October 27, 2021

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Female criminology : a critical analysis

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The article is written by Akarsh Tripathi, a learner of Symbiosis Law School Noida. This is an exhaustive article, which analyzes female criminology and explains everything one needs to know. 

Table of Contents

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Even until the latter half of the twentieth century, almost every criminological work and study focused on male offenders and the responses of the criminal justice system towards males. There was a lack of attention to the female offenders which was mainly because of the reason that most of the crimes were committed by males, and the same was backed up by the statistics. However, by the end of the 20th century, the rates of female incarceration (the state of being confined in prison) skyrocketed, while drawing attention towards the study and research of the girls, women, crime and the criminal justice system. The driving forces in these research work were also the war on drugs and federal reforms.


What is the meaning of ‘criminology’? The term refers to the study of a crime, the criminal behaviours, and the criminal justice system associated with it. Now, it is a debatable thing, to exclusively define the branches of criminology, however, the debate has helped in producing 5 different types of definitions of the term ‘criminality’. These are:- 

  1. Natural law explanations,
  2. Moralistic explanations,
  3. Labelling explanations,
  4. Social harm explanations, and 
  5. Legalistic explanations.

Feminist criminology

In this article, we’ll be dealing with “Feminist Criminology” and the theories which are the cornerstones of the topic. Now, if we explain the term ‘feminist criminology’ according to what most of the people think it is, that would again end with some misleading conclusions about the topic. So, it’s better to first define the term with its actual methodology. 

The term “Feminist Criminology” encircles an expansive and extensive theoretical perspective and the methodologies which shape the gender experiences at the centre of the study of criminology and criminal behaviour. It also focuses on a wide range of agendas like female offenders, female victims, the response of female offenders and the special need of female prisoners. 


Feminist criminology addresses the limitations which are there in the criminal justice system and due to which there has been a failure to take consideration of the fact that there are some important differences in the male and female path to enter into a crime, the types of crime, the victimization and punishments faced by both of them. The study has been on the basis of the responses to male offenders by the criminal justice system, and on male criminality. 

According to the researchers, and those who studied criminology, it has always been assumed that while studying a generic crime, it will be a study of male crime and a crime committed by a woman would be kind of an aberration. This is how the practice was criticized and there was the emergence of female criminology. 

In this article, the terms ‘Feminist’ and ‘Feminism’ are loosely defined, so that its reasonable for you to understand the topic with a much wider perspective and also so that it is possible for a writer [who is influenced by the idea of ‘feminism’ but wouldn’t necessarily call himself/herself a ‘feminist’] to explore the nuances of this topic in a better way.

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Before we learn in detail about the theories of feminist criminology, feminist explanation of female crime, impact and statistics, etc, we should first know the ‘need’ and ‘importance’ of studying feminist perspectives within criminology. The reason behind this is that criminology and related studies have ignored women to a large extent. There has been masculine domination on the development and construction of criminological knowledge, and its dissemination. It is hardly a satisfying and logically correct response to say that women are not the only ones to be ignored, and the exclusion of females from the study calls for some fundamental questions which need to be addressed on the adequacy of analyses being done. 

Also, whenever the criminologists talk about women as offenders they do it in a very stereotypical way and consider women who commit crimes, i.e. women offenders are abnormal. In simpler words, they have usually been displayed on the basis of their biological nature and their psychological state. Now, you must be thinking that all we need to do to solve this problem is to do a crash course of research on women, and feminist criminology. Well, the truth is that it has already been done and carried out by various scholars, professionals, institutions and feminists themselves. As of now, it is time for the feminists who work within criminology to carry out more research on women, but not just by accumulating surveys and other pieces of information, rather analyzing the frameworks of feminist criminology outside the place of solidarity. 

Thus, we need to deconstruct the existing frameworks on criminologies and reconstruct them, while giving core attention to the prevalent female enterprise

Feminist thought is not a homogenous thing or a congruent theory. It rather incorporates a wide range of ideologies and feminist thinking. 

Liberal Feminist Theory

According to the Liberal Feminist theory, the main contention is that women are discriminated and treated unequally on the basis of their gender. And the ‘motive’ behind this could be to deny women access to equal opportunities (be it in the field of politics, career or personal) as compared to those available to men. Criminologists like Freda Adler and Rita Simon have argued that the women’s criminality can be best explained by taking into consideration the sociological factors rather than the physiological factors.

