Feminist Criminology

Susan F Sharp. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. 2009. Sage Publications Inc.

Criminology has traditionally been one of the most androcentric (male-centered) fields of study in the social sciences. The majority of the research and theory have been based on the study of male criminality and criminal justice system responses to male offenders. Women, when considered at all, have been represented in negative and stereotypical ways, with a focus on their failure to adhere to “traditional” models of appropriate female behavior, as in W. I. Thomas’s (1923) paternalistic view of women. Furthermore, in its quest to be recognized as a scholarly field, criminology has focused on objective empirical research, using official records and large national surveys. The result has been a failure to consider important differences in male and female pathways into crime, types of crime, victimization, and punishments. Feminist criminology seeks to address this limitation by enhancing our understanding of both male and female offending as well as criminal justice system responses to their crimes.

Feminist criminologists seek to place gender at the center of the discourse, bringing women’s ways of understanding the world into the scholarship on crime, criminality, and responses to crime. In the following sections, the focus will be on the emergence of feminist criminology; the range of perspectives and methods used in feminist criminological research; and the maturing of feminist criminology, both in scholarship and in visibility.

The Scope of Feminist Criminology

It is readily apparent that males do indeed commit far more offenses, especially those deemed important to criminology, than females do (see Daly & Chesney-Lind, 1988). This focus has been in part due to the relationship of criminology with legislative and corrections systems. The field developed in part to help improve understanding of why people commit crimes so that policies could be enacted to reduce those crimes. Not only do women commit fewer crimes, but also they commit crimes that are of less interest to those concerned about public safety. Thus, women were largely ignored until the 1970s.

Additionally, the Weberian value-free approach to the study of criminology has failed to recognize that the experiences of the researchers themselves shape and formulate their own approaches to their research. This has resulted in an unreflective supposition that data and theories about boys and men would be generalizable to girls and women. Researchers and theorists have assumed that the study of male crime was the generic study of crime and that women who engaged in crime were more of an aberration than a subject to be studied in and of itself. Ultimately, the feminist approach to criminology emerged from the critique of this practice.

It has been only in the last 30 years that feminist criminology has developed into a recognized perspective in criminology. However, the term feminist criminology is somewhat misleading; it might perhaps be better to speak of feminist criminologies. Feminist criminology encompasses a wide range of theoretical perspectives and methodologies that place the ways in which gender shapes experience at the center of scholarly inquiry. It focuses on a broad range of issues related to women and crime, including theoretical explanations of crime, responses to female offending, programming in women’s prisons, women as workers in the field of corrections, and the special needs of women prisoners. Feminist thought is not a homogeneous approach; it incorporates the liberal feminist focus on equal opportunities for women, the Marxist feminist focus on class relations and capitalism as the source of women’s oppression, socialist feminists’ blending of male domination with political and economic structures in society as the source of inequality, and the radical feminist focus on patriarchal domination of women, to name the most well-known branches. However, these feminist approaches have in common their focus on the ways in which the gendered structure of society is related to crime.

Emergence of Feminist Criminology

Until the latter half of the 20th century, most criminological work focused on male offenders and criminal justice system responses to male crime. The lack of attention to female offending stemmed from the fact that most crime was committed by males. However, by the last two decades of the 20th century, female incarceration rates were skyrocketing, leading to a surge in research on girls, women, crime, and the criminal justice system. Many scholars point to the “war on drugs” and the federal sentencing reforms of the 1980s as the primary explanations of the large increase in female prisoners as well as of the emergence of feminist criminological scholarship. Clearly, the war on drugs and federal reforms are the driving forces behind the tremendous increase in the incarceration of women. However, the roots of feminist criminology predate these changes. They are instead found in second-wave feminism as well as in the radical criminology of the 1960s and the 1970s.

The Gender Equality Argument

In the 1960s, scholars began to argue that women were ignored in criminological theorizing and research. This early interest come not from within the United States but instead from Canada and Great Britain (cf. Bertrand, 1969, and Heidensohn, 1968). According to these scholars, the role of gender had been largely ignored, other than noting that males committed more crime. Thus, theories had been developed that could explain the gender gap in crime but that were sorely lacking in being able to equally well explain female crime. The second-wave feminism of the mid-20th century led to a renewed interest in female offenders. Two important books were published in the early 1970s, derived from second-wave liberal feminism’s focus on gender equality: (1)Adler’s (1975) Sisters in Crime and (2) Simon’s (1975) Women and Crime. Although they focused on different aspects of the issue and reached somewhat different conclusions, both argued that the mid-20th-century women’s movement changed both female participation in crime and perceptions of female participation in crime. Indeed, the central thesis of these two works was that women would engage in more crime as a result of women’s liberation. Also, with the focus on equal treatment, the criminal justice response to female offending would become harsher and less “chivalrous.”

