Category Archives: Feminist Criminology


Video: Feminist Criminology


Bad Girls, Bad Girls, Whatcha Gonna Do?

Bad Girls, Bad Girls, Whatcha Gonna Do?

Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D

Brown is associate professor of Education at Colby College and author of Raising Their Voices: The Politics of Girls’ Anger (Harvard University Press 1998) and the forthcoming Girlfighting: Betrayal and Rejection Among Girls (New York University Press, September 2003).

Meda Chesney-Lind, Ph.D

Chesney-Lind is professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and co-author of Girls, Delinquency and Juvenile Justice (Wadsworth, 2003), The Female Offender (Sage, 2003) and Female Gangs in America (Lakeview Press, 1999).


Suddenly the world is filled with nasty girls. “Girls just want to be mean,” the New York Times Magazine announced last year as a slew of new books on girls’ relational aggression told us how “to tame them,” to use the Times‘ own words.

Girls will be (backstabbing, catty) girlsÑthe latest flavor de jour of the American media’s love affair with “bad” girls. Hardly a new idea in a country that grew up reading Longfellow’s poem about his daughter: “when she was good, she was very very good, but when she was bad she was horrid.”

Now comes the ultimate girl fight in living color. Full-scale “savagery in the Chicago suburbs,” Newsweek called it. Junior girls from the privileged Glenbrook North High School paid for the right to be hazed by seniors at the annual powder puff football game. After the beatings and humiliations ended, five girls were sent to the hospital, one with a broken ankle, another with a concussion so serious it caused memory loss, another to receive 10 stitches in her scalp.

As authors who write about girls’ anger, aggression and violence, we are troubled, for reasons that are obvious and some that are less so. Violence that girls perpetrate on other girls, whether it’s emotional or physical, is cause for concern. But the media frenzy that greeted the lurid and voyeuristic video of girls fighting other girls is also problematic. In fact, it signals another major issue for those concerned about girls development. Girls grow up in a world that has long encouraged, them to turn their rage against one another and then likes to be in the audience for the fight. Like the Glenbrook parents, they might even supply the beer .

Girls’ anger has a long history of being dismissed (“she’s just a bitch,” “it must be PMS”) and trivialized (“you’re beautiful when you’re angry”). Girls violence is generally either ignored entirely or sensationalized and sexualized. Girlfighting, in particular, is often presented as a spectacle (consider mud or Jello wrestling) enjoyed for its eroticism as much as its entertainment value (think Jerry Springer).

The hazing we watched up-close and personal, over and over again, was horrifying, but questions about how and why the episode gripped the nation are at least as troubling. Who was it watching the events unfold on the field? Why was it caught on videotape to begin with? How was it passed on to cable and network television? Who made the decision to run it repeatedly? Why was it international news?

Girlfighting as spectator sport. Again.

Why, when boys perpetrate 80 percent of serious violence in the U.S., is this the story that captivates us-and helps define a generation of girls?

In the shock and awe, we’ve missed the point. The school principal suggests this is just kids with “old scores to settle.” That doesn’t tell us enough and, worse, it fudges the real issues.

This was girls fighting over boyfriends and popularity. The seniors used words like “bitches,” “wimps,” and “sluts” to shame the juniors into staying on the field. In what many think of as post-feminist America, it’s not popular to raise issues of power and subordination, but the fact that girls are fighting other girls in front of videotaping boys, is hardly insignificant. That girls used sexist and misogynistic language to control other girls during and after the event and that their fights were primarily for boys’ attention and favor is a symptom of deeper cultural problems. As with many girl fights, boys are both the “cause” of girl’s violence and the real audience.

We need to ask harder, more critical questions about why girls are fighting. Why embrace insults that ratify the sexual double standard? Why is strength in women always de-valued as “bitchiness?” Why the endless competition among girls for male approval? And why fight each other instead of against a culture still rife with sexism and violence toward women?

Girlfighting gets acted out horizontally on other girls because this is the safest and easiest outlet for their outrage and frustration. Girls are essentially accessing and mimicking the male violence they sometimes know all too well; and they are choosing victims that are societally approvedÑother girls. This pattern of horizontal aggression has long characterized subordinate groups since it manages the inevitable anger in the group being controlled without jeopardizing the over all structure of male privilege.

Girls’ violence also served one additional purpose. It’s not uncommon for the targets of that violence to, themselves, be the group members that are challenging the rigid norms of girlhood. Why, for example, wouldn’t the girlfighters go after those “girly girls” that the media continuously tells them are weak, vapid, and stupid? From the evil head cheerleaders in the Disney Channel’s Kim Possible and Lizzie McGuire, to The Man Show‘s Juggy Squad on Comedy Central, to Thong Song wannabes, these girls make easy targets.