One of the most recognized feminist theory is the ‘liberal feminist theory’, especially in North America. Now the next question that needs to be addressed here is:- “what can be done for solving this problem of gender inequality?” The answer is very logical and non-debatable to a great extent, which is ‘rapid integration’ of women into the world full of male dominance. This means giving women equal opportunities and encouraging them to take roles of stakeholders and policymakers of the country.

Another locus on which the Liberal Feminist Theory is based upon is that once women become more liberated, we might observe the engagement of women in the types of crime, similar to those committed by men. However, at this moment it lacks some first-hand support. It can be easily observed that even now, women are engaged in only petty offences, for instance, crimes like shoplifting, minor frauds etc. and the reason behind this is the increasing level of the feminization of poverty. 

The rate of these crimes being committed is also significantly lower than the male rate of offences. Those who make an attempt and challenge the prevalent patriarchal ideology related to gender roles are construed as ‘unruly’ women, who should be punished.

Radical Feminist Theory

This theory had for the first time, criticized the assertions of ‘Liberal Feminist Theory’, by calling it as simplistic. It has also dominated the perspectives of feminists on issues related to women abuse. These feminists are of the view that male power and the privileges they have been given, is one of the root causes of all the gender-inequality, social relations and crime issues. 

Patriarchy is one of the most important relationships which can be found in the society by observing the masculine control of the labour-power and on the sexuality of women by men. This being the primary relation, all the other relations (for instance:- class) are secondary and its derivation is from the male-female relations of the society. 

According to Radical feminism, the main cause behind gender inequality and male dominance are:

  • The unsatisfied want of men to take control of a women’s sexuality
  • Patriarchy.
  • The privilege of men being at positions of power and the existence of unequal representation.

Thus, if we closely observe the works of radical feminists, we will come to the conclusion that it mainly focuses on the victimization of females and being the survivors of male violence. Men tend to victimize women sexually, physically and even psychologically because of their desire to have control over them and over their potentials.

Another important thing which has to be stated here is that be it any kind of feminist theory or ideology of feminism, the main motive is NOT to push men out, rather pulling women in the society and social relations. This will finally lead to the successful elimination of all types of gender inequality.

Marxist Feminist Theory

Another feminist theory worth discussing here is that of ‘Marxist Feminist Theory’. The term ‘Marxist’ refers to people who support the theories (political and economic) of Karl Marx and F. Engles. The emergence of Marxist feminism was in around the late 1960s as a response to the Marxist social theory which talked about the existence of masculine bias. 

Those who believe in the ideology of ‘Marxist’ feminist theory say that the main determinant of a person’s social relation is the economic formation of society. It agrees with the theory of liberal feminism which says that women are living in a male dominant society and are not given the requisite opportunities to participate in society. The nature of an economy is the ultimate factor influencing the gender division and gender inequality present in society. 

According to the Marxist feminist Julia and Herman Schwendinger, the class division of labour is often viewed as gender division of labour, the reasons being the domination by capital and the males. But what is the strategy to bring change to this system? Well, it is the transformation of the society from a capitalist one to a more democratic socialist. 

To further support this answer, we need to draw special attention to the high rate of rape offences being committed in capitalist societies, because of the gender inequality relations which foster violence, both physical and emotional. The intensification of sexual inequality and sexual violence is due to the exploitative modes of production which have got accumulated in the class societies. 

Feminist writing has enhanced the discipline of Feminist Criminology is 4 main ways. These are:

  1. Neglecting female offenders- The previous criminologies have neglected the fact that offenders can be both male and female. There has been an assumption that whenever we are talking about ‘offenders’, they’ll be males. Also, the discussion on female offenders laid enriched individual or biological abnormality. They were explained in terms of biological factors.
  2. Bringing attention to the treatment of females within the criminal justice system of the country is another significant impact of feminist writing. It has helped in changing the old and vague assumption of “common sense”, by challenging the historical concept of female benefiting from chivalry within the male-dominated society and thus having more lenient sentences.
  3. Due to the advent of feminist ideology, the much-neglected areas of legal study have started to gain attention. For instance, crimes like domestic violence and female sexual abuse, which are faced by women, sometimes even at their ‘supposedly’ safe home. Female writing has helped in protecting girls and women against male violence and has raised questions about how the victims or the survivors can be supported. 
  4. Last, but not the least, the focus has been made to the highly gendered nature of the criminal activities, and thus, raising the questions like ‘why is it the females who commit only a few offences, and male offences are so many?’ There is a femininity which has been associated with these relatively low rates of crime, and the males being predicted as the most likely offender. 

