11. Feminist Criminology

11.5 Criminalisation of Women  

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

Comack (2020) argues that criminology has focused on men as offenders. This focus has been justified because the majority of police-reported offenders are men (Comack, 2020; Savage, 2019). While comprising a much smaller proportion than male offenders, female offenders are still represented in adult, youth, and violent offence statistics (Belknap, 2015). Accordingly, we must consider the unique pathways of women as offenders to inform criminal justice system responses to women as offenders.
Traditional criminological theories rarely account for female offending (Belknap, 2015). With the rise of feminist criminology in the 1970s, a variety of theories have attempted to explain female offending. For example, Adler and Simon’s liberation thesis (1975, cited in Belknap, 2015) accounted for female offending by connecting the women’s liberation movement with what was believed to be an increase in female crime rates in the 1960s and 70s. This theory attempted to address the gender-ratio crime problem, as well as account for changes in women’s crime rates (O’Grady, 2018). While both Adler and Simon connected their theory to women’s liberation, they differed on the overall effect on crime. Adler posed that violent crime would increase, while Simon suggested that only property crime would increase for women (Belknap, 2015). On the other hand, according to Simon, female violent crime would decrease because women would be less frustrated as they gained equal access to opportunities (Belknap, 2015). This theory, in its simplest form, argued that women’s liberation leads to convergence in gender roles, and increased opportunities for employment for women. Adler and Simon claimed increased employment also increased opportunities for crime including corporate and white-collar crime, ultimately leading to a convergence in crime rates (Tavcer & Dekeseredy, 2018). While a substantial gender gap in offending remains, the theory was important because it considered women and located women’s engagement in crime within social systems and outside of the biological realm.
Hagan and colleagues’ power control theory (1985, cited in Belknap, 2015) outlined the role of social control in accounting for gendered differences in crime. They theorised that the gendered power dynamic between parents was often replicated with their children. In a patriarchal home, where women had less power, children were socialised into gendered roles where boys were encouraged to take risks and given more freedom, while girls were more restricted in their activities and socialized to be obedient and quiet. In such households, girls had fewer opportunities, to engage in deviance.  According to Hagan and colleagues, in egalitarian households,  with equal power between parents, relatively equal freedoms and levels of parental supervision, were given to daughters and sons, which allowed for more opportunities for girls to engage in deviant behaviour (Belknap, 2015). Note that while this theory does least attempt to explain female offending, it is not without its critics.  Of particular concern is how the theory blames mothers who work outside of the home for their daughters’ delinquency (O’Grady, 2018). The theory has also been criticised “for its simplistic conceptualization of social class and the gendered division of labor in the home and workplace, and for its lack of attention to racial/ethnic differences in gender socialization and to single-parent families, most of which are headed by women” (Renzetti, 2018, p. 78).
Feminist theories have also attempted to account for female offending through the cycle of violence and pathways theories. Widom (1989) examined the relationship between trauma and offending in their cycle of violence theory (cited in Belknap, 2015). This theory posits that girls and women who experience trauma are more likely to be arrested later in life. For example, some evidence suggests that when faced with a traumatic experience, a person may turn to substance use as a coping mechanism (Barker, 2018). This type of coping method can lead to increased involvement with the criminal justice system if individuals are utilising illegal substances, are engaging in illegal activity to support their substance use (e.g., theft), or engaging in illegal activity due to their substance use (e.g., driving under the influence) (Barker, 2018). Support for this theory of offending has been mixed, at best (Belknap, 2015). Pathways theory focuses on the route for offending among female offenders. Not unlike the cycle of violence theory, pathways theory considers the role of childhood abuse and trauma in female offending, which is particularly important as evidence shows that female offenders report higher rates of childhood trauma than the general population (Comack, 2018; Shdaimah & Wiechelt, 2013).


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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.

Share This Book