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Feminism: Criminological Aspects

Development Of Feminist Perspectives

Over the thirty years of their development, feminist perspectives in criminology have evolved through three stages, each lasting roughly a decade: a mobilization stage, 1968–1977; a maturation stage, 1978–1987; and a stage of differentiation that began around 1988 and continues into the present.

Stage 1: mobilization. During the decade 1968–1977, feminists mobilized for criminological reforms on two fronts, in grassroots organizations and within the academy. The grassroots movement began with nonacademic women organizing at the grassroots level to help the victims of rape, spouse abuse, and incest by setting up hotlines, establishing shelters to which battered women could flee with their children, and raising public awareness through marches and rallies. They also worked with lawyers and legislators to achieve rape law reform. These grassroots organizers called for nonhierarchical relationships, consciousness raising, and victim empowerment. A literature began to accrete around their work, some of it produced by professional authors such as Susan Brownmiller (Against Our Will, 1975), some published by activists themselves (e.g., Martin, 1976); this literature led to reforms in mainstream criminology, especially in its treatment of female victims. Many of these activists perceived a radical, hostile divide between men and women, a perception that persists in the work of so-called radical feminists such as Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, and members of the group Women Against Pornography.

The second front on which the feminizers of criminology mobilized during this first stage was within the academy. Three academic criminologists, working independently and indeed in ignorance of one another's efforts, issued the first in-house challenges to traditional criminology. Canadian Marie-Andrée Bertrand exposed the myth of sexual equality before the law. Britisher Frances Heidensohn asked why female crime rates are lower than those of males and why conventional criminologists showed so little interest in this issue. And Dorie Klein, an American, revealed the sexist biases of the literature on female crime. The first stage ended with the publication of the first book-length critique of mainstream criminology, Carol Smart's Women, Crime, and Criminology: A Feminist Critique (1976).

In a related development, feminists in law schools produced legal theory that helped frame and validate the reform efforts of grassroots activists and academic criminologists. Feminist legal theorists of this period concentrated on exposing ways in which the law operates to perpetuate women's economic, political, and social disadvantages (Smart, 1990/1998). Although there was little direct interaction between the two sets of academic feminists, the legal theorists created an intellectual context for the criminologists and to some extent authenticated their enterprise.

During this first developmental stage, the concepts of sex, sexism, and equality were central to feminist work in criminology. Arguments tended to be framed in terms of a struggle between the sexes, male and female; critiques were posed in terms of sexism, or male bias against women; and demands were based on the idea of equality. What feminists sought was to be treated the same as men. Few noticed that this ideal involved the internalization and promotion of male standards. Moreover, feminists assumed and fostered solidarity among women, paying little attention to divisions created by age, race, sexual orientation, or social class.

Stage 2: maturation. During the decade 1978–1987, the feminist enterprise came to maturity by developing its agendas, establishing footholds within the academic world, and producing a substantial body of literature. Whereas first-stage feminists had usually worked in isolation, the graduation of a significant number of feminists with doctoral degrees in criminology and related areas now created opportunities for alliances and collaborations. When these feminists assumed editorial positions on journals, reviewed manuscripts for publishers, or were invited by book editors or conference organizers to contribute a chapter or deliver a talk, feminist work received a hearing.

In the early 1980s, feminists established the Division on Women and Crime, the first section within the American Society of Criminology, thus creating another forum for feminist work and offering members routes to professional office. Researchers laid the groundwork for studies of women in policing (Martin), in the courts (Kruttschnitt), in prisons (Rafter) and prison reform (Freedman), and as victims (Dobash and Dobash). Textbooks began to appear, opening up the possibility of courses in women and crime and of training a new generation of feminist criminologists. Toward the end of this period, Meda Chesney-Lind published an important review of the literature on women and crime, one sign of its maturity.

Sex, a concept that had figured prominently in the first stage, was replaced in the second stage by the concept of gender. Although variously defined, "gender" was generally used to denote socially constructed differences between males and females. Whereas first-stage theorists had been concerned about sexism, a problem that could be fixed by achieving the ideal of equality, secondstage theorists were concerned about gender inequality, a more intractable problem that included the very nature of law and organizations, which now appeared to be gendered and masculine institutions. Doubts emerged about the wisdom of pursuing equality, the first-stage ideal, because it now became clear that to be equal meant to adopt masculine standards and values.

Stage 3: differentiation. The third stage, kicked off in 1988 with a major review of accomplishments to date (Daly and Chesney-Lind), has been characterized in part by highly specific research projects built on the groundwork established in the second stage. The new work includes sophisticated empirical studies of court processing (e.g., Albonetti); victimization studies assessing violence against women (Bachman, forthcoming; Koss); reconceptualizations of the implications of criminal justice policy (e.g., Miller, ed.); and research on particular prison issues (Human Rights Watch; Morash, Bynum, and Koons). One result of third-stage activity has been documentation of previously unrecognized differences between women and men, among groups of women, and in the practices of various courts and prisons (e.g., Kruttschnitt, Gartner, and Miller, forthcoming). Another result has been the opening up of new territory for theorizing about difference and its criminal-justice effects. Also characteristic of this third stage is an internationalization of feminist work in criminology, starting formally with a 1991 conference in Quebec (Bertrand, Daly, and Klein, eds.) and continuing through smaller conferences and individual initiatives (Rafter and Heidensohn, eds.). This cross-fertilization has sensitized feminists to national differences and to some extent refocused them on global problems such as female circumcision and child prostitution.

During this third stage, the concept of gender evolved even further from its roots in biological sex differences as feminists became concerned with intersectionalities or the ways in which gender is cross-cut by such variables as age, class, race, and sexual preference, creating a multiplicity of ways of being masculine, feminine, something in between, or something entirely different. As the concept of gender fragmented, it gave rise to work on masculinities and crime (e.g., Messerschmidt). Definitions of the key criminological problems also splintered into issues of "multiple inequalities" (Daly and Maher, eds., p. 11). Feminists concentrated more on crime and crime control, less on problems presented by mainstream criminology, which despite some accommodations to the feminist critique has remained remarkably impervious to change. In fact, by the end of the third decade, some feminists had turned away from criminology itself (Daly and Maher, eds.; Rafter and Heidensohn, eds.), refusing to let mainstream criminologists set their political or research agendas.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawFeminism: Criminological Aspects - The Critique, Development Of Feminist Perspectives, Bibliography