As we have already observed in the previous sub-topic, and will further learn more about feminist criminology, we will realise that the criminal justice system needs to learn from the feminist ideas and its also the responsibility of the social workers to contribute in this process of reformation.

Not every theory comes without shortcomings and space for criticism. Same is the case with Feminist Criminology. There are 3 main areas and points of contention which we’ll understand in detail about the criticism that exists against the feminist perspective on gender and crime, and will also analyze its merit, in this section. But before that, it is also important for us to know about some of the areas which the feminist theories fail to explain. These are:

  • Women’s crime is of the underclass, and suggest ‘class conflict’
  • Women who are in prison, usually suffer from poverty issues.

The theory of feminist criminology is often said to be gender centric and an overall level gives a shadow motive of separatists. These ideologies of feminists like Smart and Cain often lead to theoretical and political implications. 

Feminists argue that the study of criminology neglects ‘victimisation’ and ‘survivors’ as one of the major factors which affect gender inequality, and contend that there has been a minimal study on these factors. To highlight this is a more comprehensive yet detailed manner, we should also look at the statistics supporting the theory of ‘victimology’. 

According to the WHO report on global and regional estimates of violence against women across the globe:

  • Approximately 35% of women worldwide experience violence either physical and/or sexual. This number in itself represents a large chunk of the women’s population of the world. 
  • These violent acts are mostly done by intimate partner violence. Statistically speaking 30% of all the women who have ever been in a relationship have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at some of the other point in their lives.

Before coming to any conclusion, and talking about the challenges which still persist in this arena, it is more than reasonable for everyone to understand the feminist criminology from a global perspective and taking into consideration the criminologists study from across the world on this subject.

The focus on violence against women is no doubt a hallmark which has been actively used to highlight the problems on an international level. To name a few other topics, the abuse on women in Islamic countries, the traditional practices against humanity like female genital mutilation are also the focus areas which act as a base for the need to further study feminist criminology and women’s victimization across the globe.

Also, another important contribution of the study of feminist criminology will help us understand how the criminal justice policies around the world, often victimize women and even sanction them for supposedly ‘violating’ the traditional gender norms, particularly with regards to their sexuality. For instance, in some Islamic and Muslim-dominated countries, the women who have unfortunately been raped/sexually abused are often viewed and treated as ‘offenders’ rather than a victim. The ideology is that they had violated the expectations regarding women’s sexuality. 


Now the question comes, what are the challenges which will be based in the 21st century and afterwards? There is a huge scope of study on the subject of female criminology, which has not been explored yet. Some of these subject areas which need focus are criminology on women as offenders and the work which needs to be done, on areas concerning women as victims.

  • According to Chesney Lind, In order to understand women’s pathway to crime, a very fruitful approach could be to develop the thoughts on a women’s structural and social roles in society and the ideas on a women’s lifestyle. 
  • In some of the feminist thinking, there is a privilege given to gender than race, on the subject of crime and justice. Here comes the challenge, to address this properly, and observe the fact that it also obscures our understanding of the real issues. 
  • It is often said that a ‘gendered lens’ will help us in knowing the features of problems related to crime, in a much more clear manner. 
  • However, the one thing that gets overlooked is that many times, the clarity which has been supposedly made brighter by gender, often gets distorted by the same. 
  • Another question worth pointing out, is that do we really need to pursue matters like these under the banner of ‘feminism’? Can’t we develop a new humanistic criminology which will be more reflexive, more anti-discriminatory and gender-sensitive? This is a debate in itself.

Feminist Criminology has been dramatically developing and going through some changes. However, It can be observed and concluded that although there have been publications made on feminist scholarship, however, the same remains marginalized in many aspects. Even the mainstream journals publish only a limited feminist scholarship, and the same is the case with textbooks which provide very scant and vague attention to the theories of feminist criminology and their relevancy. 

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