Feminist criminology was developed in the late 1960’s and the 1970’s and is based off of a reaction to stereotyping and gender distortions in the traditional field of criminology (O’Conner, “Feminist Criminology, Female Crime, and Integrated Theory”). While there are many branches of theories on feminist criminology, liberal, radical, Marxist, and socialist theories are traditionally the most recognized (O’Conner, et al). Feminist criminology attempts to redirect the thinking of mainstream criminologists to include more gender awareness and to correct the ratio problem of why women are less likely than men to commit a crime (gender ratio), and whether or not traditional male theories can be modified to explain female offending (generalizability) (O’Conner, et al). By examining the theories of feminist criminology, and the way that criminologist attempt to include more gender awareness from the past to present, we can have a better understanding of this small, but growing field.
Liberal feminist criminology theories operate within the existing social structures to draw notice to women's issues, promote women's rights, increase women's opportunities, and transform women's roles in society (O’Conner, “Feminist Criminology, Female Crime, and Integrated Theory”). Liberal feminists call for eradication of traditional separations of power and labor between the sexes as a way of eliminating inequality and promoting social harmony (Walsh & Hemmens, 241). “Women, Law, and Social Control” is a book written by Alida V. Merlo and Joycelyn M. Pollock based off of the liberal feminist ideals (Schmalleger, 364). The book contains articles that examine women as offenders, professionals, and victims, and explores current issues including: the increase in women's imprisonment rates, women as rape survivors, women who kill in abusive relationships, and women working within the criminal justice system (Schmalleger, 364). One of the main points of their book is to point out that feminists are regularly blamed in today’s political environment for the current upsurge in crime because many, by entering or creating the innovative family structures, have lowered what might otherwise be the positive effect of traditional family values on crime control (Schmalleger, 364). Two other examples of liberal feminist works include Rita Simon’s “Women and Crime” and Freda Adler’s “Sisters in Crime” (Hagan, 184). Both feminist criminologists predicted an increase in female crime as opportunities increased (Hagan, 184). Freda Adler assumed that as women assumed more masculine positions in society, they would participate in more “masculine” activities, including crime (Hagan, 184). While both Rita Simon and Freda Adler’s ideas may seem logical to some, little support for their thesis was found (Hagan, 184). Their thesis ideology was mainly strongly argued against by opposing radical feminist criminology views, because the greatest increase in female offenders wasn’t by those who were in a higher position in society (Hagan, 184). Radical feminists further argued against liberal feminists stating that they underestimated the role of patriarchy and it’s ability to control and victimize women (Hagan, 184).
Radical feminism often conflicts with and is compared to liberal feminism, as they have severely opposing views (Hagan, 184). Radical feminism looks at how women came to be expected to partake in submissive roles in the first place, what male power consists of, and how societies themselves can be transformed (O’Conner, “Feminist Criminology, Female Crime, and Integrated Theory”). Radical feminist criminology’s major theme is male patriarchy, or male power and domination in society, and ironically is the most dominant approach in feminism criminology today (Hagan, 184). Men are fundamentally viewed as being violent, aggressive, and controlling towards women throughout history, and by taking taken advantage of a woman’s biological dependence to have children and their lack of physical strength in comparison with men (Schmalleger, 363). Radical feminists believe that as boys grow into men they are conditioned to be aggressive resulting in male dominance in their quest for overall power in society (Schmalleger, 363). Since men do hold such high power in society, they control the law, and women are consequently defined as objects, who may be sexually or physically exploited (Schmalleger, 364). In reaction to how women are treated, radical theorists believe that women may run away or turn to substance abuse and become criminalized (Schmalleger, 364). In order to prevent women from becoming criminalized, being treated violently and maliciously, and to change the status of women in society, radical feminists think that men domination should be eliminated (Schmalleger, 364). Substantial changes also need to occur in the areas of law, medicine, and family for females to experience a drastic change in social status (Schmalleger, 363). Anne Campbell is an example of a radical feminist theorist who came up with the staying alive hypothesis (Walsh & Hemmens, 244). The basis of Anne’s hypothesis was that “evolutionary logic is all about passing on genes that proved useful in the struggle for survival and reproductive success to future generations over the eons of time in which our most human characteristics were being formed” (Walsh & Hemmens, 244) This means that females receive genes that attribute to their submissiveness due to male’s aggressive quest for control, their place in society, and their tendency to commit crimes, which instead of committing a crime that risks physical injury, females will commit a crime for instrumental purposes (Walsh & Hemmens, 244). Radical feminists basis of their theory in that male domination and the poor treatment of women is related to women in crime is a similar component of the Marxist feminist theory as well (O’Conner, et al).
