Female Criminality


My project works on the basis that women who commit crime are in some ways different from men who commit crime. This understanding works on the assumption of a gender binary. As of yet, it seems that the study and literature on crime has not yet fully caught up with our more modern, nuanced understandings of gender and the impact society has on it.

Nevertheless, the research indicates that female criminality is distinct from male criminality. Key to this is the gendered pathways to crime approach, which I will explore below. However, before I dive into that, I want to explore the work of Jody Miller and her arguments concerning James Messerschmidt’s work with situated action theory. Situated action theory argues that “women and men ‘do gender’ in response to situated normative beliefs about masculinity and femininity.”[1]According to Miller, Messerschmidt was one of the key scholars to introduce this theory to criminology, specifically of male crime and masculinity, arguing that men ‘do gender’ through crime, even using the argument that robbery is a way for men to assert their masculinity.

Miller argues that the same theory cannot apply to women, pointing out the limitations of the criminology version of the theory as whole, because the “duality model of gender” means that one does not take into account the effect that other intersectional factors such as class, race and age has on “social positioning.”[2] Gender is just one of the many identity factors that affect an individual’s relationship with society, and – by extension – crime. I agree with Miller that the situated action theory is too limiting when it comes to understanding female criminality.

However, I also argue that the femme fatale character – which I will explore more on the next page – interacts with gender and crime in a way that more closely aligns with Messerschmidt’s argument. The femme fatale is a notoriously sexual character and is defined distinctly through her gender and involvement in crime. In many ways, the femme fatale ‘does’ a specific independent, sexual, dangerous, ‘badass’ femininity through her crimes, that often negatively affect men. Her ability to manipulate men with seduction and lies to get what she wants reinforces a form of resourceful, sexual femininity. The femme fatale becomes an evil, female seductress through her criminal action. She is independent and ‘badass’ because she is a woman who commits crime. However, as this project explores, we know that there is more to real female crime than what the femme fatale presents to us. In particular, Kathleen Daly’s gendered pathways approach, explored below, identifies the many contributing factors that affect a woman’s involvement in crime. Therefore, there must be a difference between the reality of female criminality and the femme fatale. The gendered pathways to crime approach is a feminist criminological theory that upholds the notion that female criminality is not as straightforward as the situated action theory may suggest.

Gendered Pathways to crime

Key to understanding female criminality and women’s involvement in the US criminal justice system, is the gendered pathways to crime approach. This theoretical model, first explored by criminologist Kathleen Daly, categorizes and explains the unique way that women interact with the criminal justice system. Many scholars, including Daly, argue that original criminological study as well as prison and jail policies worked on the basis that incarceration was for men only. It was only when scholars, around the 1970s, started to delve into female criminality, that women were included in criminological study. As Daly identifies, however, this inclusion of women can best be described as an ‘add gender and stir’ approach. [3] Research and policies still had men in mind and assumed that they were also appropriate for women.

Daly’s gendered pathways to crime approach explored five different categories that criminal women generally ‘fit’ into. Daly constructed a “composite of women’s law breaking”  from research on “girls or women who [had] been arrested in the United States … or in England, Australia, Canada and several European countries.”[4] Daly called this composite street women, and through a deep-sample of eighty women who were defendants sentenced in the New Haven, Connecticut felony court, she identified four other distinct categories that applied to the women in her sample.

Daly’s five categories were:

Street women: These women ran away from abusive households and were drawn to the street where they made their living through illicit means e.g. selling drugs and/or prostitution. Daly identifies how the women in her sample who fit this category had heavy arrest and conviction records “and they had been incarcerated often.”[5]

Harmed and harming women: These women had histories of sexual and/or physical abuse or neglect. Growing up, these women “had chaotic and difficult experiences.”[6] This troubled history led them to dangerous lifestyles of alcohol and drug addiction, which in turn led to criminal behavior.

Battered women: These women had experienced abusive relationships with violent men, either at the time of arrest or in the past. These women were arrested for “fighting or fending off [these] violent men.”[7]

Drug-connected women: “The women used or sold drugs in their relationships with boyfriends of family members.”[8]

‘Other’ women: These women in the sample did not fit any of the other categories, Daly identified how their criminal activity “seemed to arise from a desire for more money.”[9]

Daly’s work has been explored and furthered by many scholars. In particular, a study conducted by Natalie J. Jones, Shelley L. Brown, Kayla A. Wanamaker, and Leigh E. Greiner argued that Daly’s five categories were somewhat limited.[10] Through their study on a sample of 663 female and 1,175 male juvenile offenders in New York, where they surveyed the individuals to understand their backgrounds, reasons for offending and offenses committed, the researchers found that “antisocial pathways” to crime also helped explain the female participants’ involvement in crime. The antisocial pathways approach includes the gender-neutral ‘Central Eight’ individual-level factors that lead to crime. These are “antisocial cognitions, antisocial peers, personality deficits (e.g., impulsivity), family/marital dysfunction, substance abuse, educational/vocational obstacles, and misguided use of leisure time.”[11]

It is my understanding that Daly, and other scholars who deal with gendered pathways, would disagree that the antisocial pathways take precedent over gendered pathways when dealing with female criminality. Gender is integral to why people commit crime as gender, in many cases, determines one’s social position and vulnerability. To say that one’s propensity to commit crime is not affected by these wider societal factors is a reductive understanding of crime and society. Like Messerschmidt’s situated actin theory, the argument that people commit crime for reasons that are gender-neutral, is too limiting. Nevertheless, Jones et al argued that their results indicate that the two approaches should be integrated. This is important when it comes to the femme fatale, especially the femme fatale of 1940s-1950s film noir, as she is often not given a back story or explanation for her involvement in crime. Oftentimes, film noir leads you to believe that the femme fatale commits the crime she does because of a personality deficit, such as impulsivity or sociopathy, or because of family/marital dysfunction.

