protect the victims from undue scrutiny. Until the mid-1970s, victims of rape were essentially placed on trial themselves. Proof of rape required evidence that the victim had resisted as well as corroborating evidence. Also, the victim’s past sexual conduct could be introduced as evidence by the defense. The feminist approach to rape incorporated the perspective of the victim, and ultimately rape shield laws were enacted that barred introduction of the victim’s past sexual behavior into evidence.

Second, the feminist scholarship on rape and intimate violence impacted mainstream criminology. This has led to a revised understanding of the complexities of victimization. Statistics support the feminist position that women’s victimization is intrinsically and fundamentally different than that of men. For example, women are far more likely to be victimized by someone close to them. From the radical feminist perspective, this is because social institutions and norms facilitate the victimization of women.

Much like the feminist scholarship on sexual violence, feminist criminological research has helped reshape our understanding of violence within the home and between partners. Much of the early research on intimate violence stems from work using the Conflict Tactics Scale developed by Straus and Gelles (1986). Feminist scholars have pointed out that although this scale measures the incidence of a wide range of aggressive tactics, it fails to place them in context. Stanko’s (1990) examination of everyday violence provided evidence that women’s victimization was frequently unreported. Thus, research conducted by feminist criminologists, in conjunction with activism, impacted not only laws but also police practices. Eventually, the National Crime Victimization Survey was reformulated to address the experiences of female victims. Questions about rape and sexual assault were added, as were questions about violent victimization in the home (Britton, 2000). By 1994, the Federal Violence Against Women Act was passed. Prevention and intervention programs were developed, aggressive prosecution was pursued, and funding for research became available. More recently, the International Violence Against Women Act has carried this focus on the rights of women to safety into the international arena.

In summary, feminist criminological thought gained prominence during the highly political era of the 1960s and 1970s. At first, the field focused on the missing information on girls and women in criminological scholarship. As the field grew, the focus shifted to include violence against women as well as the development of feminist criminological theories and feminist ways of approaching existing theories. A broad base of scholarship has been amassed from the women’s liberation movement, critical theories, and radical feminism. The following section focuses on feminist approaches to theoretical explanations of crime and criminality. This is followed by a summary of the subject matter of feminist scholarship.