feminist, feminism, woman's rights


Criminology has traditionally been one of the most male-centered fields of study in the social sciences. The majority of the research and theory have been based on the study of male criminality and criminal justice system responses to male offenders.

Women, when considered at all, have been represented in negative and stereotypical ways, with a focus on their failure to adhere to traditional models of appropriate female behavior, as in W.I. Thomas’s (1923) paternalistic view of women. Furthermore, in its quest recognized as a scholarly field. Criminology has focused on objective empirical research, using official records and large national surveys. The result has been a failure to consider important differences in male and female pathways into crime, types of crime, victimization, and punishments.

Feminist criminology seeks to address this limitation by enhancing our understanding of both male and female offending as well as criminal justice system responses to their crimes.

Feminist criminologists seek to place gender at the center of the discourse, bringing women’s ways of understanding the world into the scholarship on crime, criminality, and responses to crime.

It is readily apparent that males do indeed commit far more offenses, especially those deemed important to criminology, than females do ( Daly & Chesney-Lind, 1988). This focus has been in part due to the relationship of criminology with legislative and corrections systems. The field developed in part to help improve understanding of why people commit crimes so that policies could be enacted to reduce those crimes. Not only do women commit fewer crimes, but also they commit crimes that are of less interest to those concerned about public safety. Thus, women were largely ignored until the 1970s.

Additionally, the Weberian value-free approach to the study of criminology has failed to recognize that the experiences of the researchers themselves shape and formulate their own approaches to their research. This has resulted in an unreflective supposition that data and theories about boys and men would be generalizable to girls and women. Researchers and theorists have assumed that the study of male crime was the generic study of crime and that women who engaged in crime were more of an aberration than a subject to be studied in and of itself. Ultimately, the feminist approach to criminology emerged from the critique of this practice.

It has been only in the last 30 years that feminist criminology has developed into a recognized perspective in criminology. However, the term feminist criminology is somewhat misleading; it might perhaps be better to speak of feminist criminologies. Feminist criminology encompasses a wide range of theoretical perspectives and methodologies that place the ways in which gender shapes experience at the center of scholarly inquiry. It focuses on a broad range of issues related to women and crime, including theoretical explanations of crime, responses to female offending, programming in women’s prisons, women as workers in the field of corrections, and the special needs of women prisoners. Feminist thought is not a homogeneous approach; it incorporates the liberal feminist focus on equal opportunities for women, the Marxist feminist focus on class relations and capitalism as the source of women’s oppression, socialist feminists’ blending of male domination with political and economic structures in society as the source of inequality, and the radical feminist focus on patriarchal domination of women, to name the most well-known branches. However, these feminist approaches have in common their focus on the ways in which the gendered structure of society is related to crime.

A major thrust of feminist criminology has been the critique of the development of mainstream theories based on research with boys and men. The “add women and stir” approach of mainstream criminology has meant that gender, if considered at all, has frequently been used only as a control variable. Although this has provided confirmation that males are indeed more criminal than females, virtually no information about female criminality can be garnered through this type of research.

There are two unspoken assumptions inherent in this approach with which feminist criminologists take issue. First is the tacit assumption that, because males are far more likely than females to engage in criminal behavior, females are somehow unimportant to the field. Second, mainstream criminology assumes that males and females are alike and that what works to explain male criminality will work equally well to explain female criminality.

In particular, theories like Merton’s (1938) strain theory have been criticized by feminist criminologists for their focus on economic goals and their failure to consider how personal relationships may contribute to criminality.
Merton argued that crime was largely the result of having the American dream as a goal but lacking opportunities to achieve this goal in a legitimate manner. Feminist criminologists argued that Merton’s theory was obviously not equally applicable to women. They pointed out that, although women were certainly more financially blocked than men, they committed far less crime (Belknap & Holsinger, 2006).

Likewise, social learning and differential association theories, with their focus on peer attitudes and behaviour , have been criticized for the failure to take into account the gendered nature of peer relationships. Whereas male delinquency is strongly linked to having peers with delinquent behaviours and attitudes, this is far less true for females. Actually, females who are intimately involved with older delinquent males may be introduced to crime and delinquency by these intimate partners rather than by their peers. Although this is certainly not an exhaustive list of mainstream theories critiqued by feminist criminologists, it does give an idea of the male-dominated approach taken by purportedly gender-neutral theories.

Gaining widespread acceptance of feminist criminological scholarship has been a daunting task. Given the fact that the field of criminology has been dominated by scholars who are more wed to mainstream theories and research, approaches challenging the mainstream perspective have met with disdain or simply with disinterest. This has led to considerable difficulty getting feminist scholarship published as well as marginalization of the work that has been published. Indeed, there was not even a session on women and crime at the annual American Criminology Society meetings until 1975.

Publication in criminology journals has also been difficult, and much feminist scholarship was relegated to smaller, and not very prestigious, criminology journals. In 1989, the journal Women & Criminal Justice was launched, specifically devoted to the publication of scholarly research on all aspects of women’s and girls’ involvement in the criminal justice system. Then, in 1995, Violence Against Women was launched to publish peer-reviewed scholarship on gender-based violence and female victims. Since the early 1990s, a wide range of books about women, crime, and criminal justice have been published.

In 2006, Sage Publications introduced the first issue of Feminist Criminology, the official publication of the Division on Women and Crime of the American Society of Criminology. This journal has taken a broad focus on feminist scholarship, publishing peer-reviewed articles on feminist criminological theories, female offending, victimization of women, and the treatment of women and girls in the justice systems.

Although progress in the publication of feminist scholarship has been made, it remains somewhat marginalized in the overall discipline. Not only do mainstream journals publish only limited feminist scholarship, but also textbooks give scant attention to feminist criminological theory. Thus, new generations of criminologists are educated and yet given little if any information about feminist criminology. This is reflected in their research as well as in their teaching and mentoring of new scholars. The cycle therefore remains self-perpetuating, with new criminologists receiving scant education on feminist criminology (Renzetti, 1993)

However, feminist criminology remains alive and well. The Division on Women and Crime is one of the largest sections of the American Society of Criminology, several major publishers have book series focusing on women and crime, and new scholars continue to emerge. The Division on Women and Crime, which started with a small group of scholars in the mid-1980s, has now existed almost a quarter of a century, and feminist scholars have been recognized as Fellows by the American Society of Criminology.

Current feminist criminological scholarship includes theory building and theory testing, as well as research on violence against women; women’s crime; and women in the criminal justice system, both as offenders and workers. The defining characteristics of feminist criminology are the emphasis on how social structures affect men and women differently, the relationship between research and activism, and the interrelatedness between victimization and offending among women.

Reference :

  • Thomas,W. I. (1923). The unadjusted girl. Boston: Little, Brown.
  • Daly, K., & Chesney-Lind, M. (1988). Feminism and criminology. Justice Quarterly, 5, 497–538.
  • Belknap, J., & Holsinger, K. (2006).The gendered nature of risk factors for delinquency. Feminist Criminology, 1, 48–71.
  • Renzetti, C. M. (1993). On the margins of the malestream (or, they still don’t get it, do they?): Feminist analyses in criminal justice education. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 4, 219–234.

Author :

Khushi Choudhary (Chanakya National Law University, Patna)