“Women, undeniably, have been all but invisible for much of criminology’s history.”[1]

Women have never been as prominent as their male counterparts in criminology, so much so, they can be said to have been ignored for many centuries and it was not until the turn of the 20th century that women who committed crimes were really included in criminological discourse. The advent of the feminist movements throughout this time beginning with the suffragettes to the current Fawcett commission established in 2003, has seen the realisation of women’s rights and the struggle for ‘equality’ supposedly at an end. But as we will see, non-feminist explanations for female criminality still leave much to be desired of as most parts of criminology along with society appears to be wedded to the conventional and stereotypical views of women, with the feminist explanations casting a new view on how women ought to be studied within the field of criminology.

This paper aims to discuss and evaluate the various criminological explanations of women’s involvement in crime, and suggest possibilities that obviate the traditional reasoning which passes female criminality off as purely biological. The discussion of the criminological explanations will take on two focal threads: why some women commit crime and why the majority do not. Using government statistics from England and Wales, specifically those after the second wave of the feminist movement in the 1960s and the present day, incidence, types and trends of female criminality will be explored. After the issues and problems within the statistics have been identified, I will then discuss whether criminologists can explain conclusively the reason for these findings.

Do we need to study female criminality?

Criminology is the study of crime which endeavours to explain and find solutions for deviant behaviour, yet there also needs to be a reason why this certain behaviour requires explanation.

The theory welcomed by the government is that crime is conduct which has been agreed as contrary to the norms of society. Deviant behaviour is a problem which needs to be resolved, and once the problems have been acknowledged, policy makers can then make decisions and laws based on finding solutions to these problems.

Smart notes that only those topics officially designated as social problems are studied, which she articulates is responsible for the sorry state of current knowledge and work on female criminality[2]; women are not seen as a problem, yet they live in the same world as men but commit less crime. This creates a great opportunity for society; finding underlying reasons why women do not commit as much crime as men could possibly be replicated to reduce the number of men committing crimes, or at least aid in the general control of crime. However, according to the Youth Justice Board in 2009, ‘the relatively lower number of young women engaged in offending has meant, however, that most research and expertise has been developed in response to male offending[3]’.

Gender is one of the most certain predictors of offending[4], and women have never been seen as a social problem because their deviant acts in relation to men are very low. But as is sometimes suggested, statistical quantity alone is not sufficient to explain their lack of treatment.[5]

Equality to men was the driving factor for the Women’s Movements, but this immediately suggests that women are to be studied as a different entity, unduly undermining any common notion of equality from the outset. Arguably however, this hypothesis is true on some levels, but the equality women strive for is not equality of treatment, but equality of outcome.

There are various stereotypical explanations for women’s criminality which throughout history have been dominated by internal reasons; biology and psychology. However, what is interesting is how differently men are studied; from the outside. Rather than stating a man has an innate propensity for violence and deviant behaviour in his biological make-up, theorists use external reasons such as economical and class based expectations to explain behaviour. Women do not get the benefit of wholly non-biological determinist reasoning and it could be concluded that it is entirely their fault for simply being born a woman (e.g. Lombroso’s female ‘born criminals’).

In addition to this, female criminality needs to be studied so equality in outcome can be achieved from a justice perspective. Regarding the expectations of women in a social context, which will be discussed in depth later, if a woman was to act as expected, they are likely to be looked upon as the stereotypical ‘weak and fragile’ being which needs protecting – and this can be used to their advantage. But then also the opposite must not be ignored in that if they do not conform to the stereotypical female state then they will be twice condemned, which is extraordinarily unfair from a feminist perspective.

Substitution and the media

Hypothetically reversing the position of men and women, performed throughout this paper, when contrasting the consideration and study given to both sexes, is a very useful tool to shake out gender issues in criminality.

