11. Feminist Criminology

11.2 Critiques of Existing Criminological Theory

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

When feminist criminology emerged in the 1970s, the focus was mainly on how women were accounted for in criminological theories. Feminist criminologists recognised that theories of crime and deviance regarding women’s offending tended to take one of three paths: (1) theories were openly misogynistic, negatively portraying women or situating them as “less than” men; (2) theories were gender blind and completely ignored gender; or (3) theories took an “add women and stir” approach, meaning that the theory was primarily about men and assumed explanations for crime and deviance could be applied to women without question. Most criminological theories were silent on the victimisation of women.

Cesare Lombroso is referred to as the “father of criminology” (Belknap, 2015; Deutschmann, 2007; Williams & McShane, 2010). His theory is openly misogynistic, viewing women as “less than” men and discussing them in a negative manner; thus, Lombroso’s theory serves as an excellent example of the first path theories tend to take regarding women’s offending.

In the late 1800s, Lombroso studied both male and female incarcerated offenders in Italy, examining their physical characteristics to see what differentiated criminals from non-criminals. He developed the concept of the born criminal—individuals who were atavistic, more primitive and less evolved than non-criminals, and thus more prone to engage in criminal activity (Williams & McShane, 2010). Lombroso argued that women were typically less evolved than men, but their criminal tendencies were balanced by their lack of intelligence and passive natures. Deutschmann (2007) summarised Lombroso’s gendered approach:

“The typical woman…was characterized by piety, maternal feelings, sexual coldness, and an underdeveloped intelligence. Criminal women, on the other hand, were either born with masculine qualities (intelligence and activeness) conducive to criminal activity, or encouraged to develop these qualities through such things as education and exercise.” (p. 163)

The second path theories take regarding female offending is exemplified by the original social bond theory by Travis Hirschi, which completely ignored gender and the female experience. Social bond theory examined why people conform to rules and laws, avoiding offending. Hirshi (1969) posited that four key bonds discouraged criminal activities: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief. When initially testing his theory, Hirschi focused exclusively on boys, even though both girls and boys were included in his sample (Belknap, 2015). As a result, the female experience is invisible in social bond theory. Hirschi’s exclusive focus on boys and men in research while developing and testing theory was not unique at the time; social bond theory simply represents one example of how a degree of gender blindness was (and still is) common in many criminological theories. Such gender blindness results in theories of criminality based entirely on data and experiences of boys and men, actively erasing the unique perspectives and experiences of girls and women.

Lastly, Cloward and Ohlin’s (1960) opportunity theory demonstrates the “add women and stir” approach in criminological theory, the third path that theories on crime and deviance tended to take regarding women’s offending. Drawing on Merton’s idea of strain as the gap between socially prescribed goals and the inability to achieve those goals, Cloward and Ohlin (1960) argued that there were both legitimate and illegitimate ways to achieve goals, and these opportunities differed based on someone’s race, neighbourhood, class, and gender (Deutschmann, 2007; Williams & McShane, 2010). Rather than theorising how men and women may experience strain differently, Cloward and Ohlin viewed boys as having “legitimate concerns” around money and status, while girls were seen as experiencing “frivolous concerns” related to finding romantic partners (Belknap, 2015, p. 33). While they mentioned gender in their theory, Cloward and Ohlin (1960) made assumptions about the goals of women, and actively ignored the unique strains faced by women, such as discrimination, parenting and childrearing responsibilities, limited education and employment opportunities, and disproportionate victimisation.

The many androcentric (male-centred) explanations for crime and criminality not only centred on men as the primary focus of explanations, but were mainly the work of male theorists.  This reality called for a new theorising of women, created by women, related to both victimisation and criminalisation. Feminist criminologists demanded a centring of gender as a key factor in understanding crime and criminality. Here we see the scholarship of ground-breaking feminist criminologists like Meda Chesney-Lind, Carol Smart, and Karlene Faith, and the theorists and criminologists they have inspired, such as Elizabeth Comack, Gillian Balfour, Joanne Belknap, and others.



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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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