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Feminist criminology refers to approaches to the study of crime, victimization, and the criminal justice system using a critical, feminist lens. There are many different theoretical approaches, including standpoint feminism, pathways theory, and engendering mainstream theories. These approaches have a critical analysis of how gender inequities shape crime and responses to crime, emphasizing the role of male hegemony in society. Feminist criminology began in the 1970s, with liberal feminist approaches, followed by examination of the roles of victimization and abuse in female offending. These early feminist works were informed by second-wave feminism. More recently, third-wave feminism has informed multicultural and postmodern approaches in feminist criminology. Feminist criminology may use quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods approaches. The subject matter includes women as victims, women as offenders, women working in the criminal justice system, and masculinities and crime.
- Overview of Feminism in Criminology
- Feminist Criminological Approaches and Methodologies
- Development of Feminist Perspectives in Criminology
- Feminist Criminology and Professional Organizations
In the field of gender studies, criminology has remained more androcentric (male centered) than most social sciences (Britton, 2000), in part because men commit both more crimes and more serious crimes than women commit (Flavin, 2001; Steffensmeier and Allan, 1996). Criminology focused for decades on crime by males and theories derived from the study of males, largely ignoring women. Most theories of crime that were developed prior to the 1970s were based solely on research with males, and their applicability to females was ignored (Heidensohn, 1969). Criminology was criticized mid-twentieth century by feminists for ignoring gender, where men were seen as the norm. Thus, feminist criminology is a relatively new approach to the study of victimization, criminal offending, and the criminal justice system. Feminist criminology is not simply the study of crime by women, nor is it just the study of women and crime. There are males who are feminist criminologists, and there are many female criminologists who are not. Additionally, there are many examinations of women and crime that are not feminist. Feminist criminology explicitly takes into account the unequal power of males and females in its approach to the study of crime and justice.
Overview of Feminism in Criminology
Feminist criminology might be more aptly named feminist ‘criminologies,’ feminist perspectives in criminology, or feminist epistemologies of crime. The field comprises diverse approaches and theories. What these have in common is the focus on gender as central to criminological inquiry. Feminist criminology is not a specific theory but rather application of feminist perspectives to the field of criminology, with multidisciplinary roots and perspectives. One of the hallmarks of feminist criminology is that it is grounded in the examination of gender relations in society. As in any feminist theorizing, the central focus of feminist criminology is the understanding of how gender informs the understanding of social actions, in this case criminal behavior and victimization. The integration of feminist thought into a primarily male-oriented discipline has resulted in a range of loosely related theories and approaches.
Feminist criminologists have also criticized mainstream criminology for the gendered reproduction of knowledge that keeps criminology focused on the experiences of men (Renzetti, 1993). The problem is that feminist perspectives are usually separated from other theories in textbooks and given only cursory coverage. They also are rarely published in mainstream journals. Thus, generations after generations of students are unaware of feminist criminology and its contributions. They in turn teach their own students mainstream theories, with little, if any, reflection on more explicitly feminist approaches. Although it is becoming more mainstream today, feminist work is still largely relegated to specialty journals such as Violence against Women, Women and Criminal Justice, and Feminist Criminology, in special issues of other journals, or in trade books and texts on feminist criminology. This leads to a reproduction of knowledge that largely overlooks feminist thought. However, some mainstream theorists such as Agnew (Broidy and Agnew, 1998) have pointed out the importance of incorporating feminist approaches, not just women, into criminology as a field of study.
Feminist Criminological Approaches and Methodologies
Drawing from feminist theories in general, feminist criminologists tend to fall into three broad camps. Liberal feminist and radical feminist approaches undergirded much of the first two decades of theorizing and research in feminist criminology, while postmodern approaches have gained prominence in the last two decades.
In liberal feminism, the focus is on obtaining equality in the public sphere. This has led to efforts to achieve gender parity in prison educational and therapeutic programming. While this is beneficial, women prisoners’ needs do not mirror those of men. Simply adding the same or similar programming and services may fail to address women’s health and mental health needs, which differ significantly from those of men. Thus, an explicitly feminist approach is needed to determine the needs of women prisoners. There is a dark side to liberal feminist efforts, with parity being translated as applying equally punitive approaches to women’s corrections.