The proliferation of the media also works to the same effect in that when one is to contrast coverage of crimes committed by men, they seem extremely commonplace and the public hardly blink an eye, but when the likes of Myra Hindley and Rosemary West committed perhaps ‘masculine’ crimes, they were incredibly newsworthy. This can be down to the utmost shock that a woman has committed a crime and this produces a double deviance theory. Even now we do not expect women to behave in a criminal and inappropriate fashion, and the public are utterly shocked when we hear that a mother – with the qualities of being tender and caring – has shaken her baby to death. Heidensohn concurs, ‘women involved in very serious crimes … seem to provide the media with some of their most compelling images of crime and deviance.'[6]


Despite their various shortcomings, the methods for measuring crime, such as police recorded crime statistics published annually by the Home Office and the British Crime Survey (BCS), have been able to provide an indication of crime trends in England and Wales. The statistics must be viewed with wary eyes because of the discussion that surrounds ‘unreported crime’ which leads to resources being allocated into improving the collation of statistics; it should not be ignored that this improvement could account for a vast increase in crime rates. In addition to this, the numbers for women are very low to start with, so any slight increase could lead to a huge percentage increase which would skew the findings. Despite this, they will be used to show the incidence and trends in women’s offending from: overall gender comparison, women under and over 18, the types of crime women are committing and finally cautioning rates.

Gender and the feminist movements

Although women gained more presence in society, the vote, property rights and other social triumphs in the first wave of the feminist movements at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, it is really only during the second wave in the 1960s and 1970s that there was a substantial change in the general and criminal behaviour of women which would attract academic and critical comment. The criminal statistics saw a huge boost in numbers of women represented across the board: in 1958, the number of women found guilty for all indictable offences was 17,380: in 1965 this increased to 31,011, and amidst the full swing of the second wave of the feminist movement, in 1975 the number was at its highest at 60,356. In the 1960s, the ratio between men and women again for being found guilty of all indictable offences went down slightly also (from 7:1 to 6:1). The following decades saw a gradual decrease in numbers in the same respect, and in 2007 the numbers were 267,000 men to 45,300 women for both sexes and the ratio still lies at 6:1. The trend to be carried forward is that it remains consistent that women commit less crimes than men overall, and the highest increase in female crime was in the 1970s.


The estimated peak age of offending is 15 for girls (and 17 for boys). According to a Ministry of Justice publication ‘Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System[7]’ a higher proportion of all women arrested were aged between 10 and 17 than the proportion of men in that age group who were arrested, 25.7 per cent compared to 20.5 per cent. In addition to this, a study in 2009 by the Youth Justice Board[8] found that the offences most frequently committed by adolescent girls are theft and handling stolen goods, and that there has been a proliferation in the amount of girls committing violence against the person, especially ‘if there is an existing relationship with the victim’. It is also noted that ‘recent use of alcohol is often linked to the offence/offending pattern.’

Home Office Statistics show the ratio of men to women found guilty or cautioned for all indictable offences is 3:1 for adolescents and 4:1 for adult women.

From this two distinct trends can be deduced; there is what Worral describes as a ‘problem population’ of young girls committing more crime, especially violent crime, than their older equivalent, and, that as a women gets older she is less likely to commit crime (desistence).

Types of Crime

As Smart notices, the proportion of women who engage in crime varies quite considerably according to the nature of the offence[9]. From the Home Office statistics for 2008/09[10] it can be seen that there are large differences between women and men in terms of their involvement with the formal criminal justice system, notably, and obviously, less women across all areas of crime. However, there appears to be a rise in theft, especially shoplifting which Smart terms a sex-related offence, a crime that has a preponderance to be committed by one sex more than the other. It follows then that this is the only area where women make significant contribution to the numbers; in 2007, 52,100 women were found guilty or cautioned for theft, the ratio between men and women is a mere 2:1. Although the ratio for fraud and forgery is also 2:1, the numbers are smaller: 9,500 women being found guilty or cautioned.

By contrast, the highest ratio between men and women is that of burglary at 15:1 in 2007.

