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.