In contrast, the work of radical feminists has largely focused on women as victims. Radical feminists have largely focused on how societal inequality and patriarchy lead to gendered violence. Another important aspect of radical feminist criminology is the focus on activism to bring about social change. Radical feminists have worked to address reproductive justice and the criminalization of women’s bodies, as well as on violence against women.
As a part of third-wave feminism, a third approach has gained prominence in feminist criminology over the last two decades. Postmodern feminism focuses on the intersections of gender, class, and race, arguing that there is not one overarching experience for women. Instead, an individual is placed in a variety of social positions. The impact of each of these (race, class, sex, nationality, age, and sexual orientation) is not simply additive. Instead, oppression is often multifaceted. To accurately describe and report the experiences of women as victims or offenders, it is important to understand these interlocking systems of oppression.
Within the broader approaches of second- and third-wave feminism, there are feminist empiricists and standpoint feminists (Ngaire, 1996). Feminist empiricists adhere to mainstream scientific methods, incorporating women and their viewpoints in the analyses. Feminist empiricism has helped broaden the knowledge about crime and the criminal justice system overall by incorporating the perspectives of women into research (Flavin, 2001). Empirical feminist work strives to measure some agreed upon reality in the social world (Daly, 1988), and may or may not be feminist. Standpoint feminists go further, challenging the validity of knowledge from empiricism. The standpoint perspective argues that knowledge is shaped by the power relations in society and thus never completely objective. They begin with the standpoint or position of the individuals under study (Daly, 2008; Flavin, 2001). Both are considered feminist approaches. Finally, some feminists take a deconstruction approach to challenge either–or binary thinking patterns about gender and other social placements, focusing instead upon the complex nature of social location (Daly, 2008).
There is also no single methodological approach that is considered to be feminist, either. Feminists may do quantitative analyses or qualitative work. However, simply adding gender as a control variable does not make the work feminist. Instead, careful research designs are utilized based on theoretical perspectives that take into account the hierarchical gender structure of society. In-depth interviews and life histories are types of qualitative approaches, with an emphasis on depth and meaning rather than description. Qualitative work focuses far more on meaning and process. Daly (2008) suggests that using both qualitative and quantitative approaches is desirable in the development of theory.
Reflexivity is a final important aspect of feminist research. It is intricately linked to both theory and method. Reflexive work critically analyzes the underlying assumptions involved in the work as well as the process. Feminist criminologists consider this an important part of doing research, because the goal is to identify bias introduced into the process. For some feminist researchers, reflexivity may include examining their own reactions to the research (Flavin, 2001). Additionally, feminist researchers are aware of the imbalance between the researcher and subject. In particular, feminism cautions against the potential for exploitation (Flavin, 2001).
It is readily apparent that theories and methods vary widely among those who consider themselves to be feminist criminologists. Additionally, the degree of reflexivity can range from identifying potential biases to reflection on the researcher’s role in the process. Feminist criminology, however, has added to the knowledge about why both women and men commit crime, as well as the roles of personal history and social placement. It has drawn attention to inequities in the system, and usually called for change. Activism and praxis are both parts of feminist approaches to criminology, which sometimes put feminist criminology in conflict with a more mainstream approach that assumes research should be objective and detached.
Development of Feminist Perspectives in Criminology
While there were a few studies of female crime in the past, the role of hierarchical gender relations was largely ignored. The focus was on women offenders as women who deviated from socially accepted gender roles. For example, Lombroso and Ferrero (1893, translation by Rafter, 2004) tried to explain women’s crime by suggesting that women who committed crime were more like men than like other women. Their argument linked women’s sexual behavior with criminality, suggesting that women who were more sexually aggressive were more masculine. They believed this masculinity led to female offending. Likewise, in The Unadjusted Girl, Thomas (1923) focused on female sexuality and equated promiscuity with delinquency. Little if any attention was paid to the relative powerlessness of women or how patriarchal society controlled their sexuality and work. In a more negative analysis, Pollak (1950) argued that women were more devious than men, and their crimes were more hidden. Thus, their underrepresentation in the criminal justice system was due to their cunning as well as chivalrous and preferential treatment, not lower levels of offending. Recent research, however, has underscored the reality that females offend less often and less seriously than men. Feminist criminologists point out that understanding women’s offending and their lower offending rates can aid in understanding male offending.
