Feminist school of criminology

The feminist school of criminology is a school of criminology developed in the late 1960s and into the 1970s as a reaction to the general disregard and discrimination of women in the traditional study of crime.[1] Feminist criminologists note that the field of criminology has historically been dominated by men, leading to the development of criminological theories that focus on the male experience. This patriarchal domination is not unique to criminological theory, as it is also reflected in the criminal justice system which is cited as a gender institution itself.[2][3] Both feminist criminologists, as well as criminologists that do not ascribe to this label, have argued that much of early criminological theory is both inherently biased and androcentric.[4] Feminist criminology challenges mainstream criminology to no longer assume theories explaining male crime are equally valid for explaining crime committed by females.[5] This practice is referred to as the "generalizability problem" (i.e. "adding" women to male knowledge, whereby the findings from research on men are generalized to women). By utilizing a feminist methodology, feminist criminologists work to address the "gender ratio" problem (i.e. why women are less likely than men to commit crime).

The feminist school of criminology was closely associated with the emergence of the Second Wave Feminism and it speaks with multiple viewpoints developed from different feminist writers. There is no one feminist criminology. Similar to feminist theory as a whole, there are debates within the field as to the cause of inequality that shape multiple perspectives within this branch of criminology.[6] The feminist school of criminology emphasizes that the social roles of women are different from the roles of men, leading to different pathways toward deviance, crime, and victimization that are overlooked by other criminological theories.[4] Early feminist criminologists noted the need for feminist criminology based on three areas in criminology where scholarship about women (in comparison to men) was sparse. These areas include women as criminal offenders, women as victims of crime, and women working in the field of criminal justice.[7]


Criminology is the study of crime and criminal justice, and it covers a multitude of topics, but according to those of the feminist school of criminology the principal theories of criminality have been developed from male subjects, have been validated on male subjects, and focus on male victimization. This 'sexism' in criminology also influences the sentencing, punishment, and imprisonment of women who are not expected to be criminals and, if they are, they may be described as 'mad, not bad'.[8] The attribution of madness to women flows from the entirely outdated construct that women who conform are pure, obedient daughters, wives, and mothers who benefit society and men. If they dared to go against their natural biological traits of 'passivity' and a 'weakness of compliance', they must be mentally ill: a classic androcentric view which has been held by few academics in decades. Feminism operates within the existing social structures to examine the social, political, and economic experience of women and to devise strategies for achieving greater equality (via inequality) in women's roles. This involves considering how women came to occupy subservient roles, the nature of male privilege, and the means whereby the discourses that constitute the power of patriarchy can be redirected to transform society.

As it is, gender role expectations continue to define acceptable behaviors and attitudes for females and males; deviation from these expectations may result in a variety of societal sanctions ranging from verbal abuse to violence to incarceration. These roles are a powerful form of social control maintained through informal and formal mechanisms. Heidensohn (1992, 2000) suggests a male-biased control theory:

  • "a woman's place is in the home": a woman has fewer opportunities for criminal activity because the routine of domesticity keeps her in the home. In any event, women are more afraid to go out of the home after dark because they fear aggressive male behavior.
  • at work, men have a supervisory or managerial role (often characterized by women as harassment) which makes it more difficult for women to commit major crimes.

Further, those of the feminist school of criminology claim that men are the dominant group and the standard of normality and have maintained inequality through control of the definition of deviance and of the institutions of social control. Naffine argues that women have been defined as different from men and, hence, inferior; that stigma has acted to deny them their full civil rights and access to societal resources (Naffine: 1996).

Feminists waves may have brought greater liberation to women, but have not changed their pattern of crime. Women are still much less likely to commit crime; this includes both blue and white collar crime. Feminist criminology is conflict based calling for the downgrading of many dominant crime theories, as they were constructed without consideration for feminist viewpoints. Feminists now call for the inclusion of women into criminological teaching, research, theory and publications.[9]

Most criminological texts (from 19th century men) and discussions almost forgot about women as they were afforded little attention as they were grouped with juvenile delinquents and the mentally insane. Smart argues this grouping with the more neglected members of the criminal world was a reflection of the females role in the community; women had lacked "civil and legal status", therefore it was acceptable for women to be grouped with juvenile offenders and mentally challenged offenders.[10] Smart continues by arguing that the study of criminology was always in reference to men, in reference to a male's rationality, motivation, alienation and his victim who was always male. The disqualification of women from the criminological field was evident in criminological texts as it was assumed the man could speak for her. In criminology, just as in society, man was the center of the universe and women were merely their complement.