The most prolific offence seen in the statistics is that of violence, but it appears to be low-level violence, harassment compared to men. Although it appears that it is more abundant for adolescent girls recently, over the last few decades there has been a dramatic increase of violence in women of all ages. For example, in 1965, 827 were found guilty of violence against the person: either murder, manslaughter, death by dangerous driving, assault or wounding. In 1975 this increased to 2,748 and then to 3,600 in 1985. In 1995 there was a slight, but not significant, decrease in (both men and) women committing violence against the person and until 2007 the number has steadily increased again to 4,500, the ratio since 1995 becoming closer (10:1 to 8:1 respectively).

There has been a preponderance of women committing property offences, especially robbery as from the 1970s to present; the incidence has more than quadrupled from 200 in 1978 to 900 in 2007.

Finally, according to the Women and the Criminal Justice System statistics[11], the violence that women commit is interfamily; partners and children, and homicides appear to be committed against intimate partners.

Cautioning rates

Women are more likely to be cautioned than men. Overall in 2007, 56% of women were cautioned instead of being officially processed by the courts for indictable offences compared to 36% of men. It was the same nearly 10 years ago also as in 1991, it was 54%. Looking at the cautioning rate for theft in 2007, out of 52,100 women, 26,000 were cautioned. In regards to violence against the person, 12,700 were cautioned out of 17,200 women.

Since 2001 penalty notices for disorder (PND) can be issued for £50 or £80 depending on the severity of the offence. Inclusive of all ages, the Statistics on Women and the CJS found that in 2008/09 the top three reasons for issuing a penalty notice of disorder (PND) to women were: ‘theft (retail under £200) – 20,453 (49%); causing harassment alarm or distress – 8,051 (20%); and being drunk and disorderly – 7,520 (18%)’ notably all of these appearing to require no physical strength. Although the amount of PNDs being issued has decreased from 207,544 in 2007 to 176,164 in 2008, there was a smaller decrease for the amount issued to women than to men. According to the Ministry of Justice, ‘PNDs were designed to be a simpler and swift way for the criminal justice system to deal with low level criminal behaviour’.


Classical Criminology

Early or ‘classical’ criminologists accounted for female criminality on biological grounds; describing the psychological, physiological and hormonal characteristics of female criminals, or emphasising that their crimes were sexually based. Biological determinism is perhaps historically the most common yet underdeveloped explanation for female criminality, and has dominated discourse for a dreadfully long time, even intertwining itself into modern and contemporary theories despite mass criticism. Women being studied biologically can be immediately contrasted with the study of male criminality which, as Morris suggests[12], has nearly always used specifically socio-economic explanations such as ‘subculture or labelling theory’.

Cesare Lombroso was the main projector of biological determinism, but this concept can be seen in the early works of W. I. Thomas and Otto Pollak in general, especially in regards to sexual delinquency. Thomas’ work was written in what Smart describes as the ‘transitional period’ where criminology became more liberal. Pollak, although his work was carried out a long time after Lombroso’s, is classed along with Lombroso and Thomas as a ‘classical’ criminologist in that they all shared the same conventional views of women as Heidensohn summarises succinctly,

Their view of women is heavily stereotyped. Women are defined according to domestic and sexual roles; they are dominated by biological imperatives; they are emotional and irrational.[13]

Modern biological explanations have been exampled in this paper to highlight that biological theories remain to this day and when read in light of social theories, biological explanations as far as they go to explain female criminality, tell us more about society’s perception of women than anything else.


One cannot read any textbook related to theories of female criminality without encountering at least a brief mention of the criminological pioneer Cesare Lombroso, whose work, in particular ‘The Female Offender'[14], made specific mention of female criminals for perhaps the first time. Although completely discredited now, the mere fact that women became a topic of study was a phenomenal feat for criminology.

