11. Feminist Criminology

11.1 Foundations of Feminist Criminology

Dr. Rochelle Stevenson; Dr. Jennifer Kusz; Dr. Tara Lyons; and Dr. Sheri Fabian

It is helpful to begin with a brief definition of feminism. A central definition can be challenging, because as the Break Out Box below illustrates, there are many kinds of feminism, each with their own unique focus. However, there are features common to every type of feminism that we can use to establish a solid foundation when exploring feminist criminology. Primarily, feminism argues that women suffer discrimination because they belong to a particular sex category (female) or gender (woman), and that women’s needs are denied or ignored because of their sex. Feminism centres the notion of patriarchy in understandings of inequality, and largely argues that major changes are required to various social structures and institutions establish gender equality. The common root of all feminisms is the drive towards equity and justice.

Break Out Box: Different Feminisms

Feminist perspectives in criminology comprise a broad category of theories that address the theoretical shortcomings of criminological theories which have historically rendered women invisible (Belknap, 2015; Comack, 2020; Winterdyk, 2020). These perspectives have considered factors such as patriarchy, power, capitalism, gender inequality and intersectionality in the role of female offending and victimization. The six main feminist perspectives are outlined below.

 Liberal Feminism

According to Winterdyk (2020) and Simpson (1989), liberal feminism focuses on achieving gender equality in society. Liberal feminists believe that inequality and sexism permeate all aspects of the social structure, including employment, education, and the criminal justice system. To create an equal society, these discriminatory policies and practices need to be abolished. From a criminological perspective, liberal feminists argue that women require the same access as men to employment and educational opportunities (Belknap, 2015). For example, a liberal feminist would argue that to address the needs of female offenders, imprisoned women need equal access to the same programs as incarcerated men (Belknap, 2015). The problem with the liberal feminist perspective is the failure to consider how women’s needs and risk factors differ from men (Belknap, 2015).

Radical Feminism

Radical feminism views the existing social structure as patriarchal (Gerassi, 2015; Winterdyk, 2020). In this type of gendered social structure, men structure society in a way to maintain power over women (Gerassi, 2015; Winterdyk, 2020). Violence against women functions as a means to further subjugate women and maintain men’s control and power over women (Gerassi, 2015). The criminal justice system, as well, becomes a tool utilized by men to control women (Winterdyk, 2020). It is only through removing the existing patriarchal social structure that violence against women can be addressed (Winterdyk, 2020).

Marxist Feminism

Like the radical feminist perspective, Marxist feminists view society as oppressive against women. However, where the two differ is that Marxist feminists see the capitalist system as the main oppressor of women (Belknap, 2015; Gerassi, 2015). Within a classist, capitalist system, women are a group of people that are exploited (Winterdyk, 2020). Exploitation in a capitalist system results in women having unequal access to jobs, with women often only having access to low paying jobs. This unequal access has led to women being disproportionately involved in property crime and sex work (Winterdyk, 2020). Like other Marxist perspectives, it is only through the fall of capitalism and the restructuring of society that women may escape from the oppression they experience.

Socialist Feminism

Social feminists represent a combination of radical and Marxist theories (Belknap, 2015; Winterdyk, 2020). Like radical feminists, they view the existing social structure as oppressive against women. However, rather than attributing these unequal power structures to patriarchy, they are the result of a combination of patriarchy and capitalism. Addressing these unequal power structures calls for the removal of the capitalist culture and gender inequality. Socialist feminists argue these differences in power and class can account for gendered differences in offending – particularly in how men commit more violent crime than women (Winterdyk, 2020).