Gender ratio

Research methods are "technique(s) for ... gathering data" and are either quantitative or qualitative. It has been argued that methodology has been gendered (Oakley 1997; 1998), with quantitative methods traditionally being associated with words such as positivism, scientific, objectivity, statistics and masculinity, while qualitative methods have generally been associated with interpretivism, non-scientific, subjectivity and femininity. The statistics generated by crime reporting show that fewer women commit crimes, and far fewer women are victims of crime, but there has been little research to explain this difference.

The history of male stereotypes

Critique has been the essential tool for the production of feminist theory. Victorian America viewed women in accordance with inflexible ideals of femininity, and the male-dominated criminal courts were inhibited by notions of chivalry when required to apply justice to women whom cultural norms had determined to be "pure, passive and dependent", and whom, leading experts claimed, seldom committed crimes. Feminist criminology challenged 'malestream' criminology. Later, Otto Pollak (1950) claimed that men were socialised to treat women in a fatherly and protective manner. Female offenders were like their mothers and wives, and the male judiciary could not imagine them behaving in a criminal way. Women were therefore protected: their criminal activity was less likely to be detected, reported, prosecuted, or sentenced harshly. Chivalry had only positive effects on women who were essentially more deceitful than men, and were the instigators rather than the perpetrators of crime. This greater capacity for deceit may have come from the 'passive' role which, according to Pollack, women have to assume during sexual intercourse. Less flatteringly, The Criminality of Women also claimed that women prefer professions like maids, nurses, teachers, and homemakers so that they can engage in undetectable crime. He also thought women were especially subject to certain mental diseases like kleptomania and nymphomania.

The most investigated "difference" between the sexes was biological. Cesare Lombroso (1903) identified the female physiognomy thought most likely to determine criminal propensity. This was the new science of "criminal anthropology" matching the general fascination with Darwinism and physical anthropology, where scientists sought pathological and atavistic causes for criminal behaviour. While he credited criminal women as being stronger than men, the consequence was that prison would hardly affect them at all. Lombroso concluded true female criminals were rare and showed few signs of degeneration because they had "evolved less than men due to the inactive nature of their lives".[11] Lombroso argued it was the females' natural passivity that withheld them from breaking the law, as they lacked the intelligence and initiative to become criminal.[12]

Sigmund Freud theorized that all women experience penis envy and seek to compensate for this inferiority complex by being exhibitionistic and narcissistic, focusing on irrational and trivial matters instead of being interested in building a just civilisation. William I. Thomas (1907) published Sex and Society in which he argued that men and women possessed essentially different personality traits. Men were more criminal because of their biologically determined active natures. Women were more passive and less criminally capable. In The Unadjusted Girl (1923) he argued that women have a greater capacity to love than men and they suffer more when they do not receive social approval and affection. The "unadjusted girls" are those who use their sexuality in a socially unacceptable way to get what they want from life. The female criminal forgoes the conventional rewards of domesticity by refusing to accept prevailing modes of sexuality and seeks excitement, wealth, and luxury: a pursuit that may conflict with the interests of the social group as it also exercises the freedom to pursue similar goals.

More modern theories

Strain theories are criticised by feminists as betraying a double standard. When male offenders commit a crime under certain conditions of opportunity blockage, their commission of crime is somehow seen as a "normal" or functional response. When women commit crime, Strain Theory views it as some sort of "weakness". Naffine (1987) probably represents the best example of this critique, but there are other critiques, such as the characterisation of females as "helpmates" or facilitators of crime in the Strain Theories of Albert K. Cohen, and Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin.

The research methodology in Social Learning Theories, such as Edwin Sutherland's Differential Association Theory, is criticised for relying on male examples, using case studies of males only, and being a male-dominated perspective that glamorises the male criminal, or at least the sociable, gregarious, active, and athletic characteristics of the male criminal. Similarly, Social Control Theories, such as Hirschi's Social Bond Theory, focuses almost exclusively on social class at the expense of gender and race.

Female theories about female offending

Adler (1975) proposed that the emancipation of women during the 1970s increased economic opportunities for women and allowed women to be as crime-prone as men. 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: 3). She suggested that as women were climbing up the corporate business ladder, they were making use of their 'vocational liberation' to pursue careers in white-collar crime. However, feminism has made female crime more visible through increased reporting, policing and the sentencing of female offenders and, even then, the statistical base is small in comparison to men. Carlen (1985) argues that Adler's 'new female criminal' is cast as the 'biological female' who is essentially masculine. The 'new female' criminal turns out to be the 'old maladjusted masculine female' of traditional criminology, rejecting her proper feminine role such as institutionalising rather than incarcerating women who commit 'male' offences such as robbery, i.e. Adler's 'sisters in crime' appears to work within the frameworks of traditional criminology rather than a feminist one. For an examination of gender in crimes of violence, see Alder.