During the second wave of feminism, two books on women and crime were published that illustrate the difference between the study of women and crime and what is more generally considered to be feminist criminology. Adler (1975) published Sisters in Crime, arguing that as women gained more opportunities in mainstream society, this would translate to masculinization of women and more crime. She envisioned higher levels of property crimes by women as a result of their ‘liberation.’ Similarly, Simon (1975) argued that women’s ‘emancipation’ would create more opportunities for women. The response of feminists to these two approaches was that neither considered the role of a patriarchal society in which males exercised control over women’s sexuality as well as their workforce participation. Furthermore, this approach was based on the faulty assumption that women had achieved equality. Thus, the contributions of Adler and Simon are generally not considered to be part of the body of feminist criminology, although some consider their work to exemplify liberal feminism due to the focus on legal and economic equality (Daly and Chesney-Lind, 1988). At the same time, second-wave feminism gave birth to a growing awareness of the importance of placing women at the center of the study of crime. This led to further work that was more overtly feminist.
Although there were important contributions prior to the publication of Carol Smart’s (1976) critique of mainstream criminology, the emergence of feminist criminology is often attributed to her book. Her work was the first explicitly feminist approach to the study of women and crime and critique of mainstream criminology. Following its publication, a body of research and theory began emerging that is considered to be feminist criminology.
In an important treatise on feminist criminology, Daly and Chesney-Lind (1988) point out that there are two important issues that should be addressed by criminological theory. First, theories should be able to address the gender gap or gender ratio issue. In other words, since males commit more crime and more serious crime, theories should help us understand why this occurs. This requires careful consideration of gender roles and gendered imbalances in power that help predict the higher rates of male offending and lower rates of female offending. Second, criminology needs to address the generalizability issue. It should be able to explain not only men’s, but also women’s offending. Daly and Chesney-Lind (1988) further delineate five elements of feminist thought that must be taken into account for a theoretical approach to be considered truly feminist. First, it must take into account that gender is a complex set of cultural and social aspects that are related to biological sex differences. Second, feminist thought is based on the understanding of the ways that gender organizes social life and social relations. Third, this organization of social life and relationships is hierarchical. Males have more power than females. Fourth, this male hegemony results in the systems of knowledge reflecting the male view of the world. Thus, scholarship and knowledge maintains a strong gendered aspect. Finally, feminism argues that women should be at the center of intellectual inquiry (Daly and Chesney-Lind, 1988).
Much of early feminist work focused on the overt control of women’s sexuality, the misrepresentation of female offenders in mainstream criminology, and the dearth of scholarship that focused on the role of patriarchal society in female offending. During the 1970s and early 1980s, considerable work began emerging that argued that it was the explicit control of girls’ and women’s lives that resulted in their criminal justice involvement. In particular, Chesney-Lind and others began delineating the gender inequities in the juvenile justice system. Chesney- Lind focused on the overdetention of minor girls for status offenses and how that was related to efforts to control young girls’ sexuality. Furthermore, girls often engaged in status offenses because of abuse, especially sexual abuse in their homes. She found that girls were far more likely than boys to be detained for offenses like running away and curfew violations. In contrast, boys were more likely to be detained for criminal offenses and rarely entered into the system for status offenses. Taking an overtly feminist stance, Chesney-Lind (1973 and other work) argued that these status offenses were often due to girls’ responses to abuse in the home. Girls who were abused protected themselves by running away from the abusive environment and consequently found themselves caught up in the juvenile justice system and labeled delinquent.
During the 1970s and 1980s, feminist criminological work tended to focus on three main areas: women as victims, women and girls as offenders, and institutional reactions to women’s and girls’ offending. At the forefront of the emerging body of feminist criminology, important work on intimate partner and sexual violence began appearing. This work was largely an outgrowth of the second wave of feminism. The decidedly masculine nature of both physical and sexual violence and the fact that victims of intimate violence and sexual violence were overwhelmingly female underscored much of the work during the late 1970s and 1980s. Susan Brownmiller’s (1975) classic study of rape brought attention to the power dimension of rape, redefining the crime as one of male dominance. Feminist criminologists brought a variety of perspectives to bear on male victimizers, female victims, and the ways in which the gendered social structure facilitated violence against women. Indeed, so much research was published in this area and feminists took such a strong activist stance that the Violence Against Women Act was first passed in 1994, with reauthorization in 2000, 2005, and 2013. In 1995, the academic journal Violence against Women was launched, focusing on primarily feminist research in this area. One of the contentions of feminist criminologists who focused on violence against women was that women’s victimization was qualitatively different from men’s victimization because of their lesser power and the high probability that the perpetrators were related to the women through familial or romantic liaisons. Activism by radical feminists was successful in achieving redesign of the National Crime Victimization survey to specifically ask about sexual victimization and victimization by family members and intimates. This has added considerably to the knowledge about violent and sexual victimization.