Girls who take out other girls for being “dykes,” “hos,” and “bitches” can prove they are different, worth taking seriously, a force to contend with. No wimps, wusses, or victims here. But this posturing is short-lived protection at best, because selling out other girls this way only continues a climate of misogyny, and any wrong move can quickly turn the perpetrator into a victim

The problem is not girls; the problem is a culture that denigrates, commodifies and demoralizes women and then gets a – kick out watching the divide and conquer consequences.

There’s an old saying, “men kill their weak, women kill their strong.” If we would give girls legitimate avenues to power, value their minds as much as their bodies, they’d be less likely to go down those nasty, underhanded or openly hostile roads, less likely to take their legitimate rage out on other girls. Let’s face it, “meanness” and other covert aggressions are, in the final analysis, weapons of the weak; horizontal violence ultimately ratifies boy not girl power. When we join with girls to- create real pathways to power and possibility, we’ll have a lot less to video tape and we’d have a lot more to be proud of both in ourselves and in our daughters.


Review of “Mean Girl” Books

Review of “Mean Girl” Books

Meda Chesney-Lind

The Secret Lives of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do-Sex Play, Aggression, and their Guilt, by Sharon Lamb. New York: The Free Press, 2001. ISBN 0-7432-017-8 (cloth), $24.00

Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls , by Rachel Simmons. New York: Harcourt, Inc, 2002. ISBN 0-15-100604-0 (cloth), $25.00.

Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and other Realities of Adolescence, by Rosalind Wiseman. New York: Crown Publishers, 2002, ISBN 0-609-60945-9 (cloth), $24.00.


Last spring, the mainstream media was full of articles on a new kind of “bad” girl-the “mean” girl. Suddenly, we were all reading about what had been until then, an often overlooked aspect of growing up female: dealing with backstabbing, sneaky, manipulative, and exploitative “friends.”

For me, the hype about negative aspects of young women was all too familiar; I had spent a good part of the previous decade challenging a similar spate of stories on the “violent” girl, often a gang girl. Here, too, the media had a field day exploring the notion that girls were not simply “sugar and spice and everything nice” and could often be as “bad” or “violent” as boys. Some things about the mean girl media frenzy tracks the same themes, but there are some crucial differences.

Notably, the hype about violent girls was heavily racialized, with almost all the images that accompanied the stories depicting African American or Hispanic girls and the books and articles that developed that hypothesis were written by journalists-virtually all female (see Chesney-Lind 1999). The books exploring the “mean girl”: The Secret Lives of Girl, Odd Girl Out, and Queen Bees and Wannabes have covers featuring white girls and track problems that are more linked to middle class, white femininity than to the economically marginalized communities of the “violent” girl of color. Moreover, two of the three authors of the books (Simmons and Wiseman) are participants in a new cottage industry that has grown up giving adults (both professionals and parents) information about raising their daughters.

But, leaving aside the media hype, what about the books themselves? Do they tell us something important about girlhood? The answer is a resounding yes, but.

Probably the most well known of these books is Rachel Simmons’s best selling Odd Girl Out, for example, does popularize an important new line psychological research, which focuses attention on “relational” or “alternative aggression” which is “aggression that cannot, for one reason or another, be directed (physically or verbally) at its target.” When this is the case, “the perpetrator has to find other channels” (Simmons, p. 20).

To fully understand relational aggression, though, it is important to keep in mind that psychological definitions of aggression include all behaviors that are intended to hurt or harm others. This means that a wide variety of actions fall under the category ranging from rolling one’s eyes and deliberating ignoring people to assault, rape, and murder.

Data on male and female aggression gathered by different studies routinely shows that while boys tend to specialize in physical or overt aggression (either hitting or attacking someone verbally), girls are more likely than boys to use relational aggression, so much so that by the time one includes relational aggression along with the physical, the gender difference in aggression disappears (Crick, 1999). [Crick and her associates contend that the old focus that only males are aggressive has more recently been replaced by a new perspective: “one that posits males and females to be equally aggressive” (Crick, 76).]

Why are girls inclined to alternative aggression? Simmons contends that girls are socialized into an impossible double bind psychologically. They are told that they must be good, nice, and quiet, and they are also told that they should have and value close and intimate relationships. Of course, with intimacy comes conflict, and again according to Simmons girls fear that an expression of conflict will damage their relationships. In short, girls experience anger, but they are not permitted to express it, since they “fear that even everyday acts of conflict would result in the loss of people they most cared about” (p. 69). Trapped in a constraining, stereotypical gender role, some girls begin to craft ways of expressing their anger covertly. These aggressions exist underneath the radar of most parents and virtually all teachers, since teachers and parents have their hands full dealing with the much more obvious physical aggression and violence of boys. As a result, “the day-to-day aggression that persists among girls, a dark underside of their social universe, remains uncharted and explored. We have no language for it” (Simmons, p 69).