Another key theme of female criminality is vulnerability. One way that the US criminal justice system exposes women’s vulnerability and uses it as a weapon against women, are through ‘Failure to Protect’ laws (FTP) that seek to protect children, but in fact criminalize women for not conforming to gender norms. Failure to protect laws mean that if an individual (often a mother) leaves a child with someone who they know to be abusive, or if they do not protect the child from the abuser, and the child is abused and/or killed, then that individual can be charged as if they themselves committed the crime. These laws are prime examples of how women can be criminalized for not conforming to gender norms. In many cases, the woman who is charged is aware of the other person’s (often an intimate partner and/or father of the child) abusive behavior, because she herself is also abused by that individual. The courts seem to use the argument ‘you should have known better’ instead of exploring the reasons why the woman had not sought help previously, or had limited or no choices to leave the child or to protect the child from the abuser. Amanda Mahoney, writing for the Journal of Law-Medicine, explored this problem in detail and argued that the law “over-criminalizes mothers” because “FTP laws have made the status of being an abuse victim into a crime because the history of a woman’s own abuse is used as evidence that she should have expected her abuser to also abuse the children.”[12] As a result, the woman’s agency is taken away. If she stands up for herself and explains that her actions were heavily influenced by the abuse she suffers, then the case against her is actually stronger (‘then you should have known better.’) Sarah Singh, who explores FTP laws in the UK (which are extremely similar to the US) argues that these women are criminalized for not conforming to the “glorified, middle class ideal of motherhood,” firstly because they are seen as ‘wicked’ for not sacrificing themselves in every way possible for their children, and also because many did not have an elevated enough social standing to be considered ‘respectable’ and thus “remain within the appropriate bounds of femininity.”[13] As a result, both scholars identify how FTP laws criminalize women’s vulnerability and inability to conform to the gender norms of the caring, nurturing mother.

The femme fatales in my dataset, which can be seen on the next page, do not interact with FTP laws, or anything close to it. In fact, many of the women do not have children. I use the example of FTP laws as it most clearly shows how, in some ways, the criminal justice system treats women favorably or unfavorably, according to their adherence to gender norms. Further, a woman’s vulnerability is often overlooked or criminalized, and her agency taken away. This is extremely important when you take into account the gendered pathways approach, which mostly shows how women’s involvement in crime comes about as a result of being vulnerable to things outside of their power, such as physical or sexual abuse in the home. This concept of vulnerability and agency is central to my analysis of the femme fatale in Hollywood. Often these women are portrayed as scheming, manipulative, being in control and playing their cards close to their chest. A key example would be Catherine Trammel in Basic Instinct (1992). However, we know from criminological and feminist study, that women mostly commit crime out of necessity, for survival or because their vulnerable state has given them no other choice.

Related to this theme of vulnerability is an individual’s history of abuse. As the gendered pathways approach explains, many women enter the criminal justice system because they commit crimes as a result of abuse. For instance, the ‘street women category’ of gendered pathways shows how young women and girls flee their homes and end up on the street and, as a result, end up involved in criminal activity. A key reason for a child to flee their home is because of child abuse. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington, the University of Southern California and the Australian Catholic University in Sydney found connections between child abuse, internalizing and externalizing behaviors, and gendered pathways to crime.[14] The researchers found that women who suffered child abuse when they were in preschool and showed internalizing behavior as a result of this abuse were positively associated with committing crime as adults, whereas girls exhibiting externalizing behaviors did not predict criminal activity as adults. Ultimately, the research showed that there is a connection between child abuse and later criminal activity.

The gendered pathways to crime approach is a theoretical framework that allows us to understand the distinct ways that women interact with crime. It also shows that most women who are involved in the criminal justice system are vulnerable in some way; this could be because of abuse that they have suffered. The research also shows that, in some cases, this vulnerability is criminalized and negatively affects the vulnerable women and removes their agency. This is important to understand because the femme fatale character presents criminal women as having agency and conforming more to the antisocial pathways approach, which does not take gender into account.






[1] Jody Miller, “The Strengths and Limits of ‘Doing Gender’ for Understanding Street Crime,” Theoretical Criminology 6, no. 4 (2002): 434.

[2] Miller, “The Strengths and Limits,” 455.

[3] Kathleen Daly, Gender, Crime and Punishment (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).

[4] Daly, Gender, Crime and Punishment, 45.

[5] Daly, Gender, Crime and Punishment, 46.

[6] Daly, Gender, Crime and Punishment, 46.

[7] Daly, Gender, Crime and Punishment, 48.

[8] Daly, Gender, Crime and Punishment, 48.

[9] Daly, Gender, Crime and Punishment, 48.

[10] Natalie J. Jones et al., “A Quantitative Exploration of Gendered Pathways to Crime in a Sample of Male and Female Juvenile Offenders,” FEMINIST CRIMINOLOGY 9, no. 2 (April 2014): 113–136.

[11] Jones et al, “A Quantitative Exploration,” 114.

[12] Amanda Mahoney, “How Failure to Protect Laws Punish the Vulnerable,” Health Matrix: The Journal of Law-Medicine 29, no. 1 (2019): 431.

[13] Sarah Singh, “Criminalizing Vulnerability,” Social & Legal Studies 26, no. 4 (August 2017): 515.

[14] Hyunzee Jung et al., “Gendered Pathways from Child Abuse to Adult Crime Through Internalizing and Externalizing Behaviors in Childhood and Adolescence,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 32, no. 18 (September 2017): 2724–2750.