Researching The Criminal Woman Criminology Essay

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As the famous English playwright and poet, William Congreve, said in his play titled; The Mourning Bride: a tragedy; Heavn has no rage, like love to hatred turnd, Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorn'd". This, I believe, shows the hidden power within a woman; the power to deceive the conventional image of a woman, that is to neglect all the characteristics often associated to a woman, and to commit crime. This in turn, I believe, is the reason why so many people are intrigued with learning about why women do what they do. In this essay, I will be discussing theories linked to female criminality, statistics, as well as a few examples of female criminals.

Often enough, we tend to look at a woman as a gentle being, capable of bearing and taking care of children, someone who is calm and low tempered, as well as, capable of holding a family together. This, however, is the conventional portrayal of a woman and is highly associated with the 'Sex-role theory' by the Functionalists which explains the socialisation of females and males. This claim states that males are inclined to be tough, risk taking and to be aggressive, but females, on the other hand are socialised to be gentle. Hence, according to the functionalists, males are more likely to be criminals. Sociologist Frances Heidensohn, also argues that women are less involved in crime because crime is gendered as a male activity whereas females exhibit 'soft' characteristics. Nonetheless, many women around the world have committed crimes, as can be seen in the case studies and statistics in the sections below. Women have loitered, stolen, stalked, and even murdered. This functionalist theory does not, in any way, explain why a woman, in the first place would commit crime, however, it does somewhat relate to a theory by Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909).

Lombroso believed that all crime was a "Biological Atavism". This involved the examination of the cranial capacity as well as the facial features which in turn could identify biological criminal traits. Lombroso concluded that females who committed crime had more masculine traits whereby the brain capacity and difference in skull was more inclined to that of a male. In his studies, results showed that female criminals also carried the worst possible female characteristics which include; a lack of sensitivity to pain as well as compassion which are generally controlled in women by what he called "feminine weakness and underdeveloped intelligence". This in turn, could mildly explain the vicious and dangerous personality of a female criminal. According to Lombroso's study, criminal women had "deficient moral sensibilities, unstable characters, excessive vanity, irritability, revengefulness, and an uncontrolled sexual desire." Lombroso went on to say that the only way to end female criminality was to prohibit criminal meaning so as to avoid the biological traits from passing onto another generation genetically. More recent explanations look at hormones such as testosterone which is proven to control levels of aggression and anger.

A certain James M. Dabbs, Jr (1995), from the department of psychology at Georgia State University in Atlanta, conducted a lot of research on how high testosterone levels are linked to crimes. He noted that high testosterone levels were strongly linked to more violent crimes, and violations. This was also proven in women, whereby "high testosterone levels were related to crimes of unprovoked violence, increased numbers of prior charges, and decisions against parole". Dalton (1964) studied the effects of menstruation cycles upon female behaviour. Parker (1960) concluded that "sixty-two per cent of the crimes of violence committed by female prison inmates were committed in the premenstrual week". Parker claimed that hormonal or menstrual factors can influence women to commit crime in certain circumstances.

Although biology seems to produce a convincing starting point as to why women commit crime and is nowadays more commonly used as an explanation, sociologists often dismiss biological factors as they take a deeper look into the environmental background of women who commit crime and the society which they live in. Feminist Sociologist Carol Smart, was a very important figure within the Feminist Criminology world. In her 1977 writing she stated;

"Our knowledge is still in its infancy. In comparison with the massive documentation on all aspects of male delinquency and criminality, the amount of work carried out on the area of women and crime is extremely limited"

Since her writing, one may actually find more theories and ideas related to female criminality, yet a few broad theories related to this aspect of sociology continuously overlook the idea that gender may indeed be a factor "influencing criminality". "This is despite the fact that official figures suggest that gender is perhaps the most significant single factor in whether an individual is convicted of crime" (Smart, 1977).

Women, due to the social portrayal of roles as already mentioned above, is depicted as someone who is unable to commit crime. This in turn leads us to the "Mad not bad" theory (Lloyd, 1995: xvii). This is the idea that a woman who commits crime must indeed be "mad" as opposed to "bad" since she "dared to go against [her] natural biological givens such as 'passivity' and a 'weakness of compliance'" (Lloyd, 1995). As a theory, this may, in turn, reflect the low number of female prisoners, however, if we had to apply this theory to Malta, research has shown that by the end of December 2011, Mount Carmel had 268 males and 252 females who formed part of the sleeping-in population. Although I am not able to say if any of these patients actually had anything to do with any sort of criminal behaviour, by simply looking at the numbers, one can conclude that the theory is inefficient in explaining the Maltese situation because the numbers of females to males is less.