Both books were important in bringing more attention to female crime and the criminal justice system’s response to female crime, but the focus on increased criminal opportunities for women coming out of the push for equality has been critiqued by feminist criminologists. Among the criticisms, two broad themes emerged. First, scholars questioned whether lower-class female offenders were acting out of a desire to achieve equality with male offenders or whether increases in female crime might be due to the “feminization of poverty,” because the composition of families in poverty became increasingly dominated by female-headed house-holds. In addition, these scholars pointed out that lowerincome female offenders tended to have more traditional and stereotypical views of women’s roles, calling into question the idea that these offenders were trying to compete with men in the realm of crime (Daly & Chesney-Lind, 1988). Second, careful analysis of data failed to support the contention that the gap between male and female offending was narrowing (Steffensmeier & Allan, 1996). The focus of feminist criminological thought began shifting to the ways in which social and economic structures shaped women’s lives as well as their participation in crime.

The Influence of Critical Criminology

The second major factor in the rise of feminist criminology during the 1970s was the emergence of the “new criminologies,” or the radical, conflict approaches to the study of crime. With intellectual roots grounded in conflict and Marxist theory, these perspectives viewed crime as the result of oppression, especially gender, race, and class oppression. Both radical criminology and feminist criminology emerged during the highly political, socially conscious 1960s and 1970s. In the United States and much of the Western world, this was an era of rapid social change and political unrest. Existing ideologies and power structures were challenged, and social movements emerged, including the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s liberation movement.

However, feminist criminologists quickly became some-what disenchanted with what was perceived as the overly idealistic and still male-centered approach of critical/radical criminology. The “new criminology” view of the offender as a noble warrior engaged in a struggle with a powerful state (Young, 1979) also angered radical feminists working to end intimate violence and rape. Feminist criminology began instead focusing on the ways in which a patriarchal society enabled the abuse of women. Radical feminism, with its focus on the consequences of patriarchy, contributed to the burgeoning body of feminist criminological scholarship.

Radical Feminism and Feminist Criminology

During the early 1970s, radical feminist scholars and activists labored to reform the public response to crimes such as rape and intimate violence. Prior to the revision of policies and laws, rape victims were often blamed for their victimization. Two seminal works during the mid-1970s brought the victimization of women by men into the fore-front of feminist criminology and were extremely influential in the development of feminist criminological thought. Susan Brownmiller’s (1975) Against Our Will was a searing analysis of the role of male dominance in the crime of rape. Similarly, Carol Smart (1976) critiqued mainstream criminological theories, not only for their failure to look at crime through a gendered lens but also for their assumption that victimization was a similar experience for all victims. Smart argued that mainstream theories failed to recognize how the patriarchal structure of society contributed to and shaped the victimization of women.

The contribution of radical feminism to the development of feminist criminology is important for two reasons. First, in collaboration with community activists, radical feminist scholars were able to effect social change. Violence against women became a matter of public concern. Shelters for battered women began emerging throughout the country, and rape laws were reformulated to protect the victims from undue scrutiny. Until the mid-1970s, victims of rape were essentially placed on trial themselves. Proof of rape required evidence that the victim had resisted as well as corroborating evidence. Also, the victim’s past sexual conduct could be introduced as evidence by the defense. The feminist approach to rape incorporated the perspective of the victim, and ultimately rape shield laws were enacted that barred introduction of the victim’s past sexual behavior into evidence.

Second, the feminist scholarship on rape and intimate violence impacted mainstream criminology. This has led to a revised understanding of the complexities of victimization. Statistics support the feminist position that women’s victimization is intrinsically and fundamentally different than that of men. For example, women are far more likely to be victimized by someone close to them. From the radical feminist perspective, this is because social institutions and norms facilitate the victimization of women.

