Feminist Criminology

IV. Criminological Theories From a Feminist Perspective

As suggested earlier in this research paper, feminist criminological theorizing is not limited to one approach. Feminist criminologists have adopted many different perspectives, the most noteworthy of which are a feminist approach to mainstream criminological theory, feminist pathways theory, socialist feminist theory, and the most recent development: multiple marginalities/intersectionality theories.

A. Mainstream Theories and Feminist Criminology

A major thrust of feminist criminology has been the critique of the development of mainstream theories based on research with boys and men. The “add women and stir” approach of mainstream criminology has meant that gender, if considered at all, has frequently been used only as a control variable. Although this has provided confirmation that males are indeed more criminal than females, virtually no information about female criminality can be garnered through this type of research. There are two unspoken assumptions inherent in this approach with which feminist criminologists take issue. First is the tacit assumption that, because males are far more likely than females to engage in criminal behavior, females are somehow unimportant to the field. Second, mainstream criminology assumes that males and females are alike and that what works to explain male criminality will work equally well to explain female criminality.

In particular, theories like Merton’s (1938) strain theory have been criticized by feminist criminologists for their focus on economic goals and their failure to consider how personal relationships may contribute to criminality. Merton argued that crime was largely the result of having the American dream as a goal but lacking opportunities to achieve this goal in a legitimate manner. Feminist criminologists argued that Merton’s theory was obviously not equally applicable to women. They pointed out that, although women were certainly more financially blocked than men, they committed far less crime (Belknap & Holsinger, 2006). Likewise, social learning and differential association theories, with their focus on peer attitudes and behaviors, have been criticized for the failure to take into account the gendered nature of peer relationships. Whereas male delinquency is strongly linked to having peers with delinquent behaviors and attitudes, this is far less true for females. Actually, females who are intimately involved with older delinquent males may be introduced to crime and delinquency by these intimate partners rather than by their peers. Although this is certainly not an exhaustive list of mainstream theories critiqued by feminist criminologists, it does give an idea of the male-dominated approach taken by purportedly gender-neutral theories.

However, other feminist criminologists have argued that mainstream theories may still be used if they are restructured and operationalized in a manner that is more sensitive to the predictors of crime in both men and women. In particular, Agnew’s (1992) general strain theory attempts to be gender sensitive. By incorporating a broader range of sources of strain in the theory, he has attempted to address the concerns voiced by feminists. In his theory, he has explicitly focused on relationship strains as well as on negative life experiences, both of which are important predictors of female delinquency. Also, he has pointed out that men and women tend to have different emotional reactions to strain, possess different coping skills and resources, and commit different types of offenses (Broidy &Agnew, 1997). A feminist operationalization of general strain theory could explicitly examine the role of abuse histories in predicting female crime. Agnew has argued that it is not strain per se but rather negative emotional responses to strain that lead to crime. Again, a thoughtful and gendered analysis would focus on how emotional responses and coping resources are gendered and how this would help explicate the different relationships between life experiences of males and females and their subsequent participation in crime. Indeed, general strain theory lends itself more to a gendered analysis than most, if not all, of the mainstream criminological theories.

Likewise, life course theories may offer an opportunity for a gendered exploration of women’s criminality. These theories not only look at factors important in the initiation of criminal behavior but also examine occurrences that may change the pathways from criminal to noncriminal, or vice versa. In a broad sense, life course theories suggest that it is the salience of an event or reason that determines the likelihood that someone engaging in criminal behavior will cease. In the case of men, this may be marriage or career. However, for women, it may be important to examine other reasons. In particular, the birth of a child may provide sufficient motivation for a woman engaging in criminal behaviors to change her trajectory to a noncriminal one.

Overall, the gendered use of mainstream theories is not particularly well received by feminist criminologists. Many argue that these theories fail to explore in detail the ways in which the experiences of girls and women shape their lives. In contrast, feminist pathways theory focuses explicitly on the relationship between life experiences and future criminality, arguing that one must consider the role of patriarchal society if one truly wishes to understand female crime and criminality.

