Until the mid-1970s, women who commit crime was a subject unstudied and rarely acknowledged by dominant the field of criminology. Since then, the field has opened up considerably and some excellent and broad work has been done on the types of crimes women commit, and why they commit them (see scholars such as Carol Smart, Joanne Belknap, Kathleen Daly). Men remain the majority of people arrested and incarcerated; when we think of the prison crisis we usually imagine men in horrific and overcrowded prisons. However, the question of female criminality has gripped me; there are so many ways in which feminist theory intersects with criminality, yet I find that it remains a small area of discussion within larger feminist discourse.
Working at a public defender’s office during my 2L summer, I was immediately drawn to many of the women who came into the office. Colloquially, what became apparent was the number of (young) women who had children and were the head of their households, and the types of crimes they were committing. Most of the crimes had to do with economics; petty (misdemeanor) drugs sales, prostitution, petty theft. The economic marginalization theory essentially posits that women are more apt to commit crime when their economic well being is low or on the decline. From 10 weeks of basic observation of a busy, urban criminal court, this seems to me an accurate and real indicator of female criminality at the misdemeanor level.
One of the most stunning stories I heard was of a mother of three teenage children who had been arrested for embezzlement (several hundred dollars) from her job as a cashier at a big box store. She had stolen the money over the course of several days to pay for her daughter’s funeral; her daughter had been murdered by her boyfriend the previous week and this woman did not know how she was going to pay for the funeral. The absurdity of her situation struck me on so many levels; a woman working to support her children has no extra funds for an emergency in her life (her position at a big box store reminds me of the struggle of Barbara Ehrenrich and her co-workers in Nickel and Dimed) and she was now facing criminal charges for being poor and without resources.
Though I feel particularly drawn towards women in the criminal justice system, I also feel that an understanding of economics and poverty is essential to analyzing criminality. There are so many ways in which the criminal justice system affects the lives of poor people; through frequent interactions with the police, through probation, through friends and family in incarceration. The list goes on. There is something about the body of a poor woman (and often times a poor woman of color) that becomes a subject of the state and police power. Female criminality and the paternalism of the criminal justice system to me represent some of the most intense forms of patriarchy. The criminalization of prostitution is just one example; whether women choose to be sex workers or feel compelled to the work for economic gain or survival, they are patronized by men and then punished by a patriarchal system that says “we’ll use you, and then make you a criminal after we’re done.”
Clearly, the field of female criminality is much too large for one blog post, but I do think that the criminal justice system has a stark effect on the lives of women and I hope that this becomes an area of law that starts to become a larger part of feminist legal theory discourse.