Odd Girl Out specifically sets out explore this dark side of girlhood with story after story of girls hurting other girls. Over the course of a year, Simmons talked to girls attending ten schools in three geographic areas: a major middle-Atlantic city, a Northeastern city, and a small town in Mississippi. Simmons argues that she made an effort to seek out schools that serve girls of color as well as a range of social classes, but she never gives us the number of girls she interviewed, nor does she give us any demographic information on these respondents. She also interviewed “approximately fifty” adult women (but again, no demographic information is provided). Also frustrating is that she does not routinely give us social class or ethnic information about the particular girls whose stories she tells. This is particularly problematic since even she notes in her one, brief chapter on girls of color (Hispanic and African American only), that these ethnic groups (particularly working class African American families) do teach their girls how to fight physically, and do not seem as prone to the use of relational aggression, something she would have noticed had she read any of the books available on girls in gangs.

Simmons opens her book on this, the newest female victimization with her own story. In her case, when she was eight a “popular” friend of hers began to whisper to Rachel’s best friend that they should run away from Rachel. One day they did on the way to dance class at a local community theatre, and she spent much of that year trying to make sense of their desertion. As she puts it at the “the sorrow is overwhelming” (p.2) so “now is the time to end the silence” (p. 3).

This seems a little overblown. In fact, the silence on female aggression was broken by two books published a decade earlier than Simmons’: Men, Women and Aggression by Anne Campbell (1991) and Of Mice and Women: Aspects of Female Aggression edited by Kaj Bjorkqvist and Pirkko Niemela in 1992. Simmons does write well, and she provides readers with powerful narratives on the pain girls experience. Finally, she has some very useful suggestions to teachers and parents about teaching girls to be appropriately “aggressive” (being confident, assertive, and competitive) while avoiding mean strategies like vindictive gossip and social exclusion.

Girls’ aggression is also a major theme Sharon Lamb’s The Secret Lives of Girls. Here, the author utilizes a methodology that seems even more haphazard than that used by Simmons. The author reports that she interviewed 122 women and girls in 25 states “using family trips and trips to conferences as opportunities to find women and girls to interview” (p. xv). Ultimately, her efforts (as well as those of two assistants) did result in a sample that is 24% African American and 17% Hispanic (primarily Puerto Rican); only a quarter of her interviewees, though, were girls.

Having grown up working class, Lamb, a clinical psychologist who worked with Carol Gilligan, apparently felt constrained by a construction of girlhood that stressed girl’s and women’s “caring natures” (Lamb, p. xiv). Lamb confesses that her experiences with “anger, wishes for vengeance” and sexuality led her to seek “a perspective that gives girls’ sexuality and aggression their due and doesn’t subsume it under a blanket of carrying nor as a defense against oppression” (Lamb, p. xiv).

In seeking to challenge the caring girl stereotype of the eighties, Lamb’s book offers us a chaotic, choppy, and frequently frustrating set of ruminations about various aspects of girlhood. Chapters, many only four pages in length, attempt to deal with a wild array of topics, and while Lamb, unlike Simmons, appears familiar with a range of research on girl’s development, her citation pattern (for an academic) is inconsistent and occasionally sloppy.

Though Lamb spends considerable time challenging the “tyranny of nice and kind” (Lamb, p. 147), most of the book deals with a topic that seems unfortunate in light of current public concern regarding the sexual abuse of children: the sexual games that girls play with other girls (and occasionally with boys). Certainly, there is a need to document, as careful researchers like Deborah Tolman and Barry Thorne have done, girl’s experience of their sexuality. Lamb’s book is far less systematic and more autobiographical. She admits that she “played sexual games with other girls and was deeply concerned for many years after about what I had done (Lamb, p. xiii).” Like Simmons, this early childhood experience has translated in a discussion that seems almost voyeuristic at times, and certainly unanchored from the growing literature on sexual development in children. [Even more worrisome, though she seems concerned about the sexual abuse of girls, at least one the incidents she describes in her chapter entitled, “I’ll Show You Mine If You Show Me Yours,” sounded very much like an incident of sexual abuse, not “playing doctor” despite the author’s trying to label it as such (including the victim opening the story with “one time they [a group of boys] tried to get me” (Lamb, p. 22). ]

Especially exasperating is the section of her book on girls and fashion subtitled: “the pleasures of being objectified.” She contends that few feminists have “analyzed the appeal” that media images of “pretty” have for young girls, and she seems quick to condone the fact that “little girls love this look; they love Britney [Spears].”