The Marxist feminist theory ties patriarchy into the economic structures of capitalism as when female offenders are sentenced for property or sexual crimes (by threatening male dominance of property relationships or male control of women's bodies) (O’Conner, “Feminist Criminology, Female Crime, and Integrated Theory”). Marxists theorists view prostitution as a form of labor and therefore think it has been specifically noted as falling under the designation of a corruption of wage labor (O’Conner, et al). Marx himself stated that “prostitution is only a specific expression of the general prostitution of the laborer” (Walsh & Hemmens, 245). Prostitution, therefore, can be seen as a symbol of all that is wrong with world policies in society according to Marxist feminists (Walsh & Hemmens, 245). They believe that while prostitutes may feel that they are free, if you look at the larger economic picture in Marxist terms they are in reality oppressed workers reinforcing and perpetuating an exploitative capitalistic scheme (Walsh & Hemmens, 245). However, Carole Pateman in “The Sexual Contract” sees prostitutes otherwise, pointing out that they are not wage laborers, but rather independent contractors (Madsen, 65). In her thinking, “The objection that the prostitute is harmed or degraded by her trade misunderstands the nature of what is traded. The body and the self of the prostitute are not offered in the market; she can contract out use of her services without detriment to herself” (Madsen, 65). Moreover, philosopher Robert Nozick believes that peoples’ rights predominate over concerns for what harm may come to them (Madsen, 66). He believes that a person has the right to sell herself into slavery if that is his or her decision (Madsen, 66).
Socialist feminism offers ideas about more equitable roles for women as sex providers, child bearers, nursemaids, and homemakers, so that they can take their rightful place in society (O’Conner, “Feminist Criminology, Female Crime, and Integrated Theory”). Socialist feminism is a dualist theory because it broadens upon Marxist’s theory (argument for the role of capitalism in the oppression of women), and the radical feminist theory (the role of gender and patriarchy) (O’Conner, et al). This area of feminist criminology focuses upon joining both the public and private spheres of a woman’s life and ending the economic and cultural sources of woman’s oppression (O’Conner, et al). For example, egalitarian societies from the socialist point of view would be built around either socialist or Marxist principles with the purpose of establishing a new society that would be free of any gender or class divisions (Schmalleger, 364). According to our textbook, in accordance with socialist feminism, socialists see in the present, “capitalist social structure sees men committing violent street crimes, with women more likely to commit property and vice crimes” (Schmalleger, 364). Frederick Engels set forth the theoretical basis for modern socialist feminism in his book “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State” (Walsh & Hemmens, 246) He explains that a communal, matriarchal social system preceded the rise of private property, class society, patriarchy, slavery and the state (Walsh & Hemmens, 246). He pointed to the primary role women played in the economic, social, cultural and political life of these communal societies and the egalitarian relationships that characterized them (Walsh & Hemmens, 246).
