Feminist Perspectives in Criminology Research Paper

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Feminist perspectives in criminology developed in reaction to silences and gaps in mainstream criminology. According to the critique that feminists began to mount in the late 1960s and early 1970s, mainstream or traditional criminology was inadequate in five key respects: (1) it focused almost exclusively on male offenders; (2) it was androcentric in its understandings and interpretations of crime; (3) it paid little attention to crime victims; (4) it ignored sex differences in criminal justice processing; and (5) it disregarded the dynamics of gender and power. Although criminology claimed to be an objective social science, the field itself (feminists charged) was deeply biased and implicated in the maintenance of male domination. Feminist criminologists have aimed at including women in analyses of crime, taking power differentials into account, and contributing toward the elimination of inequalities based on gender and other personal characteristics.

The Critique

Feminist critics of the late 1960s and early 1970s found criminology lacking in five major respects; many of them would repeat these same criticisms today.

Mainstream Criminology Has Focused Almost Exclusively on Male Offenders

It was perhaps natural for mainstream criminologists to focus primarily on male subjects, given that males have comprised the great majority of offenders across time and place. Nonetheless, feminist critics argued, much might be learned about the causes of crime from studying low-rate as well as high-rate offenders. Why should criminologists not also investigate why females are less likely than males to break the law?

Feminists further argued that the use of allmale samples had led to theories of offending that in fact applied only to males, even though most advertised themselves as general explanations of crime. For example, Travis Hirschi, in formulating his well-known control theory of delinquency, deliberately excluded the female subjects on whom data were available in his original sample (p. 35, n. 3). ‘‘Since girls have been neglected for too long by students of delinquency, the exclusion of them is difficult to justify,’’ Hirschi admitted, expressing a ‘‘hope to return to them soon’’ (pp. 35–36, n. 3). However, he has not. Titled Causes of Delinquency, Hirschi’s book is in fact a study of the causes of male delinquency. Most other criminologists, too, assumed a male norm, placing boys and men at the center of their discussions and making women ‘‘invisible’’ (Belknap).

Mainstream Criminology Is Androcentricin Its Understandings and Interpretations of Crime

Feminists found little to admire even in the work of those few criminologists who had focused on female crime; this work, the critics maintained, analyzed female lawbreaking from a patriarchal point of view. Relying on cultural stereotypes, Cesare Lombroso, W. I. Thomas, Otto Pollak, and others who in the past had discussed female crime tended to sort women into two opposing categories, good woman or bad woman, madonna or whore (Feinman), leaving little room for ordinary mortals in between. Criminologists defined the law-abiding woman as passive, obedient, chaste, and childlike while describing the criminal woman as aggressive, defiant, sexually impure, and unbecomingly adult, even masculine in nature. These stereotypes had little to do with actual women, feminists objected; they sexualized and condemned women criminals instead of treating them objectively; they reinforced the paternalistic view that good women are those who are submissive and docile; and they bolstered the double standard of sexual morality that accords men but not women sexual autonomy.

Feminists used prostitution to exemplify how criminologists sexualized female crime while remaining silent about the economic pressures that force some women into crime. Some criminologists had attributed prostitution to nymphomania, others to a hatred of men stemming from underlying lesbian tendencies, but few had recognized that disadvantaged women often lack economic alternatives. The Gluecks and other criminologists went so far as to condemn prostitutes as carriers of sexually transmitted diseases. Before the late 1960s, one could search the criminological literature in vain for recognition that prostitution usually involves two parties, a man as well as a woman, and that diseases are more likely to be transmitted by the clients than the service providers, who routinely take measures against infection. In the case of prostitution as in that of other crimes, the effect of criminological commentaries was to make women offenders seem sexually abnormal and even evil while exonerating whatever males were involved.

One of the most egregious failures of traditional criminology in the feminist view was its insistence on interpreting crimes against women from a male perspective. To exemplify this point, critics pointed to Menachem Amir’s 1971 study, Patterns in Forcible Rape. Nineteen percent of the victims in his sample had arrest records, Amir reported, assuming that negative information on victims was relevant; many had been arrested for sexual misconduct, and 20 percent had a ‘‘’bad’ reputation.’’ Some rapists had used ‘‘temptation’’ to overcome their victims while others used ‘‘verbal coercion’’; in only 13 percent of the cases had the offender used ‘‘physical aggression’’—a finding that implied most victims had actually been ‘‘asking for it.’’ Moreover, in 19 percent of the cases, the victim had ‘‘precipitated’’ her own rape, a conclusion Amir based on rapists’ own accounts. In studies of incest and domestic violence, too, mainstream criminologists interpreted crimes against women from the vantage point of the male offender, suggesting that men are more credible than women and likely to be falsely accused.

Mainstream Criminology Has Paid Little Attention to Crime Victims

One of the chief feminist complaints against traditional criminology was its relative disinterest in victimization and its tendency, when discussing crimes in which women were the primary victims, to blame the victim. Domestic homicide was said to be victimprecipitated in many cases, as was wife battering. Incest was a problem of seductive teenage stepdaughters, not of power imbalances within the family or male views of women as sexual property, while stranger violence might be provoked by women who wore tight sweaters and drank alone in bars. Home was the safest place for women to be, mainstream criminologists concluded, ignoring the huge volume of domestic violence against women.

Mainstream Criminology Has Ignored Sexdifferences in Criminal Justice Processing

Feminists also faulted mainstream criminologists with either ignoring or underestimating the impact of gender on criminal justice processing. Taking a male norm for granted, conventional criminologists assumed that justice officials treated women the same as men or more leniently. They did not investigate whether the system reacts differently to male and female defendants or to different types of female defendants. They did no research on whether women are punished more harshly than men for sex offenses and public order crimes. Even though criminologists had no empirical evidence for assuming that women fared the same as men or better in the criminal justice system, they were not interested in testing the assumption.

Mainstream Criminologists Have Disregarded The Dynamics of Gender and Power

Feminists further charged that traditional criminologists had failed to investigate the interplay of male power, female economic dependency, and abusive male-female dynamics. While mainstream criminology presented itself as an objective social science concerned with all crime, it was in fact masculinist, deeply biased against women, and riddled with hidden agendas for perpetuating male power. Thus criminology itself served to reinforce the status quo and ensure continuance of female subordination.

Development of Feminist Perspectives in Criminology

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.


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