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Gender and Crime

Explaining Female Offending

Social, biological, economic, and psychological explanations have been used to develop theories to explain why women commit crime, as well as why they commit less crime than men. The number and complexity of these theories has expanded greatly in recent years as part of the growing body of work on gender both in criminology and in the social sciences more generally.

Early social science views. Early explanations of female crime reflected prevailing views regarding crime and human behavior more generally. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, theories of human behavior tended to be deterministic. In criminology this perspective was apparent in theories attributing crime to either biological or social factors beyond the control of individuals. Psychological explanations of crime emerged as psychological theories gained prominence. At the same time, major sociological explanations of crime (differential association, anomie, social disorganization) were emphasizing social and cultural factors that could account for female as well as male criminality.

During the first half of the twentieth century, most explanations of female crime were ancillary to explanations of male criminality. Lombroso, for example, linked both male and female crime to biological predisposition. Early sociological explanations generally rejected biological determinism and offered sociocultural interpretations of both male and female crime as well as of gender differences in crime. Sociocultural views were manifest in criminology textbooks published between 1920 and 1960 (see the review in Steffensmeier and Clark). Whatever the orientation, biological or sociocultural, most criminologists focused primarily on male criminality. Female offending was largely ignored.

Theorists emphasizing the causal role of biological and psychological factors in female crime typically postulated that criminal women exhibited masculine biological or psychological orientations. Lombroso viewed female criminals as having an excess of male characteristics. He argued that, biologically, criminal females more closely resembled males (both criminal and normal) than females.

Similarly, Freud argued that female crime results from a "masculinity complex," stemming from penis envy. According to Freud, all females suffer from penis envy, but most are able to make a healthy adjustment to the realization that they do not have a penis. Those who cannot successfully resolve their penis envy overidentify with maleness and are likely to act out in criminal ways. Both Lombroso and Freud, then, viewed the female criminal as biologically or psychologically male in orientation.

While some theorists linked female crime to "masculinity," others saw it as distinctly feminine. Eleanor and Sheldon Glueck's studies of adult and juvenile delinquents suggested that female crime reflected the inability of certain women—especially those from disadvantaged neighborhood and family contexts—to control their sexual impulses. The Gluecks also subscribed to the theme of the woman offender as a pathetic creature, a view that characterized much of criminological writings in the 1930s.

Otto Pollak's The Criminality of Women is the most important work on female crime prior to the modern period. The book summarized previous work on women and crime, and it challenged basic assumptions concerning the extent and quality of women's involvement in criminal behavior. Pollak himself explained female crime and the gender gap with reference to a mix of biological, psychological, and sociological factors.

Pollak is the first writer to insist that women's participation in crime approaches that of men and is commensurate with their representation in the population. He argues that the types of crimes women commit—shoplifting, domestic thefts, thefts by prostitutes, abortions, perjury—are underrepresented in crime statistics for a variety of reasons: easy concealment, underreporting, embarrassment on the part of male victims, and male chivalry in the justice system.

Pollak consistently emphasizes the importance of social and environmental factors, including poverty, crowded living conditions, broken homes, delinquent companions, and the adverse effects of serving time in reform schools or penitentiaries. Pollak also noted that there is considerable overlap in causative factors for delinquency among girls and boys, and women and men.

Yet another fundamental theme of Pollak's work is the attribution of a biological and physiological basis to female criminality. Pollak stresses the inherently deceitful nature of females, rooted particularly in the passive role assumed by women during sexual intercourse. Also significant are the influences of hormonal and generative phases (e.g., menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause) on female criminality.

In sum, in comparison to explanations for male offending, some early explanations of female crime placed greater emphasis on biological and psychological factors. Nevertheless, early sociological explanations of female crime, stressing sociocultural factors, were also commonplace. Criminology textbooks, in particular, offered an interpretation of female offending and the gender gap that took into account gender differences in role expectations, socialization patterns and application of social control, opportunities to commit particular offenses, and access to criminally oriented subcultures—all themes that have been further developed in more recent accounts (see reviews in Steffensmeier and Clark 1980; Chesney-Lind 1986).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawGender and Crime - Similarities In Male And Female Offending Rates And Patterns, Differences Between Male And Female Offending Patterns