Much like the feminist scholarship on sexual violence, feminist criminological research has helped reshape our understanding of violence within the home and between partners. Much of the early research on intimate violence stems from work using the Conflict Tactics Scale developed by Straus and Gelles (1986). Feminist scholars have pointed out that although this scale measures the incidence of a wide range of aggressive tactics, it fails to place them in context. Stanko’s (1990) examination of everyday violence provided evidence that women’s victimization was frequently unreported. Thus, research conducted by feminist criminologists, in conjunction with activism, impacted not only laws but also police practices. Eventually, the National Crime Victimization Survey was reformulated to address the experiences of female victims. Questions about rape and sexual assault were added, as were questions about violent victimization in the home (Britton, 2000). By 1994, the Federal Violence Against Women Act was passed. Prevention and intervention programs were developed, aggressive prosecution was pursued, and funding for research became available. More recently, the International Violence Against Women Act has carried this focus on the rights of women to safety into the international arena.

In summary, feminist criminological thought gained prominence during the highly political era of the 1960s and 1970s. At first, the field focused on the missing information on girls and women in criminological scholarship. As the field grew, the focus shifted to include violence against women as well as the development of feminist criminological theories and feminist ways of approaching existing theories. A broad base of scholarship has been amassed from the women’s liberation movement, critical theories, and radical feminism. The following section focuses on feminist approaches to theoretical explanations of crime and criminality. This is followed by a summary of the subject matter of feminist scholarship.

Criminological Theories from a Feminist Perspective

As suggested earlier in this chapter, feminist criminological theorizing is not limited to one approach. Feminist criminologists have adopted many different perspectives, the most noteworthy of which are a feminist approach to mainstream criminological theory, feminist pathways theory, socialist feminist theory, and the most recent development: multiple marginalities/intersectionality theories.

Mainstream Theories and Feminist Criminology

A major thrust of feminist criminology has been the critique of the development of mainstream theories based on research with boys and men. The “add women and stir” approach of mainstream criminology has meant that gender, if considered at all, has frequently been used only as a control variable. Although this has provided confirmation that males are indeed more criminal than females, virtually no information about female criminality can be garnered through this type of research. There are two unspoken assumptions inherent in this approach with which feminist criminologists take issue. First is the tacit assumption that, because males are far more likely than females to engage in criminal behavior, females are somehow unimportant to the field. Second, mainstream criminology assumes that males and females are alike and that what works to explain male criminality will work equally well to explain female criminality.

In particular, theories like Merton’s (1938) strain theory have been criticized by feminist criminologists for their focus on economic goals and their failure to consider how personal relationships may contribute to criminality. Merton argued that crime was largely the result of having the American dream as a goal but lacking opportunities to achieve this goal in a legitimate manner. Feminist criminologists argued that Merton’s theory was obviously not equally applicable to women. They pointed out that, although women were certainly more financially blocked than men, they committed far less crime (Belknap & Holsinger, 2006). Likewise, social learning and differential association theories, with their focus on peer attitudes and behaviors, have been criticized for the failure to take into account the gendered nature of peer relationships. Whereas male delinquency is strongly linked to having peers with delinquent behaviors and attitudes, this is far less true for females. Actually, females who are intimately involved with older delinquent males may be introduced to crime and delinquency by these intimate partners rather than by their peers. Although this is certainly not an exhaustive list of mainstream theories critiqued by feminist criminologists, it does give an idea of the male-dominated approach taken by purportedly gender-neutral theories.

However, other feminist criminologists have argued that mainstream theories may still be used if they are restructured and operationalized in a manner that is more sensitive to the predictors of crime in both men and women. In particular, Agnew’s (1992) general strain theory attempts to be gender sensitive. By incorporating a broader range of sources of strain in the theory, he has attempted to address the concerns voiced by feminists. In his theory, he has explicitly focused on relationship strains as well as on negative life experiences, both of which are important predictors of female delinquency. Also, he has pointed out that men and women tend to have different emotional reactions to strain, possess different coping skills and resources, and commit different types of offenses (Broidy & Agnew, 1997). A feminist operationalization of general strain theory could explicitly examine the role of abuse histories in predicting female crime. Agnew has argued that it is not strain per se but rather negative emotional responses to strain that lead to crime. Again, a thoughtful and gendered analysis would focus on how emotional responses and coping resources are gendered and how this would help explicate the different relationships between life experiences of males and females and their subsequent participation in crime. Indeed, general strain theory lends itself more to a gendered analysis than most, if not all, of the mainstream criminological theories.

