How criminals in novels tell us a story about feminism

Women are being disproportionately constrained by means of social control, despite gaining greater equality
- Professor Nicola Lacey
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Feminism has been one of the most significant human rights movements of the past century. From gaining partial suffrage in 1918 and the right to vote a decade later, women continued to make progress on equality in the following decades, including legislation on marital property in 1964, equal pay in 1970, and maternity pay in 1986.

By 2018, most women live in a society where gender-roles and traditional family structures have been weakened. Women have greater financial independence and social autonomy than at any point in history, and currently comprise around half of the UK’s workforce and university graduates.

Professor Nicola Lacey of the Department of Law has charted the history of feminism and sees the progress made by women as a cause for celebration. She says: “While there remain serious income inequalities, and the recent exposure of historic sexual harassment shows we still have a long way to go, the progress made over the past century is undeniable, and has vastly enhanced women’s status.”

Yet despite the social and economic advances, women remain a strikingly small minority of those proceeded against in the criminal justice system. In 2018, women make up only 5% of the prison population, with men 22 times more likely to go to prison.

“If crime is driven by opportunities and the control structures that are present in society, you would think that when women escaped the shackles constraining them in the 19th century, they would be more present in our prisons.”

But this isn’t the case, with the percentage of women among those found guilty of criminal acts declining significantly over the 20th century.

Professor Lacey sought an explanation for the divergence of women’s social progress and criminal behaviour from an unlikely source; realist literary fiction. Through an interpretation of how women were represented in culture by writers, Professor Lacey arrived at an understanding of the broad trends suppressing criminal behaviour in women.

“I chose realist literary fiction because it spans the whole century consistently, unlike television or film, which only came to prominence later in the century. Novels offer a rich resource in understanding how women are represented in culture.”

Professor Lacey drew on a sample of work from 20th century books, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses and contemporary classics such as Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson. The sample was compared to novels published produced in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe or Jane Austin’s Emma, to understand women’s behavioural norms during each period.

In her analysis, Professor Lacey found female criminals in the 18th century were often portrayed in fiction as relatively normal offenders, without exceptional motives or characteristics. But as the values in western society become more constraining throughout the Victorian era, depictions of women’s crime in fiction also became narrower.

During the 20th century, Professor Lacey found representations of female criminals remained confined to a few specific contexts. She says: “They tend to be motivated by sexual jealousy, or in a relationship with a man who is a bad influence who leads them astray.”

“Deception seems to be the preferred mode of criminal female behaviour, and there is often a theme of women’s mental incapacity as a reason for committing crimes.”

The novels in the study convey the huge constraints on women’s behaviour and the weight of convention. Most novelists do not create worlds where straightforward criminal behaviour by women is possible, with their depictions in the 20th century novel remarkably unchanged compared with the social changes in women’s status.

Professor Lacey attributes this to informal norms: “The patriarchal family, codes of manners, and ideas on acceptable female sexuality, all act as a constraint on women’s behaviour, and were very present in the novels.”

“While nobody wants to say it would be great if women were committing more crimes, the persisting gender difference in this field is significant, because it suggests that women are being disproportionately constrained by means of social control, despite gaining greater equality in many areas.”

Behind the article

Women, crime and character in the 20th century by Nicola Lacey was published in the Journal of the British Academy in March 2018.