With his son-in-law Ferrero and the help of others, along with the emphasis on ‘scientific based study’, Lombroso looked initially at 26 skulls and 5 skeletons of female offenders, namely prostitutes, 60 criminal subjects who died in prison and 17 others along with studying photo-portraits. The offences they were said to have committed were those such as infanticide, complicity in rape, arson, theft, homicide, abortion and poisoning. One of the studies within this work regarded the skull capacity and size. They were measured on account of each crime, and such conclusions were made for example, that ‘fallen women have the smaller cranial capacity of all… [offering] more analogy to the mentally afflicted than the sane.’ Essentially, Lombroso was explaining that women commit crime because of physical defects, and they were from the outset ‘born criminals’ because of this. According to Newburn’s summary, Lombroso’s female born criminal would ‘specialise in not just one but several types of crime’ and ‘surpasses her male counterpart in the refined, diabolical cruelty in which she commits her crimes’ and therefore a female criminal is a ‘true monster’. Also, Lombroso’s theory perhaps edged towards the later idea of ‘double deviance’, in that ‘the female criminal was doubly exceptional…because criminals are exceptions among civilised people and women are exceptions among criminals[15]’.

On the other hand, in explaining why women did not commit as much crime as men, he argued that firstly ‘there were far fewer female born criminals than males’ and secondly and more offensive to read nowadays, he suggested criminal women were atavistic; a manifestation of the idea that women were not fully evolved, had underdeveloped intelligence and ‘had less scope for degeneration.’ Criminality therefore was defined as a mental illness, because women’s ‘normal’ psychology was piety and weakness which meant the normal woman would not have the predisposition to commit crimes due to lack of intelligence, and were not affected by environmental issues as men would be.

Evaluating this theory with modern eyes, the criticisms of this study are obvious, but one cannot lose context of the time in which it was carried out. It was, despite its failure, ‘an undoubtedly sincere attempt to justify certain beliefs and theories.[16]’ However, it was completely ignored that the beliefs were founded on premises so naïve. Also, the theory suggests that there should be more women committing crimes, but according to the statistics this is not true. Of course, the study is archaic and did not really progress understanding of female criminality, as Heidensohn points out, the observations made of the photographs are ‘as objective as an adjudicator in a beauty contest’. However, it does tell us about the perceptions of women in that time and that worked as a starting point for later theorists to use as a point of comparison and critique.


Thomas’ early work ‘Sex and Society[17]’was more akin to the works of Lombroso in that it studied women in regards to their physiological ‘energy’, suggesting that women were altogether less ‘creative’ than men and therefore were not destined to commit crime. It was critically lacking in its applicability to all women, as it focussed on immigrants and peasant women – already seen as a lower species in that time, and again based ideas on detrimental societal views of women.

His later work, ‘The Unadjusted Girl,[18] however, was a first glance at the social reasons why women could commit crime, namely that women were more aware of their deprivation in society in his time of writing and therefore likely to be frustrated, leading to ‘the disorganisation of [their] life and potentially to sexual delinquency'[19]. Society transformed whilst Thomas was writing and that because of the ‘breakdown of traditional restraints on women’ they are more likely to be ‘unadjusted’. Here, instead of appreciating the progress, he displays contempt for the ideological change in society and thus promotes repression. He theorised that women from the start were trying to find the legitimate role of the good wife, mother and dutiful daughter and in failure of this they acquired the illegitimate role, that is to say the degenerative criminal or more usually the sexual delinquent. The ‘legitimate role’ was merely a sign of the times dictated by the middle-class norm, not an adequate explanation.


In his work, The Criminality of Women in 1961, Pollak’s argument was that women commit just as much crime as men but it is hidden, partly because of the social order in which women live, but also because of a women’s physiology particularly in regards to sex. He agreed with Lombroso and Thomas in that the most likely ‘degeneration’ of women was to prostitution, which was true at that time, but has no bearing on prostitution now. Prostitutes now, according to the Home Office website[20] are not there voluntarily and are usually forced into it. He explained that women were empirically deceitful and manipulative in their nature because they conceal their menstruation every month, and that their passive nature during sexual intercourse enables women to ‘discover and acquire confidence in their ability to deceive men in all respects.'[21] Obviously Pollak could not get away from his apparent infuriation that it was men ‘on show’ with their erection, and women could hide how they really felt. Here Pollak has taken this idea and translated it into the assumption that all women are vengeful, manipulative and cruel deceitful beings, not really moving on from the perceptions of women in Lombroso’s time.

