Feminism and Criminology




Feminists engaging with criminology in the twenty-first century might be forgiven for looking back with a certain envy  at the diversity of the projects outlined by their predecessors.[1] These predecessors set out to question some of the gender-blind assumptions within criminology and to create a space for women's voices and experiences.    It might be supposed that today there are few silences left to articulate and that the 'classic masculine discourse' of criminology (Collier, 1998) has been well and truly (if paradoxically) 'penetrated' by feminism.  This is not the case.  Doubts are still expressed in conference halls, institutional corridors and class rooms (if not in academic papers) as to whether there is  such a thing as feminist criminology,  let alone its present, past and future.  But reports of its death or non-existence have been greatly exaggerated.  The chief aim of this chapter is to alert readers to key precepts and issues which are relevant to an understanding of the importance of feminist contributions to criminology and to reflect on their overall relationship.


This chapter thus offers an overview of the critical insights provided or prompted by feminism which might be said to have transgressed both the theory and politics of research and action in criminology.   But, first, what is meant by 'feminism and criminology'?  In 1988, Allison Morris and I attempted to describe something of the relationship between feminism and criminology by reviewing early feminist achievements to address criminologists' 'amnesia' of women and by giving something of an overview of the impact or potential impact of feminism on the broad parameters of criminology (Gelsthorpe and Morris, 1988).  But we recorded then, as I reiterate now, that any discussion of the relationship between feminism and criminology would need to recognise complexities in the relationship. For there is no one  feminism and no one criminology.   Despite some serious doubts as to whether a single feminist criminology could exist because it could not do justice to the differences and tensions that exist within the field, we acknowledged, however, that it was still possible to talk of feminist criminologies or, better still, of feminist perspectives in criminology. 


Yet it is important to speak of different feminist perspectives, and of different criminologies.   The chapters in this text provide ample evidence of this.  There is no one relationship, but a myriad of relationships between feminism and criminology. Moreover, the criminology of the 1970s, which prompted Carol Smart's 1976 critical text Women, Crime and Criminology , one of the first openly feminist critiques of criminology in Britain,  is not the criminology of today.   The criminology of today seems much more diverse.  Whether it is sufficiently diverse or open enough to accommodate some of the critical precepts of feminisms remains a matter for debate.  There are feminists who have made a strong case for abandoning criminology (Smart, 1990), or who, because of resistance to a feminist transformation of the discipline of criminology, see fundamental incompatibilities between feminism and criminology (Stanko, 1993; A. Young, 1994). In a percipient conclusion to her 1976 text Smart commented:


‘Criminology and the sociology of deviance must become more than the study of men and crime if it is to play any significant part in the development of our understanding of crime, law and the criminal process and play any role in the transformation of existing social practices’ (Smart, 1976:185).


Her concern was that criminology, even in its more radical form, would be 'unmoved' by feminist critiques.   By 1990, she viewed criminology as the 'atavistic man' in intellectual endeavours and wished to abandon it because she could not see what it had to offer feminism.   But whereas the abandonment of criminology once seemed a logical response to criminological intransigence, there is arguably good reason to pause before pursuing this option given recent signs of critical thinking in criminology.     


There have been several serious explorations of the relationship between feminism and criminology over the years (Daly and Chesney-Lind, 1988; Gelsthorpe and Morris, 1990; Morris and Gelsthorpe, 1991; Heidensohn, 1997; A. Young, 1994; Rafter and Heidensohn, 1995, and Naffine, 1995; 1997).   A key question which has perplexed some of these writers is whether key substantive and political and epistemological and methodological feminist make what might be described as the 'criminological project' untenable in and of itself (see also Heidensohn, this volume).   So, what is it about feminist work that might make criminological work untenable? 


When we speak of feminism, we are not speaking of something which is obvious or can be taken for granted (Delmar, 1986).   In a powerful exposition of feminist thinking,  Rosemarie Tong (1989) illuminates some of the key differences between different feminist perspectives.   Whilst her catalogue of feminisms and history of feminist thought is not the only one that might be produced (see Oakley, 1981, and Evans, 1995, for example), Tong (1989) identifies and elaborates six main kinds of feminism:


Liberal feminism -  this involves a commitment to reforms concerning equal civil rights, equality of opportunity and the recognition of women's rights in welfare, health, employment and education;


Marxist feminism  -  this involves describing the material basis of women's oppression and the relationship between the modes of production and women's status, and applying theories of women and class to the role of the family.


Socialist feminism -  this involves beliefs that women are treated as second-class citizens in patriarchal capitalism and that we need to transform the ownership of the means of production and women’s social experience because the roots  of women's oppression lie in the total economic system of capitalism. As Walklate (2001) describes, socialist feminism is an outgrowth of Marxist feminist dissatisfaction with the gender-blind concept of class.


Existential feminism  - Existentialism is a philosophical theory which argues that individuals are free and responsible agents able to transcend their social roles and determine their own development.    Feminist Existentialism is perhaps epitomised by Simone de Beauvoir's (1949) The Second Sex  in which she argues that women are oppressed because they are 'Other' to man's 'Self', and that as 'Other' they are 'not man'.   Man is taken to be the 'Self', the free, self- determining agent who defines his own existence, whilst woman remains the 'Other', the object, whose meaning is determined by what she is not.


