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Criminology, Women and Crime, Feminist Theories


In answering this question we will analyse both traditional and feminist criminological theories. These will be dealt with in turn in order to reach a valid conclusion to the statement above. In the following section the merits of the feminist theories will be evaluated. Subsequently, the traditional theories will be evaluated in a separate section. This will facilitate a comparison between the theories allowing a conclusion to be reached as to whether the reasons for gender ratio in crime are adequately explained by traditional theories. If this is so, then it is perhaps safe to ignore the feminist contributions to criminological theory on this topic, as they do not further the explanations already offered by traditional criminological theories.

THE FEMINIST PERSPECTIVE: Why Do Women Commit Fewer Crimes?
It is undisputed that men commit more crimes than women . [1] However, the explanations for this gender ratio were arguably outdated and unsubstantiated before a feminist contribution began. Some theories were centred on sexual delinquency in women or the application of criminological ideas that explained the behaviour of men.
“Theories that are frequently hailed as explanations of human behaviour are, in fact, discussions of male behaviour and male criminality…we cannot simply apply these theories to women, nor can we modify them with a brief addition or subtraction here and there.” [2]
Consequently, a feminist contribution to criminology was undoubtedly going to improve the position in some way.
This feminist input began with the publication of Carol Smart’s book . [3] Most subsequent feminist criminological theories have tended to reaffirm the ideas laid out in this work. [4] Smart identified a trend in previous criminological works that when addressing the issues of crime, women’s crimes were perceived as a product of, or unduly focused on, female sexual delinquency rather than anything else [5]. This has led to a stagnation of the subject as exploration by male criminologists lacked identification of the ‘true nature’ of women, as criminology had attached prominence to false notions of the nature of women and criminality. Therefore “Prostitution is more studied than rape, as an example of female pathology – despite the male clientele- while rape, when it is studied at all leans heavily towards the imputation of victim precipitation, or on the need to protect the accused against false conviction.” [6]
The existence of feminist contributions consequently started a realistic debate on the role of women in crime.If traditional theories focused on sexual delinquency as the cause for women to commit crime, then the feministic perspective has surely contributed by virtue of its existence, as it has slowly eroded this fallacy. Although traditional theories could offer explanations as to why men commit crime, they could not be a valid explanation of women and why they commit crimes because the theories were based on males, and then to applied to women. “These critiques demonstrated that theories of criminality developed from and validated on men had limited relevance for explaining women’s crime.’ [7]

Several feminist writers attempt explanations for the gender ratio. Hagan, Simpson and Gillis identified the social stratification of traditional roles for men and women within society. The woman has a traditional role to play within a house, and therefore exercises ‘a family based pattern of informal social control’, [8] whereas men are frequently exposed to a formal social control, as they are absent from the house due to their working . [9] The ‘career woman’ is also exposed to this as she inherits a conception of responsibility and care for children within a household, i.e. the informal social control, which is said to be stricter than formal social control according to the proponents of this idea. Therefore women commit fewer crimes because the exposure to an informal social control results in compliance with societal rules and laws.
Other explanations as to the lower numbers of female crime are the existence of a masculine society that compels men to reinforce their masculine identity on those women around them. This systematically raises the crime rates for men while lowering them for women, as the women exposed to this are subjugated and subservient to men. Subsequently, women are under the control of men and do not have the social freedom to commit crimes. [10]

“Rather than viewing gender as the cause of crime, Messerschmidt considered crime to be a device that can be used to reinforce gender, albeit one which generally translates into reinforcing masculinity.” [11]

The explanations of the gender ratio offered by feminists seem perfectly valid and acceptable, and thus have a positive contribution to criminology and its assessment of women. The next step entails looking at the traditional explanations of women’s crime and it’s low offending rate, and deciding whether they too are valid.
THE TRADITIONAL VIEW: Why Do Women Commit Fewer Crimes?

