Crime and Gender
Criminology has treated Women’s role in crime with a large measure of indifference. The intellectual tradition from which criminology derives its conception of these sexes maintains esteem for men’s autonomy, intelligence and force of character while disdaining women for their weaknesses of compliance and passivity.
Women who conform as pure, obedient daughters, wives and mothers benefit men and society
Those women who don’t, that is are non-conforming, may simply be one who questions established beliefs or practices, or one who engages in activities associated with men, or one who commits a crime. These women are doubly damned and doubly deviant. They are seen as ‘mad’, not ‘bad’.
These behaviours frequently lead to interpretations of being mentally abnormal and unstable. Those doing the defining, by the very act, are never defined as ‘other’ but are the norm. As `men’ are the norm, women are deviant. Women are defined in reference to men. In the words of Young, ‘sexual difference is one of the ways in which normal is marked out from deviant’.
So why do these differences exist within the criminal justice system and society as a whole? In order to understand why offending and punishment differs between genders, it is important to acknowledge and analyse past perceptions, theories and perspectives from predominant sociologists and criminologists of that time towards women in society
Up until the turn of the century, women were primarily perceived as sexual objects and expected to remain within male-dominated ideologies such as homemaker, carer and nurturer taking second place after men.
Women who strayed from the norm were severely punished, void of any opportunities to explain their actions. Perhaps interventions from Elizabeth Fry in the early nineteenth-century campaigning for women to be housed in separate prisons from men and offered rehabilitation could be marked as the starting point for intense studies being conducted into relationships between women and crime.
The conception at that time was that women must be protected from, rather than held responsible for their criminal actions. Unfortunately, such intervention only caused coaxing rather than coercion, that is, women became segregated even more as individual members of their community.
Later in the late nineteenth century, Lombroso and Ferrero wrote a book called, The Female Offender. Their theories were based on ‘atavism’. Atavism refers to the belief that all individuals displaying anti-social behaviour were biological throwbacks. The born female criminal was perceived to have the criminal qualities of the male plus the worst characteristics of women.
According to Lombroso and Ferrero, included deceitfulness, cunning and spite among others and were not apparent among males. This appeared to indicate that criminal women were genetically more male than female, therefore biologically abnormal.
Criminality in men was a common feature of their natural characteristics, whereby women, their biologically determined nature was antithetical to crime. Female social deviants or criminals who did not act according to pre-defined standards were diagnosed as pathological and requiring treatment, they were to be ‘cured’ or ‘removed’.
Other predominant theorists such as Thomas and later, Pollack, believed that criminality was pathology and socially induced rather than biologically inherited. As Thomas says, ‘the girl as a child does not know she has any particular value until she learns it from others’.
Pollack believed, ‘it is the learned behavior from a very young age that leads girls into a ‘masked’ character of female criminality, that is, how it was and still is concealed through under-reporting and low detection rates of female offenders.
He further states, ‘in our male-dominated culture, women have always been considered strange, secretive and sometimes dangerous’. Greater leniency towards women by police and the justice system needs to be addressed especially if ‘true’ equality of genders is to be achieved in such a complicated world.
Although it may be true that society has changed since the days of Lombroso and Ferrero, past theories appear to remain within much of today’s criminal justice system. Women have so many choices of which they didn’t before. It would appear naive to assume that women and crime may be explained by any one theory.
Any crime for that matter, whether male or female, may not be explained by any one theory. It is an established and non-arguable fact that males and females differ biologically and sociological influences, such as gender-specific role-playing appears to continue within most families.
It’s a matter of proportion, no difference. According to Edwards, `the enemy is within every woman but is not her reproductive biology, rather it is the habit regarding it into which she has been led by centuries of male domination.
Many argue the main culprit for aggression as seen in many men is ‘testosterone’. This hormone appears responsible for much of the male crime, even in today’s society of increased knowledge on the subject.
In contrast, extensive research over the past twenty-five done on the testosterone/aggression link focusing on prenatal testosterone predisposing boys to be rougher than girls concluded it was very difficult to show any connection between testosterone and aggressive behavior.
Cross-cultural studies of ninety-five societies revealed forty-seven percent of them were free of rape while at least thirty-three societies were free of war and interpersonal violence was extremely rare.
Based on these studies, it may be evident to suggest that sociological factors and environmental influences appear to have greater credibility in explaining criminal behaviour, whether male or female.
As most women commit crimes of a lesser violent nature such as shoplifting, leniency is given to them by law enforcement officers and judges. It is true that many women use their femininity to their advantage which makes it very difficult to argue for equal rights for both sexes.
This unequal position of women in society due to social oppression and economic dependency on, men and the state, needs to be addressed. Offences by women remain sexualised and pathologised.
In most ways, crimes women commit are considered to be final outward manifestations of an inner medical imbalance of social instability
Their punishment appears to be aimed principally at treatment and socialization. The victimization of women in medicine seems to be ‘for her own good’ or ‘in her best interests.
Changing social and economic conditions, environmental influences, cultural traditions and physiological factors must be taken into account when dealing with crime. It has only been over the last thirty to forty years that women have empowered themselves and fought for, equality within all areas of society.
After so many centuries of oppression and inequality, these changes can not be expected to happen overnight. It is essential that society be well informed in the quest for justice. Creating a framework that is truly equitable requires a proper understanding of life beyond the courtroom door.
The world is infused with ‘gender bias’ and no single explanation exists for human behaviour or passivity or aggression. A complex interplay of cultural and biological factors makes people as individuals. Behaviour may be changed. All have the potential for aggression and compliance.
The view that women are ‘other’, inferior and unstable because of their hormones and emotions makes it all too easy to see them, by their very nature, as unstable, irrational, neurotic and ‘MAD’.