Psychoanalytical feminism  -  Psychoanalysis was invented by Freud (see Strachey 1953-74) to refer to his theory of the psyche and the methods and techniques he applied to understanding it.    Whilst psychoanalysis has come under attack because of its seemingly inherent sexism (emphasising biology over social relations and taking masculine characteristics as the norm), a feminist psychoanalysis has been developed to show how prevailing norms of gender are imposed and structure the human mind.  Feminist psychoanalysis is sometimes referred to as gender theory.


Postmodern feminism.  -  drawing on  the general features of postmodernism  as a major cultural phenomenon in the arts, architecture, philosophy and economics, and  inter alia  rejecting the idea of single explanations or philosophies, feminist postmodernism involves opposition to essentialism (the belief that differences between men and women are innate - rather than socially/experientially constructed)[2], and a belief in more plural kinds of knowledge.     Some of the roots of postmodern feminism are found in the work of Derrida (1978, 1981), Lacan (1995) and Simone de Beavoir (1949), whose critical exploration of women as the 'Other' has been turned on its head so that the condition of 'Otherness' is celebrated in all its diverse forms.  Emphasis on the positive side of 'Otherness' is a major theme in the associated deconstructionist approaches and in the celebration of a plurality of knowledges.  'Otherness' thus symbolises plurality, diversity, difference and openness.  The so-called rationality and objectivity of contemporary science also comes under attack in feminist postmodernism  (Harding, 1986; Benhabib, 1992), and there are attempts to create fluid, open terms and language which more closely reflect women's experiences. There is a further dimension to feminist postmodernism here in the creation of a new language, ecriture feminine   (Cixous, 1976; Irigaray, 1977).[3]    


To these types of feminism I would add Black feminist thought  which consists of ideas produced by Black women that clarify a standpoint of and for Black women.    It is assumed that Black women possess a unique standpoint on, and experiences of, historical and material conditions (Lorde, 1984;  Hill-Collins, 2002).    It is further claimed that Black women's experiences uniquely provide an 'outsider-within'  perspective on self, family and society which in turn serves to establish a distinctive standpoint vis a vis sociology's paradigmatic facts and theories.


It is also important to acknowledge the notion of 'global' feminisms, by which we must recognise similarities and differences between feminisms in the West, East, North and South, and the differential attention given to class, racial, ethnic and imperial tensions in different economic, technological, sexual, reproductive, ecological and political contexts (Bulbeck, 1998; Smith, 2000).    This is particularly important if we wish to understand something of international feminist perspectives in criminology and accommodate difference and diversity away from westernised concepts of crime and justice.


There are many sophisticated explorations of the different feminist positions, detailed exploration of which lies beyond the scope of this chapter (see Carrington, 1994; Evans, 1995; Daly 1997; and Jackson and Scott, 2002).  These different positions collectively illustrate men's material interest in the domination of women and the different ways in which men construct a variety of institutional arrangements to sustain this domination. Feminists argue the case for the economy to be fully transformed and aim to 'make visible the invisible' by bringing into focus the gender structure of society (Rowbotham, 1973; Mitchell, 1984; Mitchell and Oakley, 1986; Humm, 1992; 1995).   Feminists have challenged the political, ontological, and epistemological assumptions that underlie patriarchal discourses as well as their theoretical contents. They have developed both an anti-sexist stance, and a stance which involves the construction of alternative models, methods, procedures, discourses and so on.  Put simply, feminists have a normative commitment to revealing, and attempting to negate, the subordination of women by men.


Such summaries do not do justice to the concepts and theories involved in feminisms, but they illustrate some of the key challenges to criminology.   There are crucial theoretical, conceptual and methodological distinctions within these feminist perspectives and such ideas are not mutually exclusive (see, for example Hirsch and Keller, 1990); different theorists subscribe to different strands of thought within each group of theories.   Equally, the various feminisms are not always rigorously discrete.  But from the summaries it is possible to see how feminist challenges to criminology have been informed in a multiplicity of ways.   I will elaborate some of these challenges later in the chapter.


[1]  It is important to recognise some of the early work which challenged criminology.   The work of Marie Andree Bertrand (1969) and Frances Heidensohn (1968; 1970), for example, drew attention both to the neglect of women in the study of crime and to the tendency to distort images and understandings of  female offenders in the work which did  manage to feature women in any shape or form.   Whilst this early work might be described as pre-feminist, it is perhaps no less important than the work of Carol Smart (1976) and others which is more self-consciously feminist in intent. 

[2]  To expand, essentialism is a form of analysis in which social phenomena are understood not in terms of the specific conditions of their existence, but in terms of some presumed essence or interest (Hindess, 1977).

[3]  Postmodern feminism is perhaps perceived to have the most difficult relationship with the broad project of feminism (Tong, 1989; Nicholson, 1990; Carrington, 1994; 1998), largely because of beliefs that feminism itself may be misconceived in assuming that it is possible to provide overarching  explanations for women's oppression and identify steps towards its resolution.    At the same time, it is arguable that feminist criminologists have at been open to debates in this area and that this has been important in terms of developing the epistemological project that I have mentioned.