Regarding the statistics, Pollak was perhaps correct when he argued that women are likely to commit offences against family members; such as poisoning their husbands, sexually abusing or killing their children. And also that persons are less likely to report a crime committed to them by a woman, as Smart notes the victims are usually children and are unable to report the crimes of their parents.[22] But his basis for this conclusion is flawed as he overlooks crimes committed by men towards their family, makes judgements completely based on the sex discrimination in society at the time and again completely ignores that this is the case. Because of this, he would probably be surprised by, and would not fit in with his conclusions, the amount of hidden wife battering and domestic abuse committed by men that has come to light recently if he were writing today.

He also suggests that because of their nature, their acts are cunning and vengeful (putting poison into their husband’s food) explained because their vengeance is a product of their monthly reminder of their inferior status to men and they are the persons closely related to the domestic task of food preparation, again decisively based on the perceived domestic role of women at the time. His study does correspond with the current statistics in that women are likely commit crimes within the home, but his original study was not based on any real evidence but on societal assumptions and preconceptions about the behaviour of men and women, which at the time he was oblivious to the fact that the power and societal position of men and women was completely imbalanced.

Chivalry Theory

Pollak, considering the very low number of female criminals, also proposed that men, especially those in the CJS, had an innate chivalry towards women. He argued that they have the same (he would argue misconceived) conceptions of women as his societal counterparts do; that women are weak and fragile, but they have deceived themselves into believing this and not realised the true nature of women. They are therefore are ‘less likely to report, charge and convict women for the offences they engage in.'[23] In all aspects of life, Pollak has described that women are treated less severely than men to their advantage and this discrimination is to men’s disadvantage. However, as Smart notes, although recognising ‘a darker side of chivalry’ he has not mentioned the disadvantages of this discrimination towards women, and does not criticise the double standards for men and women; he treats it as the norm.

However, it could be suggested that this theory is adequate because it is very much in effect today. The CJS currently appears to deploy this ‘innate chivalry’ that protects women from the full rigours of the law, which could explain why a great deal more women are cautioned than men. Chivalry gains its credence because it is how one would expect women to be treated in a society which stereotypically views them as delicate and in need of protection. Interestingly, the chivalrous nature of the law can be seen in practice as with regard to infanticide in particular, where the Home Office stated in rejecting the proposal to abolish this offence:

That a mother can be charged with infanticide on the basis of the ingredients for manslaughter is in keeping with the desire to treat such cases with compassion, in particular the desire not to force a mother to be brought face to face with the admission of whether or not she intended to kill her child.[24] (Emphasis added)

However, despite of this grave offence, it is mainly true today for perhaps petty crimes, where the statistics suggest that women are more likely to be cautioned than thoroughly processed in the CJS. But this could also be explained, not by chivalry, but because there is a strong urgency for ‘diversion’ in the CJS, costs are always a priority, as is police time and resources. However, Pollak’s theory generalises the lenience that women get, although it is relevant on some levels, it pays no heed to the fact that after due process, female murderers and those who commit very serious offences will go to prison.

Modern Biological Determinism

Hormonal and Mental Imbalance

Although Lombroso’s work is said to have continued to exert influence long after it was written[25], Edwards states that too much emphasis is sometimes placed on Lombroso as ‘godfather’ of biological criminology, arguing that medical professionals, such as Icard, Krafft-Ebing and Krugelsten walked the terrain far before Lombroso.

Despite the criticisms of biological positivism, it cannot be ignored that all women have ‘undeniable stages in their development cycle[26]’ namely in menstruation, menopause and after giving birth.

The common theory in this respect, for why women do commit crime, is that hormonal imbalance dictates their deviant behaviour, particularly violence. Even Lombroso found this link in his work after finding that 72 out of 80 women arrested for resisting public officials were menstruating at the time[27]. Contemporary criminologists such as McClean, Wood, Devlin and Mercier have also claimed the physiological differences between men and women as a reason for criminality, but have not given substantial reasons as to why the rest of the female population have not committed crimes whilst going through the same ‘crisis periods.'[28] Freud lends a suggestion here as he believed people are born with anti-social criminal qualities, but the better amongst them learn to control this. His theory suggests women do not have the fear of castration (as do men baring the Oedipus complex) which would be used to control their impulses, but suggests their passivity and want of affection controls them.