Feminist work has also focused on domestic or intimate partner violence. In reaction to research suggesting that women were as abusive toward romantic partners as males, feminist work has focused on the power differentials between men and women and on women as victims. Early work (Dobash and Dobash, 1979) focused more narrowly on the abuse of wives by husbands. More recent feminist thought argues this is too narrow, adopting the term ‘intimate partner abuse,’ which includes physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, as well as destruction of pets and property (Tong, 1984). Feminists have also sought to dispute research that suggests that women are as violent toward their partners as men. Much of that body of work uses the Conflict Tactics Scale developed by Straus and Gelles. Feminists take issue with two aspects of that instrument. First, it fails to take actions in context. Because it is a simple count of actions taken by the subject and the subject’s partner, it is impossible to determine the context. The question of whether the counted action was in reaction to force from the partner is unanswered. More importantly, mere counts of aggressive behaviors do not capture the level of seriousness and the harm caused by the action. Feminists argue that the data show that abuse of females by males leads to more serious harms.
By the middle of the 1980s, feminist criminologists were developing theories to explain female offending as well as examining the experiences of women caught up in the criminal justice system. Early works by Carlen (1983) and others sought to provide a more accurate portrayal of who women who offended were and how their life histories explained their offending. By the 1990s, there were numerous books available on women and offending, many from a feminist perspective. The role of childhood maltreatment began emerging as a major explanatory factor in the offending of girls and women (Acoca, 1997; Chesney-Lind, 1973). Research began focusing on the early lives of female offenders, noting the high prevalence of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse as well as neglect. Feminist pathways approaches have focused on the lives of women prior to their offending, attempting to address the reasons why women and girls offend. Early pathways research utilized interviews with prostitutes, while more recent work has used incarcerated women and girls to further develop the understanding of female offending. An important aspect of pathways approaches is the use of the voices of the girls and women themselves. Pathways approaches have documented the link between victimization and offending (cf Acoca, 1998; Belknap, 2007). Abuse in both childhood and adulthood has emerged as a common theme. Women who were abused as children enter abusive relationships in adulthood. Mental health problems often occurred, and substance abuse was frequent (Owen, 1998).
During the same time frame, work began emerging that focused on women’s experiences in the criminal justice system. In one of the most thorough treatments, Owen (1998) provides an in-depth examination of the experiences of women in prison. Others have focused on questions about unequal treatment in crime processing. Still others have utilized the knowledge gained about the backgrounds of female offenders to challenge to programming available to women and girls in the criminal and juvenile justice systems. Because of the intricate relationship between women’s victimization and their offending, gender-sensitive and trauma-informed programming has been introduced into various systems around the world.
The next important development in feminist criminology was recognition of the differences among women rather than focusing on gender as a unilateral trait. This postmodern approach has emphasized that race, ethnicity, class, national origin, religion, immigrant status, and sexual orientation play both independent and interlocking roles in the lives of women (cf Richie, 1996). Informed by emerging critical race feminism in other fields, feminist criminology began incorporating a multifaceted lens that took into account the multiple social placements of women. Potter’s (2006) Black Feminist Criminology focuses on the unique experience of African- American women, while Burgess-Proctor (2006) focused on the need for an approach that examines multiple systems of power and oppression.
Feminist criminology focuses in part on the gender gap in offending, examining the role of gender in the occurrence of crime. As described above, criminology should not only describe why women offend less but also why men offend more. Thus, it has also contributed to studies of masculinity and crime. Messerschmidt (1993) has produced a body of work on masculinities and crime that is considered to be feminist. His work focuses on three elements of the social structure that increase the likelihood of male offending: the gendered division of labor, male hegemony, and sexuality. His approach takes into account not only gender but also social placement, especially sexuality, race, and social class. Because the patriarchal social structure expects men to be more successful, this becomes the goal of young men. Those males born into a more privileged class (middle), race (White), and who exhibit the preferred sexual orientation (heterosexual) have access legitimately to success, through education and occupation. For those who are not as fortunate, nonlegitimate avenues of success, such as crime and delinquency, are used to establish success. From Messerschmidt’s perspective, masculinity is what best explains the commission of crimes, because males feel pressure to demonstrate power. In general, women do not have this issue, so they offend at lower rates and for different reasons. While Messerschmidt has taken a feminist approach to explaining male criminality, his work does not provide an explanation for why females commit crime; thus, it addresses the gender ratio issue but not the generalizability issue raised by Daly and Chesney-Lind (1988).
