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Critically Evaluate Feminist Explanations of Female Criminal Behaviour

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The involvement of females in crime and as the committers of crime was once a rare phenomenon but in recent years a dramatic increase has been seen all over the world. In England and Wales statistics have shown between 1994 and 2006 female crimes have steadily increased and have since continued to do so (MOJ 2009). Many sociological explanations and interpretations have arisen to coincide this surge in female offending as to understand its recent development in society. This assignment will look at different feminist explanations and critically evaluate them and their value in understanding female crime.

In contemporary society women still commit less crimes than men but their impute to crime statistics therefore their crime committal has risen dramatically compared to where is was and steadily stayed for many years. Society and male sociologists have developed different theories and views over the years for coping with female criminal behaviour. In the 16th Century there was the demonic theory, the idea of women who commit crime or act in deviant ways as being ‘evil’ or ‘witches’ resulting in wide spread witch hunts and burnings at the steak. (Vito & Maahas, 2011). This can be seen in modern day society when female criminals are portrayed in the media.

This theory links with the naturalist view of women by society; the idea that women are seen as natural care givers, mothers and nurturers and any other type of behaviour is ‘unnatural’ and feared by the greater society. Lombroso (1876) created the ‘mad or bad’ theory to categorise female crime, suggesting the reasoning and logic behind female deviance could only be explained as them being mentally unhinged or fundamentally bad natured and of an ‘evil’ disposition. This perception that women may be mad because they dared to go against their natural biological givens such as ‘passivity’ and a ‘weakness of compliance’ appears to originate from the view that women who conform as pure, obedient daughters, wives and mothers benefit society and men (Feinman, 1994).

The traditional and most common thought of view is the biological which suggests all female crime is gender related often by sexual deviance. The main example of this being prostitution. The biological view closely relates to Darwin’s theories who first suggested woman are less evolved than men, causing them to be deviant. This biological theory of female criminal behaviour being of sexual deviance is the most traditional and still commonly thought in relation to female crime, the main being prostitution. However, in recent years female criminality has spread into more areas. In fact it has risen so much so that in some crimes females where found to outnumber men. In 2009 the Ministry of Justice found that when comparing male and females found guilty of indictable offences between 2007-2009, females came highest in all of these categories; robbery, fraud, theft and handing stolen goods and criminal damage (MOJ, 2010).

This rise is female crime is reflected in the population of women in prison. In the 1970’s the female population was just over 1,000 which steadily rose to around 1,600 in 1990 then shot up to 4,500 in 2002 which has been the highest recording of female inmates. The March 2012 prison population for women was 4,218 with male at 83,313 (Berman,2012). The government has recognised this rise in female criminal behaviour with the Home Affairs Select Committee making the statement, “Whilst the Government has said that it wishes to constrain the overall growth in prisoner numbers, the sharp rise in women prisoners would appear to deserve particular attention. The vast majority of these women are in prison for non-violent offences and have never been a danger to the public.” (Berman, 2012)

This refers to whilst there is have being a rise female crime the majority of female crime behaviour has been ‘non violent’ such as fraud, theft and handing stolen goods. These types of crimes when committed by a female can be classed as ‘survival’ crimes which women are forced to commit because of their social marginalisation and economic hardship in order to ‘survive’ (Heimer, K., Kruttschnitt, 2005). So rather than being criminals, in deserve of punishment, they are rather offenders in need of help and guidance who are not a danger to society as the previous statement by the Home Affairs Committee points out. This theory is called the social marginalisation theory which this assignment will discuss in greater detail later in this essay.