The gender ratio problem that is associated with feminist criminology addresses the question, what explains the universal fact that women are far less likely than men to commit a crime or become involved in criminal activity (Walsh & Hemmens, 246)? The root of the gender ratio is derived from the fundamental differences between the genders (Vito, Maahs, & Holmes, 227). One of the potential beliefs is that perhaps if boys were raised with similar approaches as girls, that male criminal activity would decline dramatically (Vito, et al, 227). This has also been expanded by feminists to the effect that if men had similar roles and experiences as women they would be less likely to turn to crime (Vito, et al, 227). This assertion is denied by biological scientists as well as radical feminists who typically view gender differences as a behavior of two separate types of functioning brains (Vito, et al, 227). The Uniform Crime report data however, shows that males comprise 70% of property crimes and 80% of violent crimes, while the National Crime Victimization Survey reveals that males account for 85% of violent offenders (Vito, et al, 227). In contrast to these statistics, women are found to be more likely than men to murder someone they know, such as a spouse or child than men who are more likely to murder a complete stranger (Vito, et al, 228). Over the past thirty years, statistics show that even though times are changing, and perhaps the attitudes of men, women and their patterns of crime have not (Vito, et al, 228). Overall, women’s involvement in all types of crime is significantly less than males, although the percentage of women involved in property crime has gone up in the past twenty years (Vito, et al, 228). Also, female white-collar offenders are more likely to act alone and profit less than their male counterparts (Vito, et al, 228). Consequently of these statistics, scholars over the past twenty years have come up with empirical studies to try and explain and examine the gender gap, or the gender ratio (Vito, et al, 228). Typically these studies use variable from mainstream theories of crime, (i.e., social learning and control) to account for the differences across the genders (Vito, et al, 228). It is assumed in these studies that males and females are exposed to the same risk factors that attribute to criminal activity, but that the males are exposed to more factors (Vito, et al, 229). These studies aren’t viewed as reliable when determining the reasons for the gender gap, and instead things that are viewed as reliable are social learning variables (delinquent peers, antisocial attitudes), school performance, and sex-role attitudes (traditional gender beliefs, masculinity) when explaining gender differences in criminal activity (Vito, et al, 229).
Another issue associated with feminist criminology is the generalizability issue that attempts to answer the question: do traditional male-centered theories of crime apply to women (Walsh & Hemmens, 246)? There are different theories that have been analyzed to attempt to answer this question (Madsen, 69). Sigmund Freud's theory consisted of the idea that all women experience penis envy and suffer an inferiority complex over it, which they try to compensate for by being exhibitionistic and narcissistic (O’Conner, “Feminist Criminology, Female Crime, and Integrated Theory”). Freud thought that women were also basically irrational in that they weren't concerned with being builders of civilization, but with scanty, trivial matters (O’Conner, et al). Freud thought, for example, that women don't have much of a sense of justice, and female crime was interpreted as longing for a penis (O’Conner, et al). This is obviously a characterization of female criminals that feminists reject (O’Conner, et al). Recently, Paul Mazerolle analyzed the general strain theory to see if it could help to accurately depict differences across the genders (Vito, Maahs, & Holmes, 229). He found overall that measure of strain such as negative life events, and peer hassles, can help to explain both male and female offending (Vito, et al, 229). Many feminist scholars however, typically point out that male perspective in terms of theories may overlook factors that are unique to females (Vito, et al, 229). For example, Marxism, originated from Karl Marx, has been determined to neglect gender issues, such that working class women experience the same capitalist exploitations as men, but they still commit far less crime (Vito, et al, 230).
Many female feminist criminologist have been coming out with new theories regarding women and crime, which is starting what is starting to prove to be a more accurate and exciting time, especially for feminists. For example, criminologist Kathleen Daly used preserentence investigation reports and other court records to find why women engaged in crime (Vito, et al, 230). She found that street women are typically arrested more for prostitution and theft to attempt to survive in an environment filled with abuse and tough living conditions (Vito, et al, 230). Daly found that battered women were arrested for assault or murder regarding their abusers, which can now be defended sometimes by the term “Battered Women’s Syndrome” (Vito, et al, 230). Two authors, Karen Heimer and Casey De Coster believe that males and females have different sources that lead to lives of criminal activity (Vito, et al, 230). For males it is derived from violent behavior being excused as a child, i.e. “boys will be boys” (Vito, et al, 230). For females, it is derived from learning violent attitudes in a breakdown in a relationship or in the family, since females have a greater concern for interpersonal relationships (Vito, et al, 230).
It seems it is becoming more and more common for females to be in prominent places in society, and many who have become criminologist have developed feminist criminologist theories to attempt to have females activity in crime more accurately described (Madsen, 69). The theories have come a long way since when they were created, and are being studied in terms of statistics, personal studies, and the analyzation of older theories. By having criminologists and others more aware of gender differences, and reasoning behind their thinking, we can operate more smoothly as a society, and get rid of stereotypes and degrading values that surround both genders.
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Madsen, Deborah L. Feminist Theory and Literary Practice. Virginia: Pluto Press, 2000. Print. (65-67)
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Vito, Gennaro F., Maahs, Jeffery R., & Holmes, Ronald M. Criminology: Theory, Research, and Policy. Massachusetts: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2007. Print.
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