The traditional view of crime and women will be assessed here, starting with the classical criminologists. Cesare Lombroso, the earliest positivist, was of the opinion that crime was committed by people who were of lesser intellectual calibre than other citizens. His belief was that ‘criminals are atavistic throwbacks and that crime results from a reversion to their more primitive state. [12] ’Lombroso said women committed fewer crime than men for a variety of reasons . [13] He said natural selection meant those more prone to commit crime were too ugly to find partners and therefore could not breed. The women would also turn to prostitution as an alternative to crime. Another absurd point was the possible insinuation that female criminals were so base and similar to male criminals that their vast amounts of body hair meant they were mistaken for men.
W I Thomas further developed Lombroso’s theories [14] . Thomas was a believer in women as evolutionary inferior to men and that women are more passive, like Lombroso thought, but Thomas did not think women and male criminals were identical. Thomas theorised that the crime women committed was a result of the removal of traditional sexual constraints. Everyone had four main desires and women desired the sexual response over the other three desires. He consequently advocated the control of women in order to stop their ‘immoral behaviour’. Sigmund Freud associated criminal behaviour with uncontrolled basic human instincts, which can only be tempered by proper personality development. For boys, this meant overcoming the Oedipus complex. Girls cannot overcome this and retain a desire for the father or father figure. They therefore are passive and do not commit acts likely to enrage males; they would rather secure approval and affection. Women criminals are said to be attempting to be more like men and rejecting their inherent passivity. There are not many women like this ergo there are fewer female criminals than men.
Freud, Thomas and Lombroso had no regard for economic and social factors when conducting their studies and reaching their conclusions. In light of this, it is perhaps easy to disregard their leftfield explanations for women committing fewer crimes. Their theories have to be seen in terms of a reaction to change or an inclusion within fashionable trends, e.g. the influence of Darwinism in Lombroso, and Thomas’s call for women’s emancipation to be curtailed and paralysed in a time when it was a burning issue. Otto Pollack also wrote about female sexual behaviour [15]. His belief was that actual levels of crime were the split evenly between the sexes, but that female crime is less likely to be detected, more prone to under-reporting and that courts do not like to pursue charges against women. This is a result of men’s chivalrous nature and women’s deceitful nature - honed through years of pretending to enjoy sexual intercourse. Again, like the above criminologists, Pollack failed to take account of or include any economic or social factors that would influence criminal behaviour. It can therefore be assumed that the traditional theories so far analysed indicate a dearth of understanding not just of women but also of crime. As such, they can arguably be dismissed as contributing little but archaic views of women and their sexuality.

Other traditional theories of women and crime offer some more plausible explanations. Anomie and strain theory, as well as labelling, are possibly the theories on the traditional, or non-feminist, perspective that may help explain why women commit less crime. Following Durkheim’s anomie theory [16], where anomie is defined as a breakdown of norms, Robert Merton advanced the strain theory [17]. This theory was written during the economic boom that arose during the ‘American Dream’ of attaining economic goals. Merton felt that anomie was ever present in American society, and that anomie resulted in a lack of structure and legitimate means facilitating the attainment of material wealth, so valued by American society at the time, as the pinnacle of individual achievement. Anomie, for Merton, was a breakdown in cultural structure as a consequence of the capacity to gain goals being reduced for the individual. The reaction of the individual to gain material wealth could result in complete rebellion as the individual rejects the normal methods of attaining material goods. Anomie disproportionately affects the disadvantaged in society, as society created the individuals wants, but anomie is a result of failure to achieve these goals. Women are less likely to commit crime under this theory because their goals are different from those of men, and perhaps more easily achieved. If women aim at domesticity and men material wealth, the strain to get these things is more acutely felt by men because domesticity is more easily attainable. Consequently the strain men are under results in them committing more crime. Under this assumption, the gender ratio of crime is explained in terms of traditional roles and functions within society.

‘For women, traditional society has held out domesticity as the ultimate goal rather than material wealth. This has begun to change in the past 20 years and women’s crime has increased.’ [18]

Agnew’s General Strain Theory reinforces this proposition [19]. Agnew says strain manifests in three ways, which can lead certain individuals to crime. His study of youths in the US concluded that general delinquency was caused by the occurrence of measures of general strain.

Labelling theory, created by Becker, was the idea that people became stigmatised as criminals after an initial minor criminal act, and so became career criminals as they could not overcome this ‘labelling’. Also, stigmatisation occurred because some behaviour was regarded as deviant by others.