It is commonly known that women experience mood swings, tension, water retention and headaches, however, 19th century theory exaggerates the ‘mood swings’ into unaccountable violence and intolerable evil and cruelty.

The works of the late Dr Dalton whom coined the term ‘PMS’ to describe the ‘changes’ women experience in these times, and it is accepted by the law that there can be uncontrolled aggression at certain times of the month, and PMS has the possibility to be a mitigating factor in the sentencing of female criminals under diminished responsibility in the law of evidence in England. For example, in a case in 1981, Christine English killed her boyfriend by driving into him. After pleading guilty to manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility due to pre-menstrual syndrome she was conditionally discharged.

Furthermore, biological theory has manifested itself into the law of infanticide in that the Infanticide Act 1938 s.1 (1) states:

‘..where a woman by any wilful act or omission causes the death of her child being a child under the age of 12 months, but at the time of her act or omission the balance of her mind was disturbed by reason of her not having fully recovered from the effect of giving birth to the child or by reason of the effect of lactation.’

However it is curious to note that the medical profession refuses to accept this, in its definition, symptomatology, treatments or rates of manifestation[29]. Crimes such as infanticide can only be committed by a woman. Naturally, criminologists cannot in any way try to fit this crime into gender-neutral theories; there has to be something particular about women. On the other hand, ‘infanticide’ still remains, according to the Law Commission in a Home Office Consultation Paper in 2008, a piece of legislation which is a ‘practicable legal solution to a particular set of circumstances,’ which gives something to consider if there was no crime of infanticide.

Accepting PMS and infanticide in the law gets varied responses, usually either outrage that a woman could literally get away with murder, or that recognition of biological happenings that every woman has is a positive step, however the deep rooted connotations are far more complex. Some might see it as positive that women are getting recognition, whereas others would see retrogressive irony in play; women want to gain equality, but they too are immersed in the want for allowances to be made for them, and also that ‘PMS constructs women’s normal experience and behaviour as abnormal'[30]. Furthermore, the masculinity of law does not understand women’s ‘problems’, so it is easier to accept mental imbalance than challenge the norms of society, and so an account of PMS, as Raitt and Zeedyk suggest,

‘…is striking only because social norms dictate a particular baseline for women’s behaviour and when they fail to meet that expectation, illness provides a convenient explanation[31]’

Consequently, Smart notes that, ‘in principle, the law should be held to be equally applicable to all regardless of sex, (noting also, race, class and other distinctions)’ but in reality this does not happen. There are at all times a number of societal connotations or stereotypes, such as the chivalrous nature of men, and the stereotypical way women are perceived which overshadow what should be happening, and determine what does happen in regard to the study of crime, and although this should not be the case, it does reveal the underlying, discriminatory views towards women that would better be abandoned for the sake of the quality of explanations for criminality.

Finally, it would be interesting to use substitution here. Firstly if women were in power in society, there would be no explanations for deviant behaviour down to PMS, as having PMS at certain times or experiencing the effects of childbirth and lactation would be the norm. There would probably be explanations for why men behave they do, for example neurosis because they cannot have children.

Brain Function

Although truly biological theories seem to have disappeared from criminology[32], Lansdell, in a study of laterality of verbal intelligence in the brain in 1962[33] noticed that when males and females had strokes or lobotomies, their recovery processes were different even though the injury was the same: women recovered better because they found that their brain hemispheres are more connected, enabling the female brain to possibly assimilate all sorts of information that male brains would keep separate. How this would become an explanation for female criminality would be quite complex and I would profess that it would see criminologists using these findings to merely support the well known stereotype that women can ‘multitask’. Nevertheless, it could be suggested that women have less chance of being caught as they could plan the offence thoroughly, or be able to perceive the consequences of their actions before they can perform an act which would render them criminal, but these would amount to huge generalisations, and would not conclusively explain why women do or do not commit crime.