Likewise, life course theories may offer an opportunity for a gendered exploration of women’s criminality. These theories not only look at factors important in the initiation of criminal behavior but also examine occurrences that may change the pathways from criminal to noncriminal, or vice versa. In a broad sense, life course theories suggest that it is the salience of an event or reason that determines the likelihood that someone engaging in criminal behavior will cease. In the case of men, this may be marriage or career. However, for women, it may be important to examine other reasons. In particular, the birth of a child may provide sufficient motivation for a woman engaging in criminal behaviors to change her trajectory to a noncriminal one.

Overall, the gendered use of mainstream theories is not particularly well received by feminist criminologists. Many argue that these theories fail to explore in detail the ways in which the experiences of girls and women shape their lives. In contrast, feminist pathways theory focuses explicitly on the relationship between life experiences and future criminality, arguing that one must consider the role of patriarchal society if one truly wishes to understand female crime and criminality.

Feminist Pathways Theory

Perhaps the greatest breakthrough in feminist criminological theory and research has come by means of the feminist pathways model. In the effort to demonstrate how female crime is inextricably linked to the life experiences of women and girls, this theory focuses on the ways in which women’s place in society leads them into criminal lifestyles. In numerous articles and books, Meda Chesney-Lind (see Chesney-Lind & Pasko, 2004) has laid out how childhood abuse and a patriarchal juvenile justice system shape the opportunities of girls, ultimately forcing them into criminal lifestyles. She argues that, unlike boys, girls’ initial encounters with the juvenile justice system are largely the result of status offenses, such as running away or engaging in sexual activity. The patriarchal double standard means that girls engaging in these behaviors are seen as immoral and in need of “correction.” Girls and women have historically faced institutionalization for engaging in behaviors that were at the most mildly frowned on in males. Indeed, girls suspected of sexual “misconduct” have often been treated more harshly than either boys or girls engaging in criminal activity. It is this patriarchal, paternalistic approach to the social control of the behavior of females that pushes them into contact with the juvenile justice system. Furthermore, there has been a failure to recognize that early sexual behaviors, as well as running away from home, are frequently the result of abuse within the home. Instead of intervening in the lives of abused girls, society has reacted with a double standard that labels these girls as incorrigible and/or immoral. By punishing these girls for behaviors that may actually be self-preserving (e.g., running away from abusive or neglectful homes), society may be further limiting their life chances by identifying them as delinquents. This perspective also examines the relationship between abuse and substance abuse, the number one offense leading to women’s imprisonment. Substance abuse is seen as a coping mechanism. Girls and women often use alcohol and drugs to self-medicate their trauma that has resulted from abuse they have experienced. This is an important point, because the majority of incarcerated girls and women have substance abuse problems. Likewise, the majority of these “offenders” have histories of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. Feminist pathways theory seeks to illuminate the connections between the abuse and exploitation of young females and their subsequent offending. It is arguably the dominant approach in contemporary feminist criminology.

Socialist Feminist Criminology

It would be remiss in any treatise on feminist criminology to exclude a discussion of how feminist criminology has led to examination of masculinity and crime. As discussed earlier, part of the feminist critique of criminology is the ungendered examination of crime. Feminist criminological scholarship has led to efforts to incorporate a clearer understanding of the experiences of both males and females. Messerschmidt (1986) focused on the ways in which patriarchal capitalism structures the experiences of both males and females. He laid out a theory that seeks to explain both male and female crimes of various types and argued that one cannot ignore either economic structures or gender relationships in any true explanation of crime. His theory suggests that marginalized lower class and minority males engage in street crimes because of their blocked opportunities and their roles as males in a patriarchal capitalistic society. In contrast, the structure of gender relations in society tends to relegate women’s crime to low-level larceny and fraud.

In keeping with the feminist focus on crimes against women, Messerschmidt (1986) also explored the sexual exploitation of women in the sex trade in third world countries, showing how both patriarchy and capitalism place these women in desperate situations where they submit to exploitation in order to survive. In addition, he drew links between economic inequality and male-dominated family patterns in his discussion of male violence against women. Finally, he provided a masterful blending of theories about male privilege as well as theories about capitalism in his examination of higher level white-collar and corporate crimes, which are committed primarily by males. His work is extremely important to the development of feminist criminology because he directly addresses the feminist criticism that most criminology ignores how gender relations structure crime. His theory illustrates that the feminist approach is cognizant of both men’s and women’s experiences, seeking to illuminate how gender is intrinsically related to crime.