B. Feminist Pathways Theory

Perhaps the greatest breakthrough in feminist criminological theory and research has come by means of the feminist pathways model. In the effort to demonstrate how female crime is inextricably linked to the life experiences of women and girls, this theory focuses on the ways in which women’s place in society leads them into criminal lifestyles. In numerous articles and books, Meda Chesney-Lind (see Chesney-Lind & Pasko, 2004) has laid out how childhood abuse and a patriarchal juvenile justice system shape the opportunities of girls, ultimately forcing them into criminal lifestyles. She argues that, unlike boys, girls’ initial encounters with the juvenile justice system are largely the result of status offenses, such as running away or engaging in sexual activity. The patriarchal double standard means that girls engaging in these behaviors are seen as immoral and in need of “correction.” Girls and women have historically faced institutionalization for engaging in behaviors that were at the most mildly frowned on in males. Indeed, girls suspected of sexual “misconduct” have often been treated more harshly than either boys or girls engaging in criminal activity. It is this patriarchal, paternalistic approach to the social control of the behavior of females that pushes them into contact with the juvenile justice system. Furthermore, there has been a failure to recognize that early sexual behaviors, as well as running away from home, are frequently the result of abuse within the home. Instead of intervening in the lives of abused girls, society has reacted with a double standard that labels these girls as incorrigible and/or immoral. By punishing these girls for behaviors that may actually be self-preserving (e.g., running away from abusive or neglectful homes), society may be further limiting their life chances by identifying them as delinquents. This perspective also examines the relationship between abuse and substance abuse, the number one offense leading to women’s imprisonment. Substance abuse is seen as a coping mechanism. Girls and women often use alcohol and drugs to self-medicate their trauma that has resulted from abuse they have experienced. This is an important point, because the majority of incarcerated girls and women have substance abuse problems. Likewise, the majority of these “offenders” have histories of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. Feminist pathways theory seeks to illuminate the connections between the abuse and exploitation of young females and their subsequent offending. It is arguably the dominant approach in contemporary feminist criminology.

C. Socialist Feminist Criminology

It would be remiss in any treatise on feminist criminology to exclude a discussion of how feminist criminology has led to examination of masculinity and crime. As discussed earlier, part of the feminist critique of criminology is the ungendered examination of crime. Feminist criminological scholarship has led to efforts to incorporate a clearer understanding of the experiences of both males and females. Messerschmidt (1986) focused on the ways in which patriarchal capitalism structures the experiences of both males and females. He laid out a theory that seeks to explain both male and female crimes of various types and argued that one cannot ignore either economic structures or gender relationships in any true explanation of crime. His theory suggests that marginalized lower class and minority males engage in street crimes because of their blocked opportunities and their roles as males in a patriarchal capitalistic society. In contrast, the structure of gender relations in society tends to relegate women’s crime to low-level larceny and fraud.

In keeping with the feminist focus on crimes against women, Messerschmidt (1986) also explored the sexual exploitation of women in the sex trade in third world countries, showing how both patriarchy and capitalism place these women in desperate situations where they submit to exploitation in order to survive. In addition, he drew links between economic inequality and male-dominated family patterns in his discussion of male violence against women. Finally, he provided a masterful blending of theories about male privilege as well as theories about capitalism in his examination of higher level white-collar and corporate crimes, which are committed primarily by males. His work is extremely important to the development of feminist criminology because he directly addresses the feminist criticism that most criminology ignores how gender relations structure crime. His theory illustrates that the feminist approach is cognizant of both men’s and women’s experiences, seeking to illuminate how gender is intrinsically related to crime.

D. Feminist Criminology and Multiple Marginalities

As in many of the social sciences, early feminist criminological scholarship has been criticized for its assumption that the experiences of all women are similar. This has led to scholarship that acknowledges the intertwined effects of gender, race, class, and sexual identity. In many ways, the critical race critique of feminist criminology has been similar to the feminist critique of mainstream criminology. The charge is that feminist criminologists have in many ways essentialized the experiences of women, assuming that all women are alike. Proponents of intersectionality and multiple marginality argue that race, class, and gender are each impacted by the social structure and in turn impact individuals. Furthermore, these impacts interact. It is not simply being female, being African American, being lesbian, or being poor that matters; neither are the effects cumulative. Instead, there is an interaction that evolves from the intersection of statuses. One’s actions and opportunities are structured by one’s placement along each of these dimensions. Thus, the experiences of, for example, Hispanic women are different from those of Hispanic men as well as white or African American women (Burgess-Proctor, 2006).

V. Methodology in Feminist Criminology

Not only does feminist criminology encompass many topics, but it also uses many methodologies. Like their mainstream counterparts, feminist criminologists use both quantitative and qualitative methods, often triangulating or combining them to draw on the strengths of each. On the quantitative side, they may examine official data and use large-scale surveys to explore both the relationships between women’s experiences and their offending and official responses to women and how those may be colored by gender. In qualitative research, feminist scholars use a broad range of methodologies. In particular, focus groups, in-depth interviews, and life histories provide information to help tease out the complexity of relationships between victimization and offending. Often, a combination is used, with information from surveys or official data suggesting questions to be explored qualitatively and qualitative research informing the statistics (Owen, 1998).

One final aspect of feminist scholarship and research should be addressed. We have seen that mainstream criminology places emphasis on the researcher taking a value-free stance, detaching himself or herself from the subject matter of the research. From the feminist perspective, however, this is an impossibility. The argument is that we are never free of our own beliefs and values, that those shape our research. In addition, the feminist criminological approach suggests the need for praxis or participatory action research. In contrast to the value-neutral approach of much social science research, participatory action research and praxis-driven methodologies stress the importance of research that is geared toward social change. In feminist criminology, this has meant working toward changes in laws, policies, and prisons. In feminist criminology, as in most areas of feminism, activism and scholarship are intrinsically intertwined.