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Women’s and girls’ involvement in interpersonal violence has received increased attention over the last few decades. During this time, girls’ arrests for violent offenses increased more rapidly and decreased more slowly than arrests of boys for similar offenses, and the number of women incarcerated for violent offenses increased exponentially. This entry discusses explanations, hypotheses, and recent scholarship regarding women and girls as perpetrators of interpersonal violence.
The earliest criminological explanations for women’s and girls’ involvement, or lack of involvement, in interpersonal violence rested on researchers’ essentialist understandings of inherent biological or psychological characteristics of women and girls. For example, early theorists concerned with the delinquent, deviant, or criminal behavior of White ethnic and immigrant populations argued that, in general, women and girls were “naturally” constrained from engaging in all forms of crime, including violence. The pseudoscientific arguments of the late 19th and early 20th centuries also contained a racialized and, at times, racist dimension. In The Female Offender (1895), for example, Cesare Lombroso, a founding father of criminal anthropology, argued that only “savage” women are capable of violent crimes, and he cited the Hottentot, a Negro woman, and a Red Indian woman as examples of “savages.” According to Lombroso, “civilized” White women did not engage in violent crimes because it was inconsistent with their feminine nature.
Serious, critical investigations into women’s and girls’ participation in interpersonal violence did not appear until after the 1970s. This scholarship was ushered in by Freda Adler’s liberation hypothesis, which posited that as women become more like men in social status and position, women’s participation in traditional male crimes, including violent crimes, would also increase. While the liberation hypothesis was soundly discounted on empirical grounds—there was statistically no “new violent female offender” to explain—Adler’s suggestion that there may be led criminologists to more critically examine patterns and trends in women’s offending. The evidence produced by this burst of feminist scholarship and research on gender and crime offers a more complicated explanation for girls’ and women’s involvement in interpersonal violence. This research strongly suggests that external pressures or “push-pull” factors, such as economic marginalization, victimization, or addiction, help explain women’s and girls’ arrests for violent offenses in general and, specifically, why those who are arrested for violent offenses are more likely to be poor and non-White.
Recent scholarship critically considers how varying structural positions of girls and women produce interracial and intragender differences in arrests and sentencing for aggressive and violent offenses. The work of feminist criminologists reveals that girls’ and women’s troubles, and not changing attitudes or opportunities, structure girls’ and women’s involvement in interpersonal violence as well as their subsequent arrests and detention. Researchers who use a race, gender, and class framework or an intersectionality in their analysis argue that some girls and women experience what feminist criminologist Meda Chesney-Lind refers to as “multiple marginality” as a result of their position in race and class hierarchies. Interracial differences in arrests thus reflect a double standard in criminal justice system responses to girls’ and women’s offending. For example, young Black women are more likely to serve time in detention facilities, while young White women are more likely to be placed in private mental health facilities. Recent research on girls’ and women’s arrests for aggressive or violent offenses strongly suggests that these increases reflect policy changes, such as the introduction of zero-tolerance policies in public schools, and not girls’ increasingly violent behavior. Such research dispels the myth of a new violent female offender.
Qualitative and ethnographic research on women’s and girls’ involvement in interpersonal violence shifts attention away from the violent female offender to the structural, cultural, and situational contexts in which women and girls encounter violence in their everyday lives. The few studies that have examined girls’ involvement in interpersonal violence in these settings reveal similarities and differences in girls’ and boys’ involvement in interpersonal violence. These studies reveal that when girls and women are involved in interpersonal violence, their experiences are shaped by normal group processes and gendered patterns of situated interaction, including processes and patterns that similarly affect boys and men. These studies also reveal distinct gendered patterns in interpersonal violence. For example, women and girls are more likely to engage in physical fights with their hands and fists; when a weapon is used, often in self-defense, women and girls are more likely to use piercing weapons (e.g., knives or razor blades) instead of guns.
Recent quantitative and qualitative scholarship illuminates how worsening structural conditions; changes in criminal justice policies; intersections of race, gender, and class; and, at times, the toxic cultural conditions in which girls and boys come of age in distressed urban areas shape women’s and girls’ involvement in interpersonal violence and subsequent entrance into the juvenile or criminal justice system for aggressive or violent behavior. Today’s women and girls are not necessarily “more violent” than women and girls at the turn of the 20th century. The structural and cultural conditions in which girls are coming of age, however, shape women’s and girls’ experiences with interpersonal violence in new and complicated ways.
- Baskin, D., & Sommers, I. (1998). Casualties of community disorder. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Chesney-Lind, M. (1997). The female offender. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Chesney-Lind, M., & Shelden, R. G. (1992). Girls, delinquency, and juvenile justice. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
- Jones, N. (2004). “It’s not where you live, it’s how you live”: How young women negotiate conflict and violence in the inner city. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 595, 49-62.
- Lombroso, C., & Ferrero, G. (1895). The female offender. London: Fisher Unwin.
- Miller, J. (2000). One of the guys: Girls, gangs, and gender. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Miller, J., & Mullins, C. (2006). Stuck up, telling lies, and talking too much: The gendered context of young women’s violence. In K. Heimer & C. Kruttschnitt (Eds.), Gender and crime: Patterns of victimization and offending (pp. 41-66). New York: New York University Press.
- Ness, C. D. (2004). Why girls fight: Female youth violence in the inner city. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 595, 32-18.
- Steffensmeier, D., & Allan, E. (1996). Gender and crime: Toward a gendered theory of female offending. Annual Review of Sociology, 22, 459-187.
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