Feminist Criminology and Multiple Marginalities

As in many of the social sciences, early feminist criminological scholarship has been criticized for its assumption that the experiences of all women are similar. This has led to scholarship that acknowledges the intertwined effects of gender, race, class, and sexual identity. In many ways, the critical race critique of feminist criminology has been similar to the feminist critique of mainstream criminology. The charge is that feminist criminologists have in many ways essentialized the experiences of women, assuming that all women are alike. Proponents of intersectionality and multiple marginality argue that race, class, and gender are each impacted by the social structure and in turn impact individuals. Furthermore, these impacts interact. It is not simply being female, being African American, being lesbian, or being poor that matters; neither are the effects cumulative. Instead, there is an interaction that evolves from the intersection of statuses. One’s actions and opportunities are structured by one’s placement along each of these dimensions. Thus, the experiences of, for example, Hispanic women are different from those of Hispanic men as well as white or African American women (Burgess-Proctor, 2006).

Methodology in Feminist Criminology

Not only does feminist criminology encompass many topics, but it also uses many methodologies. Like their mainstream counterparts, feminist criminologists use both quantitative and qualitative methods, often triangulating or combining them to draw on the strengths of each. On the quantitative side, they may examine official data and use large-scale surveys to explore both the relationships between women’s experiences and their offending and official responses to women and how those may be colored by gender. In qualitative research, feminist scholars use a broad range of methodologies. In particular, focus groups, in-depth interviews, and life histories provide information to help tease out the complexity of relationships between victimization and offending. Often, a combination is used, with information from surveys or official data suggesting questions to be explored qualitatively and qualitative research informing the statistics (cf. Owen, 1998).

One final aspect of feminist scholarship and research should be addressed. We have seen that mainstream criminology places emphasis on the researcher taking a value-free stance, detaching himself or herself from the subject matter of the research. From the feminist perspective, however, this is an impossibility. The argument is that we are never free of our own beliefs and values, that those shape our research. In addition, the feminist criminological approach suggests the need for praxis or participatory action research. In contrast to the value-neutral approach of much social science research, participatory action research and praxis-driven methodologies stress the importance of research that is geared toward social change. In feminist criminology, this has meant working toward changes in laws, policies, and prisons. In feminist criminology, as in most areas of feminism, activism and scholarship are intrinsically intertwined.

Feminist Criminological Scholarship

The subject matter of feminist criminology, as in the discipline of criminology overall, includes a broad range of topics. As described earlier, feminist approaches to criminological theorizing have been an important focus. Also, it is evident that violence against women is part of the puzzle. Feminist criminology recognizes that there is not a clear-cut dichotomy of victims and offenders; instead, female offenders are quite likely to also be victims, whether of childhood abuse or abuse as adults (Belknap, 1996). Furthermore, the motherhood role must be taken into account, and numerous feminist criminologists have explored the effects of large-scale female incarceration on both the women and their children (Sharp, 2003).

Extensive research has examined the offending of women and girls. The bulk of feminist criminological scholarship since the mid-1980s has focused on the criminal justice system’s response to female offending. The war on drugs and the federal sentencing guidelines of the 1980s resulted in massive increases in the number of women sent to state and federal prisons. Changes designed to reduce the inequities of indeterminate sentencing resulted in mandatory sentences for lower level female offenders. In particular, aggressive prosecution of drug offenses has impacted women, especially women of color. By the end of 2007, more than 100,000 women were incarcerated for felony convictions on any given day.

This has led to extensive research on the arrest, prosecution, conviction, and incarceration of female offenders. Feminist criminologists also have focused on the conditions in women’s prisons and the programs available to female inmates (cf. Sharp, 2003). Two major characteristics of feminist criminological scholarship are evident in the research. First, feminist scholars have consistently argued that the treatment of girls and women in society helps shape their criminal behavior. However, this focus does not end with pointing out the female pathways into crime but instead leads to the second characteristic: Feminist scholars point out that because women and men have essentially different life experiences as well as motivations for crime and types of crime, the criminal justice system should not be designed to treat women the same as men. Thus, considerable recent scholarship has focused on both the problems of incarcerated women and difficulties with how the system is serving them. Some have gone as far as to challenge the gender equity of the corrections systems, arguing that applying the punitive approach designed for men is a form of “vengeful equity,” a sort of backlash against women demanding equality. (For a detailed discussion of this argument, see Chesney-Lind 1999, cited in Sharp, 2003.)