A debate in the recent criminology literature has focused on the handling of female offenders as they are processed through the criminal justice system. There are two competing perspectives. The chivalry or paternalism hypothesis which echoes the perception of female inmates as victims, argues that women are treated more leniently than men at various stages of the supposedly male-dominated justice process as a function of the male desire to protect the weaker (Crew: 1991; Erez, 1992). The "evil women" hypothesis holds that women often receive harsher treatment than men in the criminal justice system and suggests that this different treatment results from the notion that criminal women have violated not only legal boundaries but also gender role expectations (Chesney-Lind, 1984; Erez, 1992). Simon (1975) predicted that the criminal justice system would start treating men and women offenders equally. There is mixed empirical evidence for this emancipation or liberation thesis, and some would say that absolutely no empirical evidence exists for it and the notion is discredited (Chesney-Lind & Pasko 2004). Sex differentials in sentencing are subject to a variety of interpretations, and not all feminists want the criminal justice system to treat women equally. It seems that women are not committing the "big take" offences like stock fraud and other white-collar crimes, or bank robberies. Instead, they are admitted to the justice system charged with committing different crimes. Wundersitz (1988) and Crew (1991) consider the chivalry and paternalism factors in the process.

Farrington and Morris (1983) found some empirical evidence that women did receive less severe punishments, but female offenders are far more likely to be first-time offenders, and to have committed a less serious form of the relevant offence; they stole smaller or fewer items, used less violence, and so on. Prior history of offending, and seriousness of offence, are fundamental factors in determining severity of sentence, for any offender. Once these variables are entered into the equation, it is possible to conclude that female offenders are not being treated any differently from males in equivalent circumstances. However, the evidence does suggest that married women with a caring role are more likely to be treated leniently. Unmarried women or those in unconventional relationships tended to receive more harsh treatment, confirming a sentencing model based a cultural need to reinforce gender roles within a framework of heterosexual marriage or family life. Kruttschnitt (1982) investigated the link between economic independence, informal social control, and heavier sentences for women. In a study of convictions in a Californian population in the 1970s Kruttschnitt found that sentence may differ with the extent to which a woman is economically dependent upon someone else for her day-to-day existence: the more dependent she is, the less severe her disposition. Thus, the degree to which a female offender can be shown to be under informal social control may produce a lighter formal sentence.

Chapman (1980) studied the connection between labour force participation and, and revealed an increase in female criminal activity during times of economic hardship. The smallest increases in arrests coincided with periods of the greatest increase in economic activity with the most common offense being that of shop lifting. These findings would seem to support a theory of a relationship between employment and crime rather than that offered by the 'women's liberation thesis'. When times are good, the offending woman appears to stabilise rather than escalate. An absence rather than availability of employment opportunities (liberation thesis) would seem a more plausible explanation for increases in female crime. Naffine (1987: 99) believes the criminal woman's motive appears more rational and straight forward than manifesting her gender-role concerns or seeking to compete with the criminal male.

Biological explanations of female criminality

Criminology texts usually do not cover the broad possibilities that may account for female criminality. A criticism of criminological explanations of female crime is its insistence on presuming the nature of females and their predisposition away from crime. Smart (1976:176) argues that this determinate model of female criminality assumes an "inherent and natural distinction exists between the temperament, ability and conditionability of men and women". Past studies of women have developed myths about female criminality; criminologists have explained female criminals as being more "cruel and sinister than that of the male. She is described as unnatural, masculine" (Burke 2001:162), and lacking the qualities that would make them reserved and obedient females. This approach has been criticised as it assumes any female that varies from the traditional female role is criminal or likely criminal and it assumes that there is a large and significant difference between men and women. Smart argues that the differences that exist between males and females are of little importance in the study of crime as the factors that cause crime are "culturally determinate rather than a reflection of the natural qualities of the sexes" (1976:176).

Feminists have levelled complaints at this angle of criminology that assumes females are controlled by their biology and are incapable of thinking for themselves; feminists point out that while criminological thinking has surpassed the gloomy days of biological determinism and the predetermined actor model of crime, criminological explanations of female crime has not. Some criminologists suggest a link between "hormonal changes in pregnancy, menstruation and female criminal behaviour" and crime (Burke 2001:164). Furthermore, in criminal cases women have used defences such as post-natal depression as the reason for infanticide and other crimes. The reliance upon biological reasons for a female's criminality has reinforced societal views of the biologically criminal female. Society therefore, neglects to account for other reasons such as social and economic ones for a female's criminal act.