In virtually all her analysis of girl’s sexuality and sexual games, Lamb seems reluctant to acknowledge the ways in the sex/gender system has shaped female sexual expression. In a misogynistic world, girls learn to assign low worth to women and hold that women achieve their greatest importance when they command the attention of males. The success of pop icons is that they learned how to capture the male gaze, just as young girls seek to do.

By contrast, Lamb’s treatment of girl’s aggression is actually less problematic and more informed than Simmons’ treatment. She addresses girl’s experiences with direct and indirect aggression, and she does particularly well with the agency of girls of color. She is wrong, though, when she says that “society ignores and accepts aggression in girls from low income neighborhoods” (Lamb, p. 142). In fact, the media hype and subsequent demonization of girls in gangs and violent girls has – led to a 56% increase in the detention of girls in the last decade.

Lamb ends her book, as does Simmons, by talking about the need to acknowledge and even support girl’s participation in direct aggression: “when good girls are aggressive they both conform and resist” (Lamb, p. 228).

Well, how do we raise girls that can both exist and thrive in an imperfect world? Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes offers us all a “passport” from “Planet Parent” into what she calls, “Girl World.” [Wiseman apparently draws her interview data from her work with girls in a school based violence prevention program, the Empower Program, but, again, there’s no clear information on where these girls came or what their demographic characteristics are as a group.]

Reading this book closely, it appears that perhaps Wiseman needs a passport out of Girl World; she is certainly accepting and even enthusiastic about even the most repressive and superficial aspects of girlhood. In her introduction, as an example, she gushes about the “key rights of passage your daughter is likely to experience: getting an invitation to an exclusive party in the sixth grade…; her first breakup with a friend; the first time she dresses up for a party in the latest style (p. 3). What happened to her first play or high school graduation to say nothing of being named a Rhodes Scholar?

In fact, though school is the setting for much of Wiseman’s book, we virtually never hear anything about studying. Instead, there is a steady drumbeat of acquiescence to such Girl World “facts” as “beauty and style are so important to the Girl World that it wouldn’t exist without it (Wiseman, p. 76), “breasts are power,” and that girls “can’t be too overt about their academic or athletic accomplishments” for fear of being called “stuck up” (Wiseman, p. 115). Weisman does hedge these observations sometimes with comments like the feminist movement still has “further to go” (p. 115), but if so this book hardly provides parents or anybody else with much of a road map.

Instead, we see six grade girls “sinking as low as they need to win the boy they want” which translates into them being “off the charts cliquey and mean” (Wiseman, p. 211). The next chapter takes us further down misogyny highway in Girl World where we learn that “pleasing boys” means “betraying girls” (Wiseman, p. 235). Admittedly, Wiseman does talk about date rape and other forms of dating violence as well as sexuality and pregnancy in smart ways at the end of the book, but this is off set by long sections on clique dynamics in girls groups urge parents to accept the fact that girls prestige in such groups is almost totally a product of looks, weight, wearing the right clothes and negotiating a world where the worst thing to be is a “fat, uglyÉslut” (p. 111), and where “mean girls” are the most powerful.

Having said all of this, I have to confess that I’ve recommended Wiseman’s book to colleagues who work with girls. Despite my frustration with the limits of her perspective, there is no doubt that she has really listened to girls, and she includes very powerful quotes from young women who have been in the Empower Program. Take this zinger from Maria, age 15: “There isn’t a lot a girl won’t do to make a boy like her.” (p. 258) Or, “If a girl’s stuck in a degrading clique, it’s the same as when she’s later in a bad relationship. She doesn’t expect to be treated any better” from fifteen year old Ellen (p. 36). Finally, her book contains some extremely useful advice to parents and others on what “works” and what does not work with their daughters in certain tricky situations, like the moment when you discover that your own daughter may be a “mean” girl.

So, these books document the fact that girls can be mean (and that this is a major theme in early, female adolescence). That is good to know, particularly if you are working with or raising girls. But, let’s keep a few facts in mind. First, boys also engage in this behavior (though not as much a girls); and second that the context of any aggressive behavior is important. Alternative aggressions are, fundamentally, weapons of the weak. As such, they are as reflective of girl’s powerlessness as they are of girl’s meanness. Women and other oppressed groups have not, historically, been permitted direct aggression (without terrible consequences). As a result, in certain contexts, and against certain individuals, relational aggressions were ways the powerless punished the bad behavior of the powerful. This was, after all, how slaves and indentured servants-female and male–got back at abusive masters, how women before legal divorce dealt with violent husbands, and how working women today get back at abusive bosses.