This emphasis by feminist criminologists may be better understood by looking at an example. Perhaps a young girl is being physically or sexually abused in the home. Eventually, she may run away, may start using drugs, and may engage in sexual behaviors, perhaps for money or drugs in order to survive. She is eventually caught and remanded back to the custody of her parents. As a result of her behavior, conditions in the home may become worse, with more abuse or unreasonable rules. She again runs away, perhaps getting arrested for drug possession this time. Depending on the location, her status, and perceived resources of her family, she may be placed into a juvenile facility and deemed incorrigible. While there, she experience more abuse. Upon release, returning to her community she finds that she is now labeled as a “bad” girl. She may be behind academically in school; she may have difficulty finding peers with whom she can spend time; and she begins hanging out with an older, tougher crowd. She meets a young male, several years older, who seems to have ready access to drugs. They eventually become intimate, and she becomes pregnant. By this time, she may be old enough that her parents no longer report her as a run-away. She drops out of school and has the child. The boyfriend leaves, whether through boredom or choice. Now she is a poorly educated single mother, with low self-worth, probably with a drug problem. She has difficulty finding and holding a job. She may steal to support herself, her child, and her drug use. Eventually, she may find another male to help support her. This relationship is likely to be abusive. Her self-esteem becomes even lower, her drug use progresses, and eventually she is charged with felonies and sent to prison. She may or may not have sought drug treatment prior to incarceration. With a dependent child, her options have been limited. She may have been on probation, but her inability to stay off drugs as well as her inability to hold a job and to pay fees makes her a noncompliant probationer. Once she arrives in prison, she finds that there are few programs there to help her with her greatest needs: drug abuse, victimization issues, low self-esteem, education, job training, and planning how to successfully reintegrate into society on her release. Thus, once she is released, she quickly falls into the same behaviors that sent her to prison. She is rearrested, her parole is revoked, and she finds herself in prison again. Her situation is further complicated by the fact that she is a single mother. Her child may be with her family, or social services may have intervened and placed the child in foster care. When men go to prison, the children’s mother usually remains with the children, but when women are incarcerated, the majority of the time there is no father present to care for the children, creating hardship for the child as well as the mother. Because women’s prisons are often in remote areas, she is rarely if ever able to see her child. If the child is with family members, he or she may be abused, just as the prisoner was as a child. If the child is in state custody, her parental rights may be terminated. Now the woman is more depressed and feels like she has failed at motherhood. The cycle then continues. Without effective interventions that can help her deal with past traumas and resulting mental health issues, the likelihood that she will remain off drugs is low. Without assistance in improving her educational and job skills, building a healthy support network, and finding a safe place to live on release, there is small chance she will be successful when released again.

This scenario illustrates the complexity and interwoven nature of feminist criminology. Theories that illuminate the victimization and experiences of women may help explain their criminal behavior where mainstream theories cannot. Also, the plights of the hypothetical woman just described, and thousands like her, have driven feminist criminologists into the criminal justice system to examine its structure. Awareness of women’s pathways into crime points to the need for prisons and prison programs that are geared to the needs of female offenders. Thus, the prison system and programming in women’s prisons have become major foci of feminist criminological research as well. Because the correctional system arose in response to male offending, the needs and abilities of women are often not taken into account. Feminist criminologists demonstrate, through their research on the characteristics of female prisoners, what types of programs would be most beneficial for women as well as which ones might not be effective.

Even substance abuse treatment, vocational rehabilitation, and therapy in prisons are viewed through a gendered lens. During the 1990s, the therapeutic communities and boot camp program became common forms of rehabilitation in U.S. prisons. However, these programs are not equally well suited to males and females. Among other issues, women respond less positively to confrontation, a staple of both types of programs (Marcus-Mendoza, Klein-Saffran, & Lutze, 1998). Also, female prisoners tend to have health problems that may preclude their participation in physically demanding activities (Sharp, 2003). Finally, to increase the likelihood of successful reentry, motherhood must be taken into account. With two thirds of female prisoners mothers to minor children, it is readily apparent that this is a serious social issue.

