Feminist Criminology

This essay will compare and contrast feminist approaches to criminology with biological positivism. It will discuss the varying approaches within both feminism and biological positivism and consider how feminists and positivists explain women’s criminality. The main assumptions and methodology will be outlined, compared and analysed, as well as the limitations and strengths of both theories.

Biological Positivism emerged in the early nineteenth century, however it had its roots in the Enlightenment period of the eighteenth century, where loss of faith in religion turned philosophers eager to gain knowledge and advocate the use of reason of re-evaluation of once accepted ideas. According to Williams (2004) Cesare Lombroso was the father of modern criminology and pioneered the Biological Positivist approach.

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His scientific theories centred on the idea that a criminal was a naturally occurring phenomenon, a biological mutation or throwback to an earlier form of evolutionary life, in other words people were born criminal, not made criminal and did not have a choice in their behaviour. He based his theory on facial features and abnormalities in the cranium on prisoners in an Italian jail who he claimed had true atavistic features, for example small craniums, excessive hairiness, dark skin, and the presence of moles and tattoos.

He thought these particular physical features had a relationship with the probability of engaging in crime (Newburn, 2007; Smart, 1995). Lombroso and Ferrero, (Lombroso’s son in law) published a study using the same technique of examining criminal women and found they did not appear to have many of these signs of degeneration so they concluded that true atavism was rare amongst females. They argued that women were nearer to their original origin than men, in other words were more primitive than men, had not evolved to the same degree and were biologically inferior to men (Smart, 1995).

Lombroso and Ferrero stated “Women are big children… their moral sense is deficient” (1895 Cited in Heidensohn, 1991 p114). They believed women were wicked or saintly; prostitutes or mothers; mad or bad and women criminals possess all the criminal qualities of the male plus the worst characteristics of women; cunning, spite and deceitfulness and because of these traits women criminals were thought of as doubly deviant (Smart, 1976). Lombroso and Ferrero believed that if a woman did degenerate into atavism they were more likely to become prostitutes (Heidensohn, 1991).

Heidensohn citing the work of Lombroso and Ferrero (1991 p64) suggested that “Prostitution is the natural state of regression for women and any women who are criminal are unnatural and more like men, lacking maternal feelings and carrying virile stigmata”. However, Lombroso and Ferrero argues that “In ordinary cases these defects are neutralised by maternity, piety, want of passion, sexual coldness, by weakness and undeveloped intelligence”(Smart, 1995 p. 21) However, if these neutralising factors were removed, for example educating women the ‘innocuous semi-criminal’ present in all women would emerge (Smart, 1995 p. 1). They also believed that one strong proof of the degeneration of the female criminal was the lack of maternal instinct and belong more to the male sex and the female sex. However, Oakley (1972, cited in Smart, 1995 p. 21) argues against this concept saying that “Sex is a biological term and gender a social, cultural and psychological term such that for a woman to act in a socially defined masculine way does not mean that she is sexually or biologically normal”. He was saying any evidence of gendered masculinity in women, does not play a part in criminal activity.

Heidensohn (1991) argues that Lombroso and Ferrero work was more implausible than scientific; his analysis of the photographs of the fallen women was like adjudicating a beauty contest, this is could be considered to be a limitation. Smart (1976) agrees with this criticism, she argues that the crude theory of atavism was very unfortunate and amusing in the development of criminology. McLaughlin and Muncie (2006) argue that this theory does not look at social interaction and human consciousness being responsible for criminal activity; this could be considered a weakness of this approach.

Another criticism of Lombroso’s work he only involved criminals in his study, so without looking at non criminals his theory lacked ecological validity and it cannot be applied to the outside world and real life (Gross, 2007). In the Biological Positivist theory it is believed because people are born criminal and have no choice in their behaviour they cannot just be punished because that would not alter their criminal activity and behaviour. One form of punishment would be Eugenics, treatment to control degenerates by sterilization (Newburn, 2007).

Another form of treatment would be Aversion Therapy; a psychological treatment where an individual is exposed to a stimulus while simultaneously being subjected to a form of discomfort, this was done to retrain criminal behaviour (Newburn, 2007). A limitation of these punishments/treatments they have major implications of a breach of human rights and freedom that everyone is entitled to. Feminist Criminology confronts the patriarchal sense of criminology that males make all the rules in society and politics in order to control women (Smart, 1976).

McLaughlin and Muncie believe that “men and women are ‘the same’ but women are denied the opportunities to do the same things as men, including participating in crime” (2006, p166). Smart (1976 p177) agrees with that argument and she states “The deviant, the criminal or the actor is always male; it is always his rationality, his motivation, his alienation, or his victim. And this is more than a convenient choice of words; the selection of the male pronoun may be said to be inclusive of the female but in reality it is not; it merely excludes women and makes them invisible”.