From the stated statistics it is clear that female criminal behaviour has changed in recent years and has risen a great deal. Denscombe (Chapman & Langley, 2010) offers an explanation for this development suggesting new changes in society that see’s women becoming more like men, taking up more masculine activities, roles and opportunities that have risen out of having a more equal society which in previous decades would not have been socially accepted. This wave of risk taking behaviour and ‘ladette’ culture leads to further types of behaviour that often lead to arrest, e.g. binge drinking, violence. Other male adopted behaviours can lead to gang involvement were women take on a ‘tomboy’ role and are treated as men (Hagedorn, 1998)

In the UK females hold over half the population but yet have always played a lesser role in crime statistics. This has been a pattern seen throughout the last century with statistics, the criminal justice system and crime remaining male dominated. This attention to males only has left a lot of uncertainty about the female offender and while research into gender differences in crime and female delinquency was recognised and mentioned, it was often just in comparison to that of the male. Indeed, recording and dealing with female crime has been on the majority by the male counterpart as they dominate the criminal justice system. Any interpretation has often been by a male theorist who’s given explanation is often just a comparison to that of the male crime equivalent and often sought to answer the question of female criminality by the biological suggestion that females have no rational thought (Marsh et al, 2006). This is because of the patriarchal criminal justice system and the predominantly male researchers and sociologists at the time. But with the rise of feminism in the 1970’s a new line of interpretations and theories for the female criminal have emerged known as Feminist criminology or the School of Feminist Criminology.

Feminist criminology developed around the same time as the feminist movement which focused on ensuring the protection of women and to eradicate gender inequality. This began a new perspective for women and crime and offered new explanations and theories for women in the criminal justice system from a female point of view. It allowed for the first time for a critique that incorporated the idea that paths to crime differ for male and female offenders, rather than the traditional male dominated perspective. (Hagan, 2010) It enables sex to be used as an independent variable not as a controlled variable, as what had previously been used in male dominated explanations, in what is a defining factor for female criminal behaviour. Feminist criminologists have sought to addresses the gender ratio problem of why women commit less crimes than men which has previously mushily been ignored and have looked at development older theories so that they can be applied to female crime. For example the male dominated theories previously discussed in this assignment have only offered an explanation in comparison to the male, or by the female taking on the male stereotype e.g. laddette culture, gang involvement.

One of the most well known feminist theorists is Freda Alder who proposed an explanation for female crime in her book ‘Sisters in Crime 1975’. Also known as the controversial Liberation Theory of Female Criminality, it suggests female crime has emerged with the liberation of women movement. Alder puts forward Feminism and the liberation of women has created more opportunities for women but also more opportunities in to become involved in crime. She claimed 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’ (1975).

According to Adler women have used their equal opportunities to reach further gains from acts of criminality for example successful business women who have been able to climb the corporation ladder because of women’s liberation now have the chance to delegate in white collar crime. Adler conducted research into the development of female criminality since the liberation movement in the 1960’s and 70’s and found that there was a substantial rise in female white collar crime which backed her theory. Her perspective strongly contradicted theories of the previous century and many feminists criticised it while anti-feminists welcomed it. She discredited the previous biological and psychological theories that allowed no room for the obvious factor that women have rational thought. “In the same way that women are demanding equal opportunity in fields of legitimate endeavour, a similar number of determined women are forcing their way into the world of major crimes” (Adler, 1975).

In her thesis Adler carried out a study to prove her hypothesis of whether female crime had increased over male crime since the emancipation of women in other counties as well as the United States. She looked at statistics from England, Canada, Norway, Germany, Japan, India, and Poland and found that overall her hypothesis was correct. However, Alders Liberation theory came under criticism because of a few flaws in her thesis. The main was the misuse of statistics which were shaped to support her hypothesis and also in areas she offers alternative explanations for female offending where the Liberation theory does not fit. A study done by researchers James & Thorton directly contradicted Alders theory. They looked at women in prison and how they resulted in incarceration and found that the majority of females were from a lower socio-economical backgrounds and were generally uneducated.

They were asked why they committed their crimes and found that there was little liberation influence. James & Thortons (Doerner et al, 1994) theory disproves Alders on the grounds that Liberation was not a motivation to commit crime and infact even discouraged crime as women who considered themselves to have benefited from liberation were more likely to conform to society as they were often of higher socio-economical backgrounds. Giordano and Cerkovich also conducted a study that supports this perspective. In 1979 they carried out a study of women which found that the more liberated a woman a woman considered themselves to be, the less receptive they were to deviancy (Berger, 2009). Although Adlers work has received criticism and has its disadvantages, it is considered an important feminist perspective.