More than this, probably everybody needs to know about behaviors that are included in alternative aggression, if only to recognize when they are being deployed against you. The myopic focus of these books on girls doing this to other girls tends to blur the fact that girls exist in a world that basically ignores them and marginalizes them—all the while empowering young boys (whose physical and relational aggression against girls is virtually unmentioned in Simmon’s book and minimized and sexualized in Lamb’s work). Certainly, feminists (and particularly feminist parents and teachers want to change much about girlhood, and we do want to stop girls from hurting other, weaker girls, but even in a perfect world, girls will need to know something about how to “do” relational aggression. [After all, it was Machiavelli who first taught us that while all are supposed to be good, if one wants to be successful politically, and one is forced to make a choice, it is much safer to be feared than loved. The world, even the male world, is not a perfect place, and girls need many and varied skills to survive it.]

Finally, I think that we need to keep in mind that there are some basic problems with a concept of “aggression” that includes such disparate behaviors as rolling your eyes at a stupid remark and murder. Yes, psychologists mean this when they talk about aggression, but the rest of us must remember that the degree of harm is important. Some aggression makes us depressed and sad for a day or six, and some we do not survive. Consider how the media hype surrounding the discovery of girl’s meanness seems to imply that this “new” attribute makes girls about as bad as boys or worse. That is not the case; virtually all girls’ aggression is non-violent. This does not mean that girls are perfect, but lets keep our perspective. Boys are still over 80% of those arrested for serious crimes of violence, and it is boy’s violence, not girls’ gossip, ­that gives the United States the highest rate of firearm-related deaths among youths in the industrialized world.


Bjorkqvist, by Kaj and Pirkko Niemela (eds). 1992. Of Mice and Women: Aspects of Female Aggression. San Diego: Academic Press

Campbell, Anne. 1991 Men, Women and Aggression. New York: Basic Books

Chesney-Lind, Meda. “Media Misogyny: Demonizing ‘Violent’ Girls and Women. Jeffrey Ferrel and Neil Websdale (eds). Making Trouble: Cultural Representations of Crime, Deviance, and Control. Jeff Ferrell and Neil Websdale (eds). New York: Aldine, 1999, pp. 115-141.

Crick, Nicki, et al. 1998. “Childhood Aggression and Gender: A New Look at an Old Problem. In Gender and Motivation, edited by Dan Bernstein. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999, pp. 75-141.


Feminism and Critical Criminology: Toward a Feminist Praxis

Feminism and Critical Criminology: Toward a Feminist Praxis

Meda Chesney-Lind

I been thinking about a the need for a feminist praxis and how this perspective might inform our efforts to move toward a just society. Increasingly, this focus has led me to a consideration of the public role of intellectuals in our society, and the special responsibility that criminologists might face as we exit this century and enter the next.

Crime is increasingly emerging as a code word for race in contemporary US politics. Likewise, “getting tough on crime” has come to mean placing more and more African Americans and other people of color, both female and male to prison–creating what some have called a “new apartheid” in the United States (Davis, Estes, and Schiraldi 1996). Correctional supervision, especially detention and imprisonment, seems increasingly to have replaced other historic systems of racial control (slavery, Jim Crow laws, ghettoization) as ways of keeping women and men of color in their “place” (Schiraldi, Kuyper and Hewitss 1996).

The data on this trend are irrefutable. Mauer and Huling (1995, 3) now estimate that roughly one out of three African American men between the ages of 20-29 are under some form of correctional supervision. One scholar, commenting on this trend observed, “‘prison’ is being re-lexified to become a code word for a terrible place where blacks reside” (Wideman cited in Schiraldi, Kuyper, and Hewitt 1996, 5).

In a related trend, some of us (see Bloom, Chesney-Lind and Owen 1994) have noted that the war on drugs has also become an undeclared war on women. The over-all number of women in prison in the US has quintupled since 1980–a trend explained largely by the implementation of gender blind, get tough policies on drug and other offenders. This new national zeal for imprisoning women has taken a special toll on women of color. Between 1986 and 1991, for example, the number of African American women incarcerated for drug offenses rose by 828 percent. The number of Hispanic women in prison for these offenses increased by 328 percent, and the number of white women imprisoned for drug offenses increased by 241 percent.