Feminists argue criminological texts neglect the victimisation of women; the victimisation of women is forgotten:[13]

  • Three out of four women will be victims of violent crimes during their lives.[14]
  • Violence is the leading cause of injuries to women aged 15 to 44.[14]
  • 50 per cent of homeless women and children are fleeing domestic violence.[14]
  • Less than 1 per cent of rape victims have collected damages.[14]
  • Domestic violence costs the state between 5-10 billion each year.[15]

Feminists argue these figures would not be ignored if society was not so accepting of female exploitation. Domestic violence and rape are increasingly being reported, as they have been given greater significance and a deeper understanding by society. Past generations of women have suffered in silence due to the lack of importance the police and criminology have afforded women's victimisation.

Another criticism levied at criminology by feminists is the lack of interest given to women who are the silent sufferer whilst their male partner is in prison. Criminological studies generally focus on the prisoner and his relationship with the penal system, having little interest for the females concerns. Prisoner studies detail the anguish suffered by the imprisoned men who are separated from their families but we hear nothing of the suffering of the women and their families who are the other side of that relationship".[16]


Carlen[17] believes there are shortcomings in feminist theories of criminality. Carlen points to three key areas of female offending that feminist theory cannot explain;

  • That women's crimes are that of the underclass, suggesting class conflict
  • Female offending is disproportionately from ethnic groups suggesting race conflict
  • Women in prison have usually suffered from poverty


  1. Daly, Kathleen; Chesney-Lind, Meda (1988). "Feminism and Criminology". Justice Quarterly. 5 (4): 497–538. doi:10.1080/07418828800089871.
  2. Britton, Dana M. (1997). "GENDERED ORGANIZATIONAL LOGIC: Policy and Practice in Men's and Women's Prisons". Gender and Society. 6 (6): 796–818. doi:10.1177/089124397011006005.
  3. Moore, Lori (2010). "Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Girls' Sentencing in the Juvenile Justice System". Feminist Criminology. 5 (3): 263–285. doi:10.1177/1557085110380583.
  4. Chesney-Lind, Meda (1989). "Girls' Crime and Woman's Place: Toward a Feminist Model of Female Delinquency". Crime and Delinquency. 35: 5–29. doi:10.1177/0011128789035001002.
  5. Britton, Dana M. "Feminism in Criminology: Engendering the Outlaw" (PDF). Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 571, Feminist Views of the Social Sciences (Sep., 2000), pp. 57-76. Sage Publications, Inc. Retrieved 27 July 2012.
  6. SIMPSON, SALLY S. (November 1989). "FEMINIST THEORY, CRIME, AND JUSTICE*". Criminology. 27 (4): 605–632. doi:10.1111/j.1745-9125.1989.tb01048.x. ISSN 0011-1384.
  7. Belknap, Joanne (1996). Invisible Woman. Wadsworth Publishing. ISBN 978-0-534-15870-5.
  8. Lloyd, 1995: xvii as cited in KeltaWeb (2005): A Feminist Perspective on Women and Crime. Available from: http://www.keltawebconcepts.com.au/efemcrim1.htm Archived 2011-01-23 at the Wayback Machine. [Accessed 09/08/05]
  9. Vito, G. and Holmes, R. (1994). Criminology. Theory, Research and Policy. International Thomson Publishing, California.
  10. Smart, C. (1976). Women, Crime and Criminology. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.
  11. Burke, R. (2001). An Introduction to Criminological Theory. Willan Publishing, Devon.
  12. van Wormer, Katherine Stuart; Bartollas, Clemens (2014). Women and the Criminal Justice System (4th ed.). Boston: Pearson. p. 400. ISBN 978-0-13-314135-1.
  13. O'Brien, Jodi A., ed. (2009). "Crime and Criminal Justice, Gender and". Encyclopedia of gender and society, Volume 1. Sage. p. 206.
  14. David Souter's dissent in U.S. v. Morrison, 169 F.3d 820
  15. Muraskin, R. and Roberts, A. (2002). Visions for Change. Crime and Justice in the Twenty First Century. Prentice Hall, New Jersey.
  16. Smart 1976
  17. Carlen, P., (1992) 'Criminal Women and Criminal Justice, the Limits to and the Potential of, Feminist and Left Realist Perspectives', in Matthews, R., and Young, J., (eds), Issues in Realist Criminology. Sage, London.


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