Another Feminist Criminologist was Rita Simons who also promoted the Liberation Theory in her book ‘Women and Crime’ 1975. She predicted that the criminal justice system would treat men and women differently. This can also be known as the Chivalry Thesis which suggests women are treated more leniently by the criminal justice system as they are often viewed differently by the patriarchal establishment. Women are seen as vulnerable and can be treated with sympathy, but also the theory can contradict itself as women can be treated, in contrast, more harshly because they are seen as unnatural and ‘doubly deviant’ rather than a victim of their situation.

There are many branches of Feminist Criminology which promote different aspects of feminism. Freda Alder and Rita Simons are both Liberation Feminists meaning they strive to achieve equal opportunities for women and condemn that women are given less advantageous opportunities because of their sex. In their works they discredit previous male criminologists sexist theories and argue that it is not biological or psychological factors that effect female criminality but sociological (Hagan, 2010).

Another branch of Feminist Criminology is Marxist Feminism. This also incorporates the liberal policy of women receiving the same treatment and opportunities as men and sexism to be eliminated. But primarily suggest the main issue and cause of problems of inequality in society is the economy and as the economy is often ruled by a patriarchal system, women will lose out and often suffer and turn to crime as result. This supports the marginalisation theory that women suffer more from economic hardship and are forced into ‘survival’ crimes to support themselves by other means. Marxist Feminists also suggest capitalist societies promote ‘rape culture’ as it produces unequal gender relationships. Radical Feminists see the root of societies problems lie in male power and patriarchy which from inequality and crime stem and develop (Cote, 2002).

In conclusion this assignment has looked at the origins and development of female criminality over the last century. It has discussed the traditional male dominated theories first used to assess female criminal behaviour. Contemporary statistics were analysed to find that there is a recorded increase in female crimes. Feminist Criminology was evaluated and found to have offered a much more substantial and extensive explanation for female deviance than previous theories and closed much of the gaps left by those theories. However society still knows very little about women and crime as they play a smaller role in criminality. What can be understood is that there is an increase in female crime and until more thorough and extensive research is conducted is remains unsure why.


Adler, Freda. 1975. Sisters in Crime. New York: McGraw-Hill. p13

Berman, G.. (2012). House of Commons Library, Prison Population Statistics. Accessed 9/10/2012.

Berger, R., Free, M., Searles, P. (2009). Crime, Justice, and Society: An Introduction to Criminology. Pennsylvania State University: Lynne Rienner Publishers. p331.

Chapman, C., Langley, P. (2010). Sociology. London: HarperCollins Publishers. P60.

Cote, S. (2002). Criminological Theories: Bridging the Past to the Future. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications Ltd. p232.

Doerner, W., Thornton W., James, J. (1982). Delinquency and justice . University of Michigan: Scott Foresman. p271-283.

Feinman, C. (1994). Women in the Criminal Justice System . 3rd ed. Westport: Greenwood Press. P16.

Hagan, F. (2010). Introduction to Criminology: Theories, Methods, and Criminal Behavior . 7th ed. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications Inc. p184.

Hagedorn, J.. (1998). Gang Violence in the Post-industrial Era. Crime and Justice: A review of Research. 24, p375. Accessed 11/07/2011

Heimer, K., Kruttschnitt, C. (2005). Gender and Crime: Patterns of Victimization and Offending . New York: New York University Press. p121.

Lombroso, C., (1876) Crime and Insanity.

Maahs, J., Vito, G. (2011). Criminology: Theory, Research, and Policy. 3rd ed. Sudbury: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Inc. p12.

Marsh, I., Melville G., Norris G., Morgan K., Walkington, Z. (2006). Theories of Crime. London: Taylor & Francis Ltd. P125.

Ministry of Justice. (2012) Offender management statistics (quarterly) October to December 2012, Accessed 10/07/2012

Ministry of Justice. (2010). Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System. accessed 10/07/2012.

Simon, R. (1975). Women and Crime. Lanhma, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Sommers, E. (1995). Voices from Within: Women who Have Broken the Law. University of Toronto Press: Toronto.

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