The cost to all of us for indulging in such mindless incarceration is only beginning to appear to the general public. The bill that the U.S. is currently paying for imprisonment is staggering. Mauer (1994) estimates that the cost of incarceration in the U.S. is 26.8 billion annually. A conservative estimate is that each new prison cell costs about $100,000 to build and about $22,000 per bed to operate (Donziger 1996, 49). As a direct result of the building boom in corrections, corrections budgets are by far the fastest growing segment of state budgets–increasing by 95% between 1976 and 1989. During this same period, state expenditures for lower education dropped slightly (2%), higher education dropped by 6%, and state expenditures for welfare (excluding Medicare) dropped by 41% (Donziger 1996, 48).

These trends have occurred despite the fact that the U.S. has the highest rates of child poverty in the industrialized world (Donziger 1996, 215). About 46% of African American children and 39 percent of Hispanic children are born in poverty, compared to 16% of white children and 2 percent of children in Sweden. This last figure is particularly important since Sweden has a higher proportion of out of wedlock births than the U.S. (Donziger 1996, 215). Given this, the consequences of the current wave of welfare “reform” are horrifying to contemplate–particularly in the African American, Hispanic, and Native American communities that have relied so heavily on what few resources we were putting toward the support of children born into poverty.

What we are seeing is a mindless and massive budget transfer away from education and welfare into prisons. This means that monies that once went to support low-income women and their children in the community, as well as the dollars to provide her with educational opportunities, are being cut back dramatically at the same time that monies to arrest, detain, and incarcerate women and men on the economic margins are being increased.

How are we as criminologists to respond to the challenge inherent in these trends? Clearly, as professionals who study of the problem of crime, we should be able to claim a certain degree of credibility when it comes to public discussions of crime policy. Yet, when many critical decisions are made about these issues, we are almost never on the guest list. Why?

It has been my experience that most academics, particularly in the Unites States, are wholly unplugged from the world of politics, particularly in their local communities, and are often completely unaware of what it takes to engage in pragmatic political activism. This situation is no accident, of course. Rather, it is the consequence of decades of political domination by conservative political leadership which, among other things, sought to shift the social sciences away from the activism that had characterized our fields in earlier decades.

The conservative bias in the academy makes life extremely uncomfortable for feminist scholars, many of whom came to the field through the door of the women’s movement. Indeed, we, like other progressives, often find ourselves in a constant state of tension within organized academic life. Two modes of accommodation to this ongoing pressure repeatedly crop up, and both are extremely dangerous to clear, feminist thinking, to say nothing of being able to speak to regular folks about crime policy. They are also, while appearing politically neutral, are antithetical to political action informed by solid information.

The first of these demands is the insistence that “good” scientists must use what I call “macho methods” in order to be considered credible. This requirement is backed up by none too subtle pressures from mainstream journals to use such methods or face almost inevitable rejection of your manuscripts and job searches that insist on presentations that reflect his level of “methodological” sophistication.

While I am a great fan of quantitative data, when they are simply presented and appropriate to the subject at hand, more sophisticated methods are generally not accessible to even able and engaged policy makers. Moreover, in my view, these methods are often “over-kill” for the quality of the data used. Finally, they encourage us to stay off the streets, in front of our computers, doing what John Hagedorn has called “courthouse criminology” (Hagedorn 1990, 244) or worse. To change people’s minds about crime will require that we do more than run regressions. We need to tell them, in simple terms, what incarceration is costing them, and we need to reach their hearts as well as their pocket books. Here, qualitative methods will get us the data we need.

The second method of accommodation to the conservative academy has been to seek to emulate the theoretical obscurity of males by developing feminist theories that are so intellectually impenetrable that they both disempower and silence women.

One trend within contemporary feminist theorizing is particularly worrisome to me. This is the notion that we can no longer use terms like “women” because all women are different. Certainly, the critical importance of race or culture has long been neglected by mainstream criminology, but I would contend that this long overdue focus on race should not lead to a “politics of difference” which stresses divides between women to the exclusion of that which they share in common because of their gender or class.

Ultimately, an over-emphasis on difference (or race or culture), while appearing to be race-sensitive, can actually excuse white women’s silence about issues that affect their non-white counterparts. In her essay on this topic, Kathleen Barry observes, ” what I know from growing up poor myself is that the marginal are ultimately left to fend for themselves because no politics of difference intends to include ” (Barry, 1996, 191). No clearer example of that can be found than the current silence about the quintupling of the number of women in prison, particularly from established women’s organizations.

I would contend that our position is not unlike that of the nuclear scientists in the fifties and sixties. These scholars found themselves in a world engaged in a mindless and terrifying arms race, and they rose to speak bluntly about the horrors of nuclear war. We can look to the groups they formed, and the actions they took models for our own work. They certainly, as we must, stepped out of the pages of their journals to educate the world about the devastating consequences of the arms race with publications like the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and political organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Committee of 100.