It is also worth noting that some feminist criminologists focus on gender and work in the criminal justice field. Because of the masculine nature of crime and male hegemony, very few women worked in most areas of the criminal justice system until the late 1970s and early 1980s (Belknap, 2007). The blockage of women from opportunities has been blamed at times on the lesser physical strength of females. This presupposes that women are incapable of performing as police officers or working in prisons. Despite Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, women can still be legally barred from occupations through application of bona fide occupational qualifications (Belknap, 2007). These can be used to argue that a man should be hired for the position because it is more rational to do so. Thus, even in the twenty-first century, women remain grossly underrepresented in both policing and corrections, although their representation is higher.
Working in prisons can often be difficult for women, particularly if they are oriented toward helping. Belknap (2007) takes the stance that one should not use the term correctional officers because of the paucity of rehabilitation in the prisons and jails as well as the lack of rehabilitative training by prison and jail workers. Additionally, women may face difficulties with promotion opportunities. One line of thinking suggests that women should be employed in women’s prisons because the prisoners have been traumatized by males and will respond better to females. The problem is that there are far fewer women’s prisons and therefore fewer chances for advancement. When women are relegated primarily to women’s facilities, they often find themselves unable to advance in their careers, while similarly placed males in men’s facilities are promoted (Baunach and Rafter, 1982). Another argument is that it is a violation of privacy for women to work in men’s facilities (Belknap, 2007).
Women have been in the field of policing longer, but they have also faced numerous restrictions there. Initially, they worked as matrons, and during the first decades of the twentieth century they often were confined to specialized roles in line with tradition gender roles. Their positions were often with youth or women and were primarily custodial (Belknap, 2007). As late as 2005, only approximately 10% of police officers were female (Belknap, 2007). Reasons include perceptions that women are less capable, incompatibility of shift work with raising families, physical limitations, and resistance by male officers’ (Natarajan, 2001) requirements.
Feminist Criminology and Professional Organizations
The two major academic organizations in criminology, the American Society of Criminology (ASC) and the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS), both have subdivisions that are profeminist. The Division onWomen and Crime (DWC) of the ASC grew out of an informal group that emerged into a caucus in the larger professional organization. The DWC was granted divisional status in late 1981, with its bylaws accepted in 1983 and its first board of officers elected in 1984. Currently, the division has over 300 members. In 2006, the DWC launched the first issue of its own journal, Feminist Criminology, dedicated to feminist research and theory in criminology. While not all the members of the division are overtly feminist, many are. Areas of scholarship cover a wide range of topics, including the roles of both gender and sexual orientation in crime, victimization, and criminal justice responses to crime.
The ACJS is the other national academic organization in criminology. The Minorities and Women section was born during the early 1990s due to a commitment to affirmative action. A constitution was drafted and approved by the ACJS in 1991. The initial planning for long-range goals occurred in the summer of 1992. The section was developed as a more liberal feminist approach to criminology, focusing mainly on issues of diversity and inclusiveness. However, the organization has a large number of feminist members.
Feminist criminology is a descriptive term for a wide range of topics, theories, and methodologies. There is no unified theoretical approach but rather an emphasis on placing theory and analysis in the framework of male hegemony. Feminist criminologists may utilize mainstream theories in a feminist manner or ascribe to more overtly feminist approaches. Research may be quantitative, qualitative, or both, but it is characterized by reflexivity and awareness of power imbalances between researcher and researched. Feminist criminology examines women as offenders, women as victims, the relationship between victimization and offending, the gendered nature of criminal justice, and women working in the system. Despite the wide variety in approaches, however, the field is unified by a few important points. First, women are normally placed in the center of inquiry. Second, patriarchal society and its role in creating offending, victimization, and work opportunities is considered. Third, activism and emphasis on creating social change through research is emphasized. While some work may embrace only one or two of these, for criminology to be feminist, there must be at least one, and usually more, of these present.
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