Post-modern Feminism

Ugwudike (2015) outlines how postmodern feminism focuses on the construction of knowledge. Unlike other perspectives outlined above, which suggest there is “one reality” of feminism, postmodern feminists believe that the diversity of women needs to be highlighted when one considers how gender, crime and deviance intersects to inform reality (Ugwudike, 2015, p. 157). For postmodern feminists, they acknowledge the power differentials that exist within society, including gendered differences, and focus on how those constructed differences inform dominant discourses on gender. Of importance is the focus on “deconstructing the language and other means of communication that are used to construct the accepted ‘truth’ about women” (p. 158). Also of importance is the acknowledgement of postmodern feminism regarding how other variables, like race, sexuality, and class, influence women’s reality (Ugwudike, 2015).

 Intersectional Feminism

Winterdyk (2020) notes that some academics add a sixth perspective. Intersectional feminists address the failure of the above perspectives to consider how gender intersects with other inequalities, including race, class, ethnicity, ability, gender identities, and sexual orientation (Belknap, 2015). Some of the above theories attempt to paint the lived experiences of all women as equal, whereas intersectional perspectives acknowledge that women may experience more than one inequality (Winterdyk, 2020). There is an inherent need to examine how these inequalities intersect to influence a women’s pathway to offending and/or risk of victimization. Recently, Indigenous Feminism has emerged as a critical discourse on feminist theory that considers the intersection of gender, race, as well as colonial and patriarchal practices that had been perpetuated against Indigenous women (Suzack, 2015).

Feminist activism has proceeded in four ‘waves’ (for a discussion of the waves of feminism, see A Timeline | Aesthetics of Feminism). The first wave of feminism began in the late 1800s and early 1900s with the suffragette movement and advocacy for women’s right to vote. The second wave of feminism started in the 1960s and called for gender equality and attention to a wide variety of issues directly and disproportionately affecting women, including domestic violence and intimate partner violence [IPV] employment discrimination, and reproductive rights. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the third wave focused on diverse and varied experiences of discrimination and sexism, including the ways in which aspects such as race, class, income, and education impacted such experiences. It is in the third wave that we see the concept of intersectionality come forward as a way to understand these differences. The fourth wave, our current wave, began around 2010 and is characterised by activism using online tools, such as Twitter. For example, the #MeToo movement is a significant part of the fourth wave. The fourth wave is arguably a more inclusive feminism – a feminism that is sex-positive, body-positive, trans-inclusive, and has its foundations in “the queering of gender and sexuality based binaries” (Sollee, 2015). This wave has been defined by “‘call out’ culture, in which sexism or misogyny can be ‘called out’ and challenged” (Munro, 2013).

We return to the second wave of feminism, in a time of social change, where feminist criminology was born. The emerging liberation of women meant newfound freedoms in the workforce and in family law, including the availability and acceptability of divorce, but these relative freedoms rendered gender discrimination even more visible. In the 1960s and 1970s, North American society specifically was full of unrest, with demonstrations and marches fighting for civil rights for Black Americans, advocating for gay and lesbian rights, and protesting the Vietnam War. Marginalised groups were calling out inequality and oppression, and demanding change. Feminist activism brought attention to the inequalities facing women, including their victimisation, as well as the challenges female offenders faced within the criminal justice system. The breadth and extent of domestic violence, specifically men’s violence against women within intimate relationships, was demonstrated by the need for domestic violence shelters and the voices of women trying to escape violence. Conversations at the national level led to government-funded shelters as well as private donor funding from those who saw the need for safe havens from abuse.

At the same time, the historic and systemic trauma of women involved in the criminal justice system as offenders was being recognized, including attention to their histories of abuse, poverty, homelessness, and other systemic discriminations. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, feminist scholars recognised the absence of women within criminological theory; more specifically, as Chesney-Lind and Faith (2001, p. 287) highlight, feminist theorists during this time “challenged the overall masculinist nature of criminology by pointing to the repeated omission and misrepresentation of women in criminological theory.”

Feminist criminology, mainly driven by American feminist scholars and activists, began with feminist theorists’ call to action to address racism and sexism within criminology and the criminal justice system.


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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Rochelle Stevenson; Dr. Jennifer Kusz; Dr. Tara Lyons; and Dr. Sheri Fabian is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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