We have a huge job ahead of us. We must challenge the crime myths that are played out in the media every day. We must use the intellectual freedom we have won in the academy to oppose a policy of criminalizing poverty, and we must name the racism, and sexism, that informs current thinking about crime and victimization. We must document the economic consequences of the war on crime which will further bankrupt the US economy, already drained from the mindless spending on the cold war of previous decades. Finally, we must shamelessly seek fora to talk sense about crime–in our own communities as well as across the country.

As to how we should go about such work, I am reminded of one of my favorite Bertold Brecht quotes which ably captures the sort of work we should be doing. “One must have the courage to write the truth when the truth is everywhere opposed; the keenness to recognize it, and although it is everywhere concealed; the still to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgment to select in whose hands it will be effective, and the cunning to spread the truth among such persons.” Fortunately, this is not impossible. Many of the works cited in this article are, in fact, excellent models for the kind of criminology we must do.

The cost of silence in the face of evil is well documented in the pages of world history, so there really is no choice for people of conscience. Despite the odds that seem insurmountable, we should also be encouraged by current developments in nuclear policy which seemed, I’m sure, unimaginable to those few nuclear scientists who first met and began their work. One last quote, on precisely this point, from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world: indeed its the only thing that ever has.”



Barry, Kathleen. 1996. “Deconstructing Deconstructionism (or whatever happened to feminist studies).” In Radically Speaking; Feminism Reclaimed . Melbourne: Spinifex.

Bloom, Barbara, Meda Chesney-Lind, and Barbara Owen. 1994. Women in Prison in California: Hidden Victims of the War on Drugs. San Francisco: Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

Davis, Christopher, Richard Estes, and Vincent Schiraldi. 1996, “Three Strikes”: The New Apartheid. San Francisco: Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

Donziger, Steven (ed.) The Real War on Crime . New York: Harper Perennial.

Hagedorn, John. “Back in the Field Again: Gang Research in the Nineties.” In Huff, Ron (ed.). 1990. Gangs in America, Second Edition. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, pp. 240-259.

Mauer, Marc and Tracy Huling. 1995. Young Black Americans and the Criminal Justice System: Five Years Later. Washington, D.C.: The Sentencing Project.

Mauer, Marc. 1994. American’s Behind Bars: The International Use of Incarceration, 1992-1993. Washington, D.C.: The Sentencing Project (September).

Schiraldi, Vincent, Sue Kuyper, and Sharon Hewitt. 1996. Young African Americans and the Criminal Justice System in California: Five Years Later San Francisco: Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.


Doing Feminist Criminology

Doing Feminist Criminology

Meda Chesney-Lind

I can still vividly recall hearing a male researcher who, reporting on birth rates at a population meeting in Seattle, referred to his subjects using male pronouns throughout his presentation. Since his subjects were female (we are, after all, the only ones who can give birth), I was puzzled. As a graduate student attending my first national meeting and rather daunted by the setting, I waited until the break to ask him about his word choice. Without any embarrassment, he informed me that “I say he or him because to say she or her would trivialize my research.”

For many years criminology was not haunted by this problem. Unlike demography, it was seen as an incontrovertibly male, even “macho” field. Crime has, in fact sometimes been described as an ultimate form of masculinity. In Albert Cohen’s words, “the delinquent is a rogue male” whose behavior, no matter how much it is condemned on moral grounds, “has at least one virtue: It incontestably confirms, in the eyes of all concerned, his essential masculinity.”

The criminological fascination with male deviance and crime is not simply a reflection of the American crime problem. I suspect that it also is explained by Margaret Mead’s observation that whatever men do, even if it is dressing dolls for religious ceremonies, has higher status and is more highly rewarded than whatever women do. For this reason, fields focus on male activities and attributes wherever possible: Studying them confers higher status on the researcher. Hence, the academic rush to understand boys and men and the disinterest, until relatively recently, in all things female.

The question now is whether theories of delinquency and crime, which were admittedly developed to explain male behavior, can be used to understand female crime, delinquency, and victimization. My research experience convinces me that they cannot. About 25 years ago, when I was reading files compiled on youth who had been referred to Honolulu’s family court during the first half of this century, I ran across what I considered to be a bizarre pattern. Over half of the girls had been referred to court for “immorality,” and another one-third were charged with being “wayward.” In reading the files, I discovered that this meant that the young women were suspected of being sexually active. Evidence of this “exposure” was vigorously pursued in all casesÑand this was not subtle. Virtually all girls’ files contained gynecological examinations (sometimes there were stacks of these forms). Doctors, who understood the purpose of such examinations, would routinely note the condition of the hymen on the form: “Admits intercourse, hymen ruptured,” “Hymen ruptured,” and “No laceration,” as well as comments about whether the “laceration” looks new or old, were typical notations.