‘Deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender’. The deviant is one to whom that label has been successfully applied; deviant behaviour is behaviour people so label’ [20]
Therefore, as women commit crimes regarded as less serious crimes, compared to the violent crimes men tend to commit [21], they are less stigmatised and consequently do not proceed onto committing more crime under this theory.


When traditional theories of gender ratio are considered, it is evident that some have more validity and accuracy than others. The work of Lombroso, Freud, Pollack and Thomas should be dismissed not just because of the detrimental insinuations made towards women, but also because the theories fail to take into account the economic and social factors which can govern criminal behaviour. As such, they offer no realistic explanations of the gender ratio of crime. Consequently, a feminist perspective is welcome within criminology as it offers a more evidentiary approach to women and crime, and should not have any of the mis-preconceptions that are a facet of previous studies. As an explanation of the gender ratio of crime, the theories of Merton and Agnew are more relevant than the other traditional perspectives. The work of Becker and others regarding labelling theory offers a possible reason for the crime statistics, but as strain theory states the attainment of goals as a cause of criminal behaviour, it provides a viable explanation as women and men usually have different goals. In light of this, anomie and strain theories provide criminology with a valid explanation of why women commit less crime than men. This does not preclude the feminist perspective from contributing alternative or corollary explanations as to why women commit fewer crimes than men. Any contribution from a feminist point of view is welcome as it forces the debate on crime and its causes, and solutions, into a wider sphere. It has to be welcomed by the criminological field provided that the feminist perspective is not an objectionable one, as some feminist writers have claimed. [22] As Downes and Rock put it;

“It is only to be hoped that feminist politics and grand theory do not abort what feminism has just started.” [23]

It is necessary to continue to investigate the causes of crime and the patterns created by gender in crime, and it is vital to have a feminist perspective on this in order to address questions relating to gender and crime. The vast majority of studies and theories have only focused on men and crime, so in order for criminology to advance and create legitimate critiques on crime it has to cover the whole populous, so it needs to investigate women as well as men. Therefore, although some traditional theories can explain why women commit fewer crimes, a feminist contribution cannot be ignored; it is simply necessary for the further development of criminology.

  1. 1999 Criminal Statistics For England and Wales – 82% of guilty or cautioned criminals were male. FBI Criminal Statistics 2000 – 22% of charges against women.[Return]
  2. Eileen Leonard ‘Women Crime and Society: A Critique of Theoretical Criminology’ (1982)[Return]
  3. Carol Smart ‘Women Crime and Criminology’ 1977[Return]
  4. According to Downes and Rock ‘Understanding Deviance’ 3rd Edition pp 303[Return]
  5. e.g. A K Cohen ‘Delinquent Boys’ 1955[Return]
  6. ibid pp303[Return]
  7. Gelsthorpe and Morris ‘Feminism and Criminology in Britain’ British Journal of Criminology (1988)[Return]
  8. Downes and Rock ‘Understanding Deviance’ 3rd Edition pp 315[Return]
  9. Hagan, Simpson and Gillis ‘The Sexual Stratification of Social Control’ British Journal of Sociology (1970)[Return]
  10. Messerschmidt ‘Crime as Structured Action’ (1997)[Return]
  11. S. Jones ‘Criminology’ 2nd ed. 2001 pp305[Return]
  12. Ibid pp 287[Return]
  13. Cesare Lombroso ‘The Female Offender’ (1895)[Return]
  14. W I Thomas ‘The Unadjusted Girl’ (1923)[Return]
  15. O Pollack ‘The Criminality of Women’ (1950)[Return]
  16. Durkheim ‘The Division of Labour in Society’ (1893)[Return]
  17. Merton ‘Social Structure and Anomie’ (1938)[Return]
  18. S. Jones ‘Criminology’ 2nd ed. 2001 pp159[Return]
  19. Agnew ‘Foundation for a General Strain Theory of Crime and Delinquency’ (1992)[Return]
  20. Becker ‘Outsiders’ (1963) Chapter 9[Return]
  21. See FBI ‘Crime in the United States’ figures for 1983, 1988, 1993, although Adler argues violent crime in women is on the increase (Sisters In Crime – 1975)[Return]
  22. Daly ‘Criminal Law and Justice System Practices as Racist, White and Racialised’ (1994)[Return]
  23. Downes and Rock ‘Understanding Deviance’ 3rd Edition pp 325[Return]