Session Ten: Feminism in Criminology

Session Ten: Feminism in Criminology
Read the following extract and consider the questions that follow:
Feminism and criminology
There are four identifiable strands to feminist thought, all of which have had a
different impact on criminology: liberal feminism, radical feminism, socialist
feminism and postmodern feminism. We shall discuss the differential influence of
each of these in turn. (NOTE: this extract considers just three “strands”)
Liberal feminism
Liberal feminism, stemming from the work of Wollstonecraft, Taylor and Mill,
presumes that it is 'bad' or 'poor' scientific practice which produces the sexist bias in
empirical research. In other words, it is a view of the scientific process which
presumes that the rules of science and scientific inquiry are in themselves sound; what
is at fault is how they are applied. To alleviate this problem liberal feminists align
themselves with the view that more women researchers are needed, and that any
empirical investigation should include women in the sample.
In some respects it is possible to argue that liberal feminism has had the longest
historical impact on the study of criminology. This statement can be defended in a
number of ways. First, there have always been women researchers looking at the
problems associated with crime. There may not have been very many of them, and the
work that they produced may not have been particularly radical, but they were
nevertheless present and they were examining the sex differentials associated with
crime, especially delinquency (see, for example, Glueck and Glueck, 1950; Wootton,
1959; Cowie et al., 1968). In other words, there is both a history of women
researching within criminology and a history of work addressing female offending
It is possible to align much of that work with the liberal imperative of ensuring that
females feature as a part of any empirical data set - a question of good 'scientific'
practice. There is a second theme, however, to that work which we might locate as
being influenced by liberal feminism - a focus on the discriminatory practices of the
criminal justice system. This strand reveals itself in different ways.
Arguably the work of Pollak (1950), concerned as it was with understanding the
influence that chivalry might play in the under-documenting of women's criminality,
is at the same time a study of discriminatory practice. The presumption that women
are discriminated against, either favourably or unfavourably, within the criminal
justice system has informed a wealth of criminological research. Research has shown
that factors such as type of offence (Hindelang, 1979; Farrington and Morris, 1983),
home circumstances (Datesmann and Scarpitti, 1980) and personal demeanour
(DeFleur, 1975) are contributory factors to the way in which women are processed by
the criminal justice system.
This theme has been explored in ever more detailed and specific circumstances; in
magistrate's courts (Eaton, 1986), in prison (Carlen, 1983; Dobash et al., 1986) and in
women's experiences as victims of crime (Chambers and Millar, 1983; Edwards,
1989). That these factors simply represent sexist practices, however, is not easy to
assert. Some studies suggest that women are treated more leniently by the courts,
others suggest a harsher outcome. Such contradictory conclusions point to the
complex way in which factors such as age, class, race, marital status and previous
criminal record interact with each other. Moreover, Gelsthorpe (1989) found that
there were organizational influences which affected the way in which females were
dealt with by practitioners which were difficult to attribute to sexist or discriminatory
practices alone.
Gelsthorpe (1989) goes on to discuss the key drawbacks to this anti-discriminatory
theme within criminological work. First, it assumes that women have been neglected
systematically by criminology whereas it might be more accurate to assert that
criminological concerns have developed rather more erratically than this. Women
were the focus of some early criminological work (as suggested above). Moreover,
women are not the only blind spot within criminology. There are others, such as, for
example, race. Second, the focus on sexism presumes that if criminological theory
and / or practices were emptied of sexism, then the theories and the practices would in
themselves prove to be sound. This presumption, of course, returns us to one of the
key problematics of liberal feminism; the fact that it leaves unchallenged what the
yardsticks against which our understandings are measured. Third, much of this work
assumes that sexism applies only to women. Gelsthorpe argues that this is an
'untenable' assumption; what about men? Finally, the complexity of the findings in
this area do make it difficult to assert which outcomes are a result of direct
Some writers have argued that the pursuit of this discriminatory theme, with its
underpinning assumption of equality before the law is no longer a fruitful enterprise
for feminists interested in the crime problem (Smart, 1990). What is clear, however, is
that the work informed by these themes has yielded a wealth of information
concerning the complex way in which factors interact to produce different outcomes
for different female offenders and victims of crime. Indeed, it is the sheer weight of
that evidence which renders a simplistic assertion of chivalry highly problematic and
points to understanding women's experiences of the criminal justice system by
reference to factors outside the operation of the criminal justice system.
Radical feminism
Understanding the ways in which such processes result in differential outcomes for
victims of crime leads to a consideration of the value and impact of radical feminism
on criminological concerns. In contrast to liberal feminism, radical feminism focuses
more clearly on men's oppression of women rather than on other social conditions
which might result in women's subordination. Crucial to the radical feminist analysis
is the question of sexuality. The emphasis within radical feminism on women's
oppression and control through their sexuality has had its greatest impact on
criminology through the avenue of 'victim studies'. It must be said, however, that
radical feminists display a far greater preference for the term 'survivor' rather than
'victim', since that term implies a more positive and active role for women in their
routine daily lives. These contentions over terminology, notwithstanding the work of
radical feminists on rape (including marital rape and date rape), domestic violence,
child abuse and sexual murder, have certainly constituted a challenge to criminology
in what is defined as criminal, the extent of that criminality and its location. (See, for
example, Stanko, 1985; Cameron and Fraser, 1987; Russell, 1990.)
Understanding and embracing the 'safe haven' of the home as a place in which much
criminal behaviour occurs, and is perpetrated by men towards women, is still a
difficulty for some mainstream (malestream) criminological work, since taking this
seriously means taking gender seriously. The campaigning voice of radical feminism
which shouts 'all men are potential rapists' reflects both the power and the threat of
feminist studies to a criminology informed in this way. There are difficulties,
however, with accepting this stance uncritically.