As the field moved into a focus on the criminal justice system and its response to women, scholarship related to women working within that system began emerging as well. Both the need for more workers and the increasing number of female prisoners have contributed to an increase of women working in law enforcement, as attorneys, and in the corrections industry. The entire field of criminal justice has long been dominated by men, in part because most criminals were men. With the rapid increase in both feminist criminological scholarship and of female prisoners, there is a burgeoning body of work by feminist criminologists that takes a gendered approach to studying policing, corrections, and the law. This approach has primarily focused on two aspects of the gendered nature of criminal justice employment. First, it looks at how women and men differ in the practices of their jobs. Feminist criminology asks what characteristics women working in criminal justice bring to their jobs and how these impact their work. Second, some feminist scholars have examined the ways in which the structure of law enforcement, corrections, and courts continues to lead to gender inequality (Britton, 2000).

Feminist Criminology in the 21st Century

Gaining widespread acceptance of feminist criminological scholarship has been a daunting task. Given the fact that the field of criminology has been dominated by scholars who are more wed to mainstream theories and research, approaches challenging the mainstream perspective have met with disdain or simply with disinterest. This has led to considerable difficulty getting feminist scholarship published as well as marginalization of the work that has been published. Indeed, there was not even a session on women and crime at the annual American Criminology Society meetings until 1975.

Publication in criminology journals has also been difficult, and much feminist scholarship was relegated to smaller, and not very prestigious, criminology journals. In 1989, the journal Women & Criminal Justice was launched, specifically devoted to the publication of scholarly research on all aspects of women’s and girls’ involvement in the criminal justice system. Then, in 1995, Violence Against Women was launched to publish peerreviewed scholarship on gender-based violence and female victims. Since the early 1990s, a wide range of books about women, crime, and criminal justice have been published. In 2006, Sage Publications introduced the first issue of Feminist Criminology, the official publication of the Division on Women and Crime of the American Society of Criminology. This journal has taken a broad focus on feminist scholarship, publishing peer-reviewed articles on feminist criminological theories, female offending, victimization of women, and the treatment of women and girls in the justice systems.

Feminist Criminology from a Global Perspective

Feminist criminology has arguably had more impact outside of the United States than within. This is because of the focus on violence against women that is a hallmark of feminist criminology as well as a recognized problem internationally. Research has focused on the abuse of women in Muslim countries and in India, female circumcision/genital mutilation, and female infanticide, to name a few topics. Because international attention has been drawn to the plight of women and girls in various parts of the world, research that takes a feminist slant on women’s victimization has been welcomed (Maidment, 2006). At the international level, considerable attention has been paid to the exploitation of women and girls in the global sex industry. In addition, feminist criminologists study the ways in which laws and criminal justice policies around the world may victimize women, sanctioning them for violating traditional gender norms, in particular in regard to sexuality. For example, in some Muslim countries, women who are raped may be viewed and treated as offenders instead of as victims because they have violated the expectations regarding women’s sexuality.

Some feminist criminologists have recently argued that there has been a global backlash against feminist attempts to improve the situations of girls and women, not only in third world countries but also in the industrialized West. A 2008 issue of Feminist Criminology was devoted to articles on how crime and victimization initiatives by feminists have led to a counter-movement.


Although progress in the publication of feminist scholarship has been made, it remains somewhat marginalized in the overall discipline. Not only do mainstream journals publish only limited feminist scholarship, but also textbooks give scant attention to feminist criminological theory. Thus, new generations of criminologists are educated and yet given little if any information about feminist criminology. This is reflected in their research as well as in their teaching and mentoring of new scholars. The cycle therefore remains self-perpetuating, with new criminologists receiving scant education on feminist criminology (Renzetti, 1993).

However, feminist criminology remains alive and well. The Division on Women and Crime is one of the largest sections of the American Society of Criminology, several major publishers have book series focusing on women and crime, and new scholars continue to emerge. The Division on Women and Crime, which started with a small group of scholars in the mid-1980s, has now existed almost a quarter of a century, and feminist scholars have been recognized as Fellows by the American Society of Criminology. Current feminist criminological scholarship includes theory building and theory testing, as well as research on violence against women; women’s crime; and women in the criminal justice system, both as offenders and workers. The defining characteristics of feminist criminology are the emphasis on how social structures affect men and women differently, the relationship between research and activism, and the interrelatedness between victimization and offending among women.