Feminist Criminology

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This essay will examine the similarities and differences between feminist approaches to criminology and biological positivism. It will explore the different perspectives within feminism and biological positivism, and examine their explanations for women’s criminality. The essay will outline, compare, and analyze the main assumptions and methodology of both theories, as well as discuss their strengths and limitations.

Biological Positivism, originating in the early 19th century but with roots in the Enlightenment of the 18th century, was a response to a decline in religious faith. This led philosophers to seek knowledge and promote rational thinking to re-evaluate previously accepted ideas. According to Williams (2004), Cesare Lombroso is credited as the founder of modern criminology and was an early advocate of the Biological Positivist approach.

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In his scientific theories, he posited that criminals were innate entities, biological deviations or regressions to a previous stage of evolutionary existence. Essentially, he argued that individuals were inherently criminal rather than becoming so through external factors, and lacked agency in their behavior. He derived this theory from observations of facial characteristics and abnormalities in the skulls of inmates in an Italian prison who exhibited what he classified as genuine atavistic traits. Examples of these traits include small craniums, excessive body hair, dark skin, and the presence of moles and tattoos.

According to Newburn (2007) and Smart (1995), Lombroso believed that certain physical characteristics were related to the likelihood of engaging in crime. Lombroso and Ferrero (Lombroso’s son-in-law), in a study on criminal women, found that these signs of degeneration were not present in many cases, leading them to conclude that true atavism was rare among females. They argued that women were closer to their original origin than men and were therefore more primitive and biologically inferior (Smart, 1995).

According to Lombroso and Ferrero (1895, cited in Heidensohn, 1991, p114), women can be considered as being similar to children due to their deficient moral sense. These authors believed that women were categorized as either wicked or saintly, prostitutes or mothers, and either mad or bad. They also claimed that women criminals exhibited all the criminal qualities of men as well as the worst characteristics of women, such as cunning, spite, and deceitfulness. Consequently, these female criminals were considered doubly deviant (Smart, 1976). Lombroso and Ferrero additionally asserted that if a woman were to regress into atavism, she would be more likely to become a prostitute (Heidensohn, 1991).

Heidensohn (cited in Lombroso and Ferrero, 1991 p64) suggests that women engaged in prostitution are in a state of regression, while criminal women are unnatural and resemble men, lacking maternal feelings and exhibiting masculine characteristics. According to Lombroso and Ferrero (Smart, 1995 p. 21), these defects are typically mitigated by factors such as motherhood, piety, lack of passion, sexual coldness, weakness, and limited intelligence. However, if these neutralizing factors were absent—for instance, if women were educated—the inherent semi-criminal nature present in all women would emerge (Smart, 1995 p. 1). Lombroso and Ferrero also argue that the absence of maternal instinct further demonstrates the degeneration of female criminals, as they exhibit traits belonging to both sexes. Conversely, Oakley (cited in Smart, 1995 p. 21) challenges these ideas by stating that sex is biological while gender is social, cultural, and psychological. Therefore, acting in a socially defined masculine manner does not indicate sexual or biological abnormality in women. He argues that gendered masculinity does not play a role in criminal behavior.

According to Heidensohn (1991), the work of Lombroso and Ferrero is deemed more implausible than scientific. He suggests that their analysis of photographs of fallen women can be likened to judging a beauty contest, highlighting a limitation in their approach. Smart (1976) shares this critique, stating that the crude theory of atavism was both unfortunate and amusing in criminology’s development. McLaughlin and Muncie (2006) add that this theory neglects the role of social interaction and human consciousness in criminal activity, presenting a weakness in this perspective.

Lombroso’s work has been criticized for only including criminals in his study, which limits the ecological validity of his theory and its applicability to real-life situations (Gross, 2007). The Biological Positivist theory states that individuals are born criminals and have no control over their behavior, so simply punishing them would not effectively change their criminal activity and behavior. One potential form of punishment suggested is Eugenics, which involves sterilization as a means to control degenerates (Newburn, 2007).

Another form of treatment is Aversion Therapy, a psychological method that exposes individuals to a stimulus while simultaneously subjecting them to discomfort to retrain criminal behavior (Newburn, 2007). However, these punishments or treatments have significant implications for human rights and the freedom that everyone should be entitled to. Feminist Criminology challenges the patriarchal nature of criminology, which assumes that males dictate societal rules and politics to control women (Smart, 1976).