Radical feminism presumes that all men have the same power and control over their
own lives as they have over women. Moreover, the view that 'All men are potential
rapists' presumes that all men have the same relationship with violence and to the
expression of their masculinity in violence towards women. This presumption is
derived from the problem of essentialism of which radical feminism is frequently
accused. Essentialism asserts the view that there are immutable differences between
men and women shared by all men and all women. Moreover, while radical feminism,
despite this problem, has centred on men's sexual oppression of women as a key
criminological concern, sex is not the only variable about which criminology had had
a blind spot. The complex ways in which variables such as sex, race or class might
interact with one another has been the central concern of socialist feminism. Here
some attention will be paid to the work of Messerschmidt (1986) as articulating one
expression of this position.
Socialist feminism
Messerschmidt has this to say about his theoretical framework for understanding
My socialist feminist understanding of crime had two premises. First, to
comprehend criminality (of both the powerless and the powerful) we must
consider simultaneously patriarchy and capitalism and their effects on human
behaviour. Second from a social feminist perspective, power (in terms of
gender and class) is central for understanding serious forms of criminality. It
was theorised that the powerful (in both the gender and class spheres) do the
most criminal damage to society. Further, the interaction of gender and class
creates positions of power and powerlessness in the gender/class hierarchy,
resulting in different types and degrees of criminality and varying
opportunities for engaging in them. just as the powerful have more legitimate
opportunities, they also have more illegitimate opportunities. (Messerschmidt,
1993: 56)
As Messerschmidt himself admits, as with all theoretical constructions, this
framework has its limitations. For example, it denudes the criminal actor of a sense of
agency, locating the motivation for crime within the social system. It also asserts
patriarchy as being unitary and uniform in its impact on both men and women. Yet
despite these problems this framework does offer a starting point which posits an
understanding of criminality located within socio-structural conditions - a way of
thinking about the criminal behaviour of both men and women and the way in which
those socio-structural conditions impact upon men and women. Elements of these
concerns are also found in the work of Carlen.
It is important to note that Carlen recognizes the importance of feminism as a politics
rather than as a guarantor of theoretical or empirical truth (Carlen, 1990). Moreover,
Carlen is very critical of feminist efforts at explaining criminal behaviour and points
to two major limitations in such efforts with respect to female lawbreaking behaviour
in particular. First, she argues that an exclusive focus on women's lawbreaking
behaviour presumes that women break the law for essentially different reasons than
men do. This, for Carlen, reflects a reductionist and essentializing position similar to
that adopted by the biological positivists. Second, when the historically and socially
specific contexts of male and female offending behaviours are examined, the
explanatory concepts which emerge rapidly merge with issues of racism, classism and
imperialism rather than gender per se.
She goes on to comment that women in prison represent those whose criminalization
has been overdetermined by the threefold effects of racism, sexism and classism, none
of which is reducible to the other and all of which, for Carlen, point to connecting the
debate around women and crime to the broader issue of social justice.
What is particularly striking about both the theoretical work of Messerschmidt (1986)
and the range of work conducted by Carlen, on female offenders and women in
prison, is the way in which both these writers have drawn on conceptual formulations
which take us outside of mainstream criminological debates in order to understand the
nature of criminality. This process of moving to debates outside of criminology in
order to understand women's and men's experiences of the criminal justice system is
one of the features of what Cain (1990b: 2) has called 'transgressive criminology'.
Cain's 'transgressive criminology' constitutes a call to move beyond what she defines
as the 'binding web of co-man sense' (Cain, 1990b: 8). In order to do this criminology
must take seriously that which actors themselves take seriously yet simultaneously
make visible that which is taken for granted. This concern generates a criminological
shopping list of women only studies, that is studies exploring the totality of women's
lives, as well as studies of men. As Cain (1990b: 12) states, criminology must take on
board the question of 'what in the social construction of maleness is so profoundly
criminogenic: why do males so disproportionately turn out to be criminals?'
There are clearly some parallels between the work of Carlen and Cam and the
respective questions they raise for criminology. While Carlen would not concur with
any particular claims to a feminist methodology and would eschew the term 'feminist'
for all but campaigning purposes (in contrast to elements of Cain's work), their joint
focus on locating gender issues as being just one dynamic of both women's and men's
experiences of the criminal justice system and their concern to place those
experiences within a broader social context outside of criminology, gives some
flavour as to why each of them in different ways find the label 'feminist criminology'
disturbing. Moreover, each in their different ways have also found it important to
challenge any approach which endeavours to essentialize the differences between
males and females, as found in radical feminism.
1. Each of the three strands of feminist thought that Sandra
Walklate identifies is in some sense critical of “malestream”
a. What aspects of crime and deviance do each strand focus
b. What do the different feminists identify as the main
problems with existing criminology?
c. What do they propose as the way(s) in which feminism can
effectively influence criminology?
2. What do you see are the strengths and limitations of each
Suggested Additional Readings
Muncie, J, McLaughlin, E and Langan, M (1996) Criminological
Perspectives, London, Sage Publications Ch 3, 16, 41, 42, 43
S. Jones (2006) Criminology, Oxford, OUP, Ch 13
Tierney, T (2006) Criminology: Theory and Context, Harlow, Prentice Hall;
Ch 13, 15
Eamonn Carrabine, P. Iganski, M.Lee, K,Plummer, N. South (2004)
Criminology: A Sociological Introduction, London, Routledge Ch 5
Burke, R.H. (2001) An Introduction to Criminological Theory, Cullompton,
Willan, Ch 10
Jewkes, Y and Letherby, G. (eds) (2002) Criminology: A Reader, London,
Sage Ch 6