The study of crime has always been a field solely dedicated to the examination of men; the phenomenon of why people become offenders was one of the earliest questions everyone wanted answered (Banarjee & Khatun, 2014). A handful of academics suddenly stumbled upon a new group of offenders who had previously slipped under the radar, women. Women throughout history have been just as barbaric as men, a perfect example is Elizabeth Bathroy known as ‘Countess Dracula’ of Hungary for the 80 women she tortured and killed (Holmes & Holmes, 1998).
With the emergence of feminist criminology came a desire to understand why women would break their social role and adopt a criminal career. This essay will look at why women become offenders of violent crime; it will focus on murder in particular, through an examination of the early biological and psychological theories to the more modern typologies used to explain why women offend. Through a historical glance it will allow an image to be developed according to how women were viewed in society and how this shifting image impacted the explanations of female offending.The most important thing to note about early theories is that originally they were created to explain male offending. However, upon the introduction of a female offenders, instead of acknowledging the potential differences between the two the sexes, the pre-existing theories were simply latched on to women (Heidensohn & Silvestri, 1996).
Another reason for examining these theories is because of the path they paved towards the understandings we have today. One of the earliest theories was proposed by Lombroso et al (1895) who examined the skulls and skeletons of 26 female offenders whose crimes ranged from prostitution to assassination. What he found was that there were several anomalies amongst the examined skulls that made these individuals appear different than normal law abiding women. His major findings were that the cranial capacity of ‘fallen women’ (p.21) was the lowest of all. The researchers went on to say that women already have a slightly lower mental capacity to men, meaning that the ‘fallen women’ had even less than this, making them inherently less intelligent and less able to understand their actions’ consequences (Lombroso, Morrison & Ferrero, 1895). Their book explored how females who commit violent offences share similar characteristics with male offenders; this finding is one which has been highlighted throughout the course of exploring female offending. Lombroso concluded that it was biological deficiencies that was the cause of their general criminality, whilst the violent crimes was attributed to masculine biological characteristics.
The concept of masculinity was carried through by Sigmund Freud who developed a psychological theory for women’s violent offending. Freud believed ‘anatomy is destiny’ (p.178), his argument was that some people are predestined to commit crime; women due to their inferiority to men were struck by penis envy. This concept explains that women who are unable to adjust to their desire for a penis through the normal means, which according to Freud (1933) fall under motherly duties and gratifying your husband, end up engaging in behaviour which society deems masculine, therefore they abandon their societal role as a caring gentle female (Klein, 1973). Instead they embrace aggressive, masculine behaviours to deal with their lack of anatomical maleness, Freud once again attributes the female violent crimes to a distinct desire to appear manly.
These theories create an environment whereby it says that women biologically and psychologically cannot be violent. It is only when they try to internalise masculine features that they turn violent. The criticisms of these theories is that what is considered masculine and feminine is socially constructed; there is no defined measure of what it means to have masculine characteristics (McIvor, 2004).Whilst these theories may at first glance seem ludicrous, they did lead on to various academics taking an interest in the biological and psychological research of female offenders and started to acknowledge their reasons differed from that of men. Biologically, various studies have been done around female menstruation and crime. One of the studies was conducted by Dalton (1961) on 386 convicted women; her research showed that 49% of all crimes were committed during menstruation, during which time women’s biological and psychological shifts from their normality, and this lays foundation for the argument that the two may be interlinked. It is noted that it cannot account for all crime, however it does offer an insight into how the examination of different biological factors may affect women in ways it does not men.
On a psychological level, a study conducted on 181 females who had been in contact with the law, intended to assess the feelings and emotions experienced by the participants. What the research found was that these girls all shared common low self image, as attributed to poor relations with those around them, the fact that there were less readily available opportunities for the girls, lead them towards various violent offences (Konopka, 1966).This notion of injustice in terms of female opportunities is one which has also been applied by various theorists throughout the decades when explaining female criminality; it took on a turn towards socio-structural causes as it was discovered that the blaming the individual was too simplistic (McIvor, 2004). One of the earliest of these was proposed by Adler in 1975 known as the Emancipation Theory.
She argued that in and around the 1970’s the role of women changed alongside the women’s movements, women became much more independent and they were encouraged to become more career driven. This meant women were now being given the same opportunities as men on a criminal level. Using the UCR statistics Adler showed how between 1960 and 1972 there was a 277% increase in female offending (Curran & Renzetti, 2001), additionally the crimes they were being charged with were of higher violent degree. The conclusion she drew was that women were now committing crimes previously associated with male offending, theorising that women were once again trying to compete with men and that their newly found freedom in society is what drew them towards violent crimes.As women were embracing the new liberal circumstances they were being presented with, it encouraged them to drive for the better positions in jobs, criminal gangs and so forth and with that came a need to be more forceful and hardheaded in order to achieve one’s goals (Islam, Banarjee & Khatun, 2014). These theories have gathered empirical data by academics such as Sutherland and Cressey (1970) who showed that societies where women are closely supervised and have little to no freedom have low arrest rates of women, whereas in places where women have more liberty there were higher arrest rates amongst violent crimes.