According to McLaughlin and Muncie (2006, p166), men and women are considered to be “the same” but women face limitations in participating in activities, including committing crimes. Smart (1976, p177) supports this viewpoint and argues that when discussing deviance, crime, or actors, the focus is always on males, which not only excludes women but also makes them invisible.

According to Dobash and Dobash (1992 cited in Maguire et al, 2007 p409), the law and legal apparatus cannot effectively confront patriarchal domination and oppression because these social processes and institutions are permeated with patriarchal beliefs and structures. Patullo (1983, p37 Cited in Heidensohn, 1991) shares this view and contends that our laws are enforced by predominantly white, middle-class middle-aged males who often uphold stereotypical notions about women and have limited understanding of women’s experiences.

In summary, the existence of unfair treatment towards women criminals is due to the presence of structures governed by men who lack understanding of women’s lives. According to Young (no date, as cited in Naffine, 1997, p. 64), crime rates are influenced by various factors such as offenders, victims, formal and informal control. In essence, crime is shaped by the interactions between individuals and society. Feminist criminology emphasizes the need to consider multiple perspectives in order to fully comprehend a crime.

The gender structure of society is brought into focus by Feminist criminology, which argues for making the invisible visible once again (Maguire et al, 2007). The feminist movement led to a significant breakthrough with the introduction of the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceeding Act (1976), followed by the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act (2004). These laws aimed to protect women from patriarchal views that allowed husbands to discipline their wives. However, there were still discrepancies and unfair treatment towards women offenders and victims.

In 1997, Joseph McGrail defended himself by claiming provocation after killing his wife. He argued that his wife, who was an alcoholic, frequently verbally abused him. The judge recognized the challenging nature of the situation and gave McGrail a two-year suspended sentence.

Similarly, in 1989, Malcolm Thornton threatened to kill his wife Sara and her daughter after repeatedly attacking her. In response to these threats, Sara stabbed Malcolm while he was sleeping and promptly called for medical assistance.

Sara Thornton pleaded diminished responsibility but was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. There have been other instances where men have received lesser punishments after using the “nagging wife” defense (Justice for Women, no date). According to Carlen (2002, cited in Newburn, 2007), women commit fewer crimes than men, especially serious crimes like murder and grievous bodily harm, leading to rare punishments for women. Pollak (1961, p. 149 cited in Smart 1976 p. 9) argues that female criminals are often not reported due to men’s chivalry towards women. He suggests that men either idealize women as docile and harmless, or they malign them to justify condemning them. Pollak asserts that men have failed to acknowledge and account for women’s criminal behavior by not reporting, charging, and convicting them for their offenses.

Both the Biological Positivist Approach and Heidensohn (1991) share the view that women are biologically inferior to men in terms of weakness and undeveloped intelligence. According to Heidensohn, when women behave in a manner that is considered unlike a woman, they are treated as doubly deviant and punished accordingly, with paternalistic measures and controls imposed on their behavior. This notion of doubly deviant is also shared by the Biological Positivist approach. Carlen (1983, p. 66 Cited in Heidensohn, 1991 p. 6) supports this view by stating that a significant proportion of incarcerated women are those who have been deemed failures as mothers by the sheriffs. In other words, if these women are perceived to be bad mothers or wives due to their challenging social and economic circumstances, they are believed to require imprisonment in order to receive paternal discipline from the sheriffs. This aligns with the perspective of the Biological Positivist approach, which posits that the absence of maternal instincts makes women unnatural and more susceptible to engaging in criminal behavior.

In summary, this essay has examined two perspectives in criminology: the Biological Positivist Approach and Feminist Criminology Approach. The key aspects of the Biological Positivist Approach have been addressed, which involve studying the theories of Lombroso and Ferrero. According to them, individuals are inherently criminals, lacking any agency in their behaviors. Additionally, they argued that women lacking maternal instincts were more prone to engaging in criminal activities. However, Newburn (2007) argues that their theories have largely been discredited, as it is more likely that social and economic circumstances contribute to criminal behavior.

Although the initial theorists who gathered empirical evidence in criminology had a lasting influence, they focused on various aspects of Feminist Criminology. These included examining the patriarchal nature of criminology, chivalry, and the structural bias of the law against women. Exploring both approaches allows us to recognize similarities, differences, strengths, and limitations that have had a significant impact on modern criminology.

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Feminist Criminology. (2017, Mar 18). Retrieved from


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