Criminology refers to any kind of study concerned with crime and criminal justice. It is a term used to include a multitude of topics and approaches. Feminist perspectives, over the past thirty years have not only put some new topics under the criminological cover, they have challenged the theories, concepts, methods and assumptions of most of the people already involved in the study of crime. Criminology has for most feminist writers and researchers been a constraining rather than a constructive and creative influence. Theories of criminality have been developed from male subjects and validated on male subjects. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this, the problem is that these theories have been extended generally to include all criminals, defendants and prisoners. It was assumed that the theories would apply to women; most do not appear to do so.


Women are not expected to be criminals and if they are, they may be described as ‘mad not bad ‘ (Lloyd, 1995: xvii). The perception that women may be mad because they ‘dared to go against their natural biological givens such as ‘passivity’ and a ‘weakness of compliance’ ‘ appears to originate from the view that women who conform as pure, obedient daughters, wives and mothers benefit society and men (Feinman, 1994: 16).


The most recent data shows that women are in prison for the following crimes:


Drug related: 37%


Violence: 17%


Theft: 13%


Robbery: 11%


Other not specified: 9%


Burglary: 8%


Fraud: 4%


Motoring: 1%


Between 1997 and 2008 the number of women in prison had doubled reaching 100,000 over the course of 2008 having been about 40,000 in 1997.


Results from studies conducted by Gelsthorpe showed how sexual promiscuity amongst girls resulted in them being institutionalised and treated for ‘abnormal’ behaviour. On the other hand male’s sexual permissiveness was encouraged and thought to be ‘natural’ to the male persona (1989). According to Cain, these equity studies were ‘androcentric’ as ‘women and girls appeared to exist as ‘Other’. Men were used as the ‘yardsticks’ against which actions and treatment were measured (1990).


What is clear is that women are committing certain crimes at a different level to men. Female murderers are much rarer than male murderers and as the statistics above show, most women are in prison for drug-related crimes (37%) before there is a 20% drop to crimes related to violence (17%).


Lombroso and Ferrero believed that the different crimes committed by men and women are a result of their physical difference. This approach has been used by different writers to explain why the overwhelming bulk of women do not offend and conversely why only a small minority do. It starts from the belief that women are innately different from men, with a natural desire to be caring and nurturing – both of which tend not to be values that support crime. ‘Normal’ women are therefore less likely to commit crime. Dalton (1964) claimed that hormonal or menstrual factors can influence this minority of women to commit crime in certain circumstances.


Freda Adler believed that the arrival of the Second Wave of Feminism during the 1970s consequently coincided with a ‘dramatic’ upsurge in women’s criminal activity. She claimed while ‘women have demanded equal opportunity in the fields of legitimate endeavours, a similar number of determined women have forced their way into the world of major crime such as white collar crime, murder and robbery’ (Adler, 1975). That women criminals today represent a ‘new breed’ can be demonstrated, according to Adler, by evidence of the changing nature of female involvement in a wide variety of crimes. The emergence of this ‘new female criminal’ engaged in predatory crimes of violence and corporate fraud has broken into a man’s world (Brown, 1986). For example, female white-collar crime has increased since the ‘liberation’ of women. Adler suggests that as women are ‘climbing the corporate business ladder’, they are making use of their ‘vocational liberation’ to pursue careers in white-collar crime (1975)


Changes in female offending:


Denscombe (2001) believes that there has been an increase in female risk-taking behaviour and an adoption of traditionally male attitudes. This has led to a ‘ladette’ culture with the consequential increase in behaviour that is likely to lead to arrest; drunken behaviour and the violence associated with this.


Giordano and Cerkovich conducted studies in 1979 involving women between the ages of 17 and 29. Their findings suggested that the ‘more liberated’ the response to questions, the less delinquent participants were. For example, they found that women who believed women should enter the workforce and a woman’s role was not necessarily that of housewife and mother, were the least delinquent (1979).


James and Thornton revealed from studies involving women prisoners that those incarcerated were primarily from impoverished and uneducated backgrounds. When asked why they offended, responses did not appear to be ‘liberation’ motivated (1980). In other words, contrary to Adler’s theory of emancipation, feminism appeared to be a positive force for conformity when there was opportunity to offend.


Some theorists claim that ‘the female role’ limits offending. Parsons (1937) claimed that women tend to take up the expressive role in a family – providing emotional support and caring for children as a full-time job, rather than seeking paid work. Due to this obligation, women are seen as having less opportunity to commit crime, being required to stay at home, caring for children. However, nowadays we cannot assume that such obligations are a deterrent against committing crime. New technologies (such as the Internet) enable everyone to commit crime. A woman can be at home looking after her children, and, at the same time, she can be cheating innocent people on websites such as Ebay, or even committing identity theft or fraud.


Parson’s theory is obviously quite a dated theory, and we must take into account that now many women work (and many men stay at home to look after children). The idea of Joint Conjugal Roles and Dual Burdenmean that we cannot blame the lower figures of female criminality completely on the female role. Parsonswould also say that women are socialised from an early age into accepting their ‘gentle’ or ‘caring’ roles. They are also more closely observed throughout their youth, more likely than males to be chaperoned. However, from a contemporary point of view, this is not always the case. Denscombe (2001) looked at the increase in female risk-taking behaviour, and the new ‘ladette’ culture where young women want to be seen as anything but the typical stereotype of a woman.


Does a traditional female role as described by Parsons in 1937 limit female criminality? Hirschi believes this to be the case in his ‘bond of attachment’ theory. Hirschi claimed that the more attached an individual is to certain aspects of society (attachment, commitment, involvement in deviant or criminal activities, and values), the less likely they are to risk it all by committing crime. A woman with children has more at stake by committing crime, because if she is caught and sent to prison, her children will probably be put into care, or at least be very strongly affected by the loss of their mother. However, attachment and commitment are only 50% deterrent for committing crime. Without the conventional values (anomie) or with deviant influence, gender does not become such a factor. Also, even with children, we cannot assume that all women will feel so attached and committed to them that crime is not an option.


Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex

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