Findings like these indicate that there is an underlying issue whereby when women are encouraged to strive for the same as men, yet the societal circumstances encourages them to take a pathway of crime to obtain their goals. The concept discussed above has been coined strain theory; Broidy and Agnew (1997) examined how strain theory offers an insightful look into explaining female offending. They argue much like previously discussed socio-structural theories, that due to the changing nature of society, whereby women went from being housewives to being encouraged to strive for the same goals as men, womens goals and desires changed. More and more women were living alone, being single mothers and getting the same education as men (Adler, 1975), so whilst their own goals were changing, they were still being faced with societal structures making their pathway to success harder than that experienced by men (Broidy and Agnew, 1997).
When one’s goals and one’s ability to achieve those goals do not line up, a strain occurs and an individual will look to crime as a way to correct the injustice done to them. This theory explains female criminality when focusing on those who kill for monital purposes, which will be discussed further on through more modern theories. To this day full time male employees in the US earn $51,640, whilst women are only earning $41,554 (Miller, 2017) on average annually. This shows differences in how men and women are treated, whilst what is expected of them both is similar, which fosters an environment where women commit violent crimes in order to relieve the so called strain.A shift in how academics investigated the explanations of violent female offences, looking towards examining their motivations rather than looking at the causes of their behaviour.
Holmes and Holmes (2010) proposed a typology which classified serial killers into four categories: hedonistic (individuals who are driven for a desire for profit; this can be in form of money or property), powerseeker (individuals who have a desire to be in control of who gets to live and who should die), visionary (individuals who follow the commands given to them by hallucinations) and missionary (those who are out to eradicate those they deem undesirable from the world). Various studies have found supporting evidence for these typologies and have consistently found similar trends in what seems to motivate female serial killers. Upon examination of 64 female serial killers revealed that 49.2% were hedonistic, 20.
6% were powerseekers, 3.2% were visionary and 3.2% were missionary (Harrison, Murphy, Ho, Bowers & Flaherty, 2015). These findings as mentioned tie in well with previously mentioned theories which suggest that psychological problems can affect females’ desires to commit violent crimes, namely that achieving monital success through unsavoury means can lead women to commit violent crimes.What various studies showed is there is still no definite typology which has managed to incorporate all the possible motives for violent crimes. Another typology was proposed by Kelleher and Kelleher (1998) which drew up nine classifications of female serial killers, with the intention of covering a far greater range of possible motivations and exploring a wider variety of explanations for why women offend. Some of these new classifications carried similarities with Holmes’s typology but also included new specification. Their nine categories consisted of black widows, angels of death, sexual predator, revenge, profit, team killers, question of sanity, unexplained and unsolved.
Two apparent benefits of this typology is that it now takes into account the revenge aspect which plays an important role in explaining the 1000 women who kill the men that abuse them (Huss, Tomkins, Garbin, Schopp & Kilian, 2006), in addition to the psychological factors that need to be considered when explaining female criminality.The research conducted by Harrison et al (2015) showed that money, power and revenge were the strongest driving sources behind female serial killers; they murdered those they knew and were more likely to kill men arguably to show their power over the supposed stronger sex. However, one of the most important findings was looking at the individual’s past and acknowledging that both sexual and physical abuse were very prominent in most cases, allowing for the deduction to be made that these youth experiences have influenced their criminal career (Hickey, 2010). These new theories are important because they move away from the notion that violent females are just victims to their genetic makeup and that simply painting them as abnormal is no longer the sought out response (Bachelor, 2005) rather this new understanding of motivations and causes allows for a better understanding of female offenders to be developed in order to ideally prevent it, or if not aid the in their rehabilitation.
To conclude, this essay sought out to explore the historical progression of theoretical explanations of why women commit violent crimes. The earliest theories are proposed by academics such as Lombroso and Freud; who dedicated their research to explaining why women’s biology and psychology would inevitably lead them to committing violent crimes. They concluded that women’s inferiority pushed them to want to be more like men; men are aggressive and likely to commit violent crimes therefore women who want to embrace the male culture are likely to behave similarly. These theories depicted the views of the time, whereby women were considered to fit a very particular stereotype in society. Whilst their findings and ideas have been ridiculed today they laid the foundation for an interest in studying the differences in women and men’s biological makeup to offer explanations and responses to offenders. Women’s liberation in society allowed for more freedom, furthermore women were no longer confiding to the social boundaries laid out for them.
However, the matriarchal society was not prepared to make it easy for women to achieve the same as them leading onto the socio-structural theories proposed by Adler and Agnew. These theories explored the consequences that supposedly came with the new found freedom, emancipation theory attributing female criminality to an internalisation of male characteristics and strain theory explaining it through the structures put in place to restrict women’s ability to achieve their goals. Leading on from there the explanations of female offending shifted as women are now being understood as individuals capable of controlling their own lives and not a victim to their biology or the structures of society. This led to the evolution of typologies which examined the motivations of female offenders and has identified common traits amongst serial killers, that include profit, revenge, power all of which are pretty similar to that of male serial killers.
The research indicates that there should be an even split dedicated to understanding why someone may end up on an offending path as well as their motivations in order to intervene and minimise the amount of women committing violent crimes.