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.