Another theory is the "Liberation Theory" also known as Freda Adler's "theory of Emancipation". This theory deals with the idea that ever since the liberation of women, the rate of female criminality has increased. Research, however, shows that female criminality was on a rise before the liberation of women.

James and Thornton studied women prisoners and from their studies revealed that the women who were imprisoned originally came from poor and uneducated backgrounds. When asked for a reason as to why they offended, the responses received did not appear to be linked to 'liberation' (1980).

Upon looking for Sociological theories, I realised that Carol Smart was actually right in her accusation. Not a lot of sociological theories are in fact linked solely to female criminality. Sociological theories try to find a reason as to why people in general commit crime and rarely focus solely on female criminals. However, when looking for biological theories many were actually found and these seemed to focus a lot upon why females commit crime and what brings them to commit it. Personally, I believe that no matter how much we try to wrack our brains to ultimately figure out the reason as to why females commit crime, it is not one that as such can be answered. We can continue trying to come up with theories, which will eventually always be criticized by someone who thinks otherwise. The truth is that every human being has their own way of thinking, and trying to come up with a universal explanation as to how people think or why they do what they do is rather impossible.

Next, I'm going to present tables and a graph showing the Maltese situation in our prison followed by a discussion on it;

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The above information has been obtained from the site In turn, this information was provided by Corradino Correctional Facility, Valletta Road Paola, Malta, PLA 1518.

The tables and charts above present us with the exact number of prisoners present in the Maltese prison and the amount of males as opposed to females who are or have carried out a prison sentence. Through the tables, one can look at the prison population over the years, the population of prisoners monthly throughout the year 2011, the amount of prisoners over the months of 2012, as well as a weekly update of the current month.

The Maltese prison carrying capacity is actually meant to be 500 people. However, as one can note, the amount of prisoners actually staying in our Maltese prison adds up to over 600 people, of which only 45 are female prisoners. Looking through statistics, one can see the largest gap of prisoners between 2006 and 2007, whereby the amount of female prisoners increased by 12 whereas in the following years we can see that the number was kept rather constant.

Through these statistics, one can conclude that in proportion to the total amount of prisoners present, Malta has an extremely small number of female prisons. Nonetheless, this does not mean that actual female criminality is very low. One must keep in mind that a lot of crimes go unreported or undetected. Therefore, one cannot assume that there aren't many female criminals in Malta. In fact, it is known that a lot of domestic violence cases on men go unreported for several reasons, one being humiliation. As Katryna Storace stated in her article "THE UNFAIR SEX";

"Domestic violence has traditionally been understood as a crime perpetrated by domineering men against vulnerable women. But recent data is slowly beginning to reveal a growing number of male victims."

Ms. Ruth Sciberras, Manager of Domestic Violence Services at Appoġġ, the national social welfare agency, seconds the idea that a lot of domestic violence cases upon men are not the actual figures and that in actual fact "there is a hidden figure concealed". Such an example proves to one how the rate of female criminality in Malta could very well be higher than what our prison is indicating.

Even so, one cannot help but ask for the reasons as to why the 45 female prisoners are actually there. The following table, obtained from Formosa S., (2012) CrimeMalta, presents us with a good idea of the offences for which women were incarcerated during the 2000s (2000-2009).


Over 10 Years











Breach of Conditions



Court Order



Conversion of Fines






Contempt of Court









Escaped from Custody






False Evidence
























Although Loitering is often the common assumption as to why women go to prison, the table above actually shows that women who have in fact ended up in prison were mainly for conversion of fines (which is when a person has received several fines, those fines are not paid, so therefore converted into a prison sentence), drugs and also theft. Through this research and statistics we are now not only able to determine the exact amount of women in the Maltese prison, but also have a clear indication of the crimes that are mostly committed by Maltese women of crime.

Here are two examples of the most Notorious female criminals;

Bonnie Parker

Famously known as "Bonnie and Clyde", were shot to death by officers on May 23, 1934 in Louisiana. They were believed to have murdered 13 people, and involved in several robberies as well as burglaries.

Aileen Wuornos

A former prostitute who was executed in 2002 for killing seven men in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

As can be seen from all the research, a log of people have tried to find the reason and solution for women and criminality. Through shown statistics, Malta has a very low number of female criminals. This, of course, does not include hidden statistics - i.e. crimes which go undetected. The reasons as to why women end up in prison in Malta have also been shown to be 'safer' then those abroad, whereby very little lives have been taken away by Maltese female criminals. This topic has taught me a lot regarding the female sex and social expectations on us. Nonetheless to every rule there is an exception, and no social construct can prevent criminality.