Dobash and Dobash (1992 cited in Maguire et al, 2007 p409) states “It is impossible to use the law and legal apparatus to confront patriarchal domination and oppression when the language and procedures of these social processes and institutions are saturated with patriarchal beliefs and structures”. Patullo (1983, p37 Cited in Heidensohn, 1991) agrees with this belief and he argues “Our laws are administered by predominantly white, middle-class middle-aged males who, in their professional lives, often express stereotype notions about women and show little understanding of the natures of women’s lives”.

In other words there are structures in place to make the treatment of women criminals unfair; men making the rules and laws who have no idea about the lives of women. Young stated (no date, Cited in Naffine, 1997 p. 64) “Rates of crime are by definition a result of the interplay of actors and reactors: of victims and offenders, on one hand, and of formal and informal control, on the other” in other words, crime is defined by the offender, victim, state and society we live in, Feminist criminology states that crime must be looked at from all perspectives to obtain the most complete picture of the crime.

Therefore, Feminist criminology argues to make the invisible, visible again by bringing into focus the gender structure of society (Maguire et al, 2007). A major breakthrough of this approach was the introduction of the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceeding Act (1976) as a result of the feminist movement and this was followed by the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act (2004). This gave protection from patriarchal views on the males being allowed to chastise their wives. However, there were some discrepancies and unfairness in the treatment of women offenders and victims.

In the case of Joseph McGrail in 1997, he killed his wife and pleaded provocation on the basis that his wife was an alcoholic and swore at him. The judge at the trial stated “”This lady would have tried the patience of a saint” and he gave him a two year suspended sentence. In the case of Malcolm Thornton in 1989, an alcoholic threatened to kill his wife Sara and her daughter and this was following several attacks on her. She stabbed him once when he was asleep and then called the ambulance.

Sara Thornton pleaded diminished responsibility but she was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. There are many other cases when the ‘nagging wife’ plea has been accepted and lesser punishments have been given out to men (Justice for Women, no date). Carlen (2002, Cited in Newburn, 2007) believes that women commit fewer crimes than men, and fewer serious crimes, for example murder and grievous bodily harm and he states that women and punishment are rarely brought together. Pollak (1961, p. 149 cited in Smart 1976 p. 9) argues that female criminals are not reported in a lot of cases, because of chivalry on the part of men towards women. He states “Basically they have attempted to deny women the ability to do things men do and have either idealized them into a sweetness and purity which made them appear docile and harmless, or they have maligned them in order to be able to condemn them”. Pollak was saying men have not believed women could be criminal and have failed to report, charge and convict women for the offences they commit.

This view is also shared by the Biological Positivist Approach, that women are biologically inferior to men by their weakness and undeveloped intelligence. However, Heidensohn (1991) believes if these women behave unlike a woman, they are treated as doubly deviant therefore the crime is punished in paternalistic terms; as well as imposing some controls over the women’s behaviour. This feature of doubly deviant is shared by the Biological Positivist approach also. This view was shared by Carlen (1983, p. 66 Cited in Heidensohn, 1991 p. 6), who argues “A high proportion of the women who eventually are [imprisoned] … are those who, in the eyes of the sheriffs have failed as mothers” in other words if these women are believed to be bad women/mother/wives from the knowledge of the awful social and economic conditions in which they live these are thought to need imprisoning to receive some paternal discipline from the sheriffs. This is the same as the biologically positivist approach, the belief that lack of maternal instincts makes women unnatural and more prone to criminal behaviour.

In conclusion, this essay has looked at two approaches in criminology; the Biological Positivist Approach and Feminist Criminology Approach. The main features of the Biological Positivist Approach have been discussed, these included looking in to the work of Lombroso and Ferrero who views are individuals were born criminal, they did not have a choice in their behaviour and women who have no maternal instinct were more likely to engage in criminal activity. Newburn (2007) states that their works have been largely discredited and social and economic situations are more likely to cause criminal activity and behaviour.

However, they were the first theorists to gather empirical evidence in the study of criminology and their work had major influence for many decades. The main features of Feminist Criminology were discussed which included the patriarchal features of criminology, chivalry and the law’s structural unfairness to women based on their sex. As a result of examining both approaches, there are some similarities, differences, some strengths and limitations to each approach and both have had a major influence on criminology in contemporary society.

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Feminist Criminology. (2017, Mar 18). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/feminist-criminology/