Later analysis of the data revealed the harsh sanctions imposed on those girls found guilty of these offenses. Thus, despite widespread repetitions about the chivalrous treatment of female offenders, I was finding in the then-skimpy literature on women’s crime that girls referred to court in Honolulu in the 1930s were twice as likely as boys to be detained. They spent, on the average, five times as long as males in detention facilities, and they were three times as likely to be sent to training schools. Later research would confirm that this pattern also was found in other parts of the country and that similar, though less extreme, bias against girls existed well into the 1960s.

Reflecting on this pattern recently, it occurred to me that girls were being treated in this fashion as the field of criminology was developing. So while criminologistsÑmostly maleÑwere paying a lot of attention to the male delinquent, large numbers of girls were being processed, punished, and incarcerated. Indeed, one of the classic excuses for neglecting female offendersÑtheir relatively small numbersÑdid not hold during these years. I found, for example, that girls made up half of those committed to Hawaii training schools well into the 1950s.

One reason for this neglect of girls may have been the inability of researchers to identify with their problems or situations. By contrast, I was not able to distance myself from their lives. At that time, the women’s movement was a major part of my life. For the first time, I was seeing the connections between my life and the lives of other women. I knew, first-hand, about physical examinations, and I knew that even under the best circumstances they were stressful. I imagined what it would have been like to be a 13- or 14-year-old arrested on my family’s orders, taken to a detention center, and forcibly examined by a doctor I didn’t know. Later, I also would read of legal cases where girls in other states were held in solitary confinement for refusing such examinations, and I would talk to women who had undergone this experience as girls. Their comments and experiences confirmed the degradation and personal horror of this experience.

I bring up this particular point simply to demonstrate that the administration of a medical examination, the larger meaning of that medical examination in the girl’s delinquent “career,” and the harsh response to the girl so identified had no place in the delinquency theories I had studied.

Certainly, one can patch together, as I did, notions of stigma, degradation rituals, and labeling, but the job was incomplete and the picture imperfect. I have come increasingly to the conclusion that my own research results, in conjunction with the work of other feminist researchers, argue for a feminist revision of delinquency, crime, and criminal victimizationÑa feminist criminology.

Though I see the need for this, I am keenly aware that professional rewards for such an undertaking may be slow in coming. The work I just described on female delinquency was completed for my master’s thesis. The sociology department where I did this research failed to perceive its import. In order to complete my work for the Ph.D., I was forced to abandon the topic of women and crime and venture into population researchÑthat’s how I got to Seattle to hear that even women’s ability to give birth can be obfuscated.

Despite the professional liabilities, I would argue that an overhaul of criminological theory is essential. The extensive focus on disadvantaged males in public settings has meant that girls’ victimization, the relationship between that experience and girls’ crime, and the relationship between girls’ problems and women’s crime have been systematically ignored. Feminist research has established that many young women who run away from home, for example, are running from sexual and physical abuse in those homes. These backgrounds often lead to a street life, also rigidly stratified by gender, that frequently pushes girls further into the criminal world and, for some, into adult crime.

Also missed has been the central role played by the juvenile justice system then and now in the criminalization of girls’ survival strategies. In a very direct way, the family court’s traditional insistence that girls “obey” their parents has forced young women, on the run from brutal or negligent families, into the lives of escaped convicts.

More recently, girls account for an increasing number of those arrested for delinquency, and they are being brought into the system for a wider variety of offenses (though they are still far more likely than boys to bring the trauma of abuse). Now, one in four of all juvenile arrests are arrests of a girl, and because we still have woefully few programs for girls, the nation’s detention centers are filling up with young women who do not belong there.

We need to re-think our responses to “delinquency” in ways that put the lives of girls at the center, rather than the periphery of delinquency prevention and intervention strategies. Gender matters, in short, in both the problems that bring girls into the juvenile justice system and in the ways in which the system should respond. So, finally, a plea, not more studies of “delinquency” that only include boys, and no more “girls watching boy’s play sports” approaches to youth programming.


Meda Chesney-Lind is professor of women’s studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Author of over Girls, Delinquency, and Juvenile Justice (with Randy Shelden), The Female Offender, and Female Gangs in America (with John Hagedorn), she was has been named a Fellow of the American Society in Criminology and she recently received the Bruce Smith Sr. Award for “Outstanding Contributions to Criminal Justice” by the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences.