Women, crime and character

The 20th century saw women gain legal, political and economic opportunities, but have these had an impact on the way women are viewed in society?

Nicola Lacey's research into women's depictions in literature and the criminal justice system reveals that gender equality may not have progressed as far as one might think.

A group of women from different eras

In recent research, I have been trying to unravel an interesting puzzle for the social sciences: why do the rates at which women are adjudged to have committed crimes remain so low – indeed they have declined – in the 20th and 21st century, notwithstanding the huge social changes in their legal, political and economic position? These changes marked a revolution in the social standing of and opportunities available to women. Yet in the sphere of criminality, gender dynamics appear to have changed very little.

At the start of the 20th century, women made up about 17 per cent of the prison population, with just under a fifth of those convicted of the more serious offences; in 2010, women made up a mere six per cent of the prison population, with only 15 per cent of those committing indictable offences.  

Drawing on a comparison of the conceptions of selfhood and responsible agency – the level to which an individual is judged to be responsible for their actions – to be found in criminology and in criminal law, I turned to popular culture to help interpret why this gender difference has persisted in this field. In particular, I examined representations of women in 20th-century fiction, exploring what light literary images of women’s counter-normative behaviour can shed on the patterns of female criminalisation.

The main message from my research can be very simply stated. In keeping with the still modest place of women in the criminal courts and prisons of England and Wales, their literary representations and preoccupations remain remarkably confined.

Women’s literary bad behaviour often takes place in historical novels

Representations of women’s bad behaviour also cluster around a number of themes. Countercultural 20th century women in literature are normally depicted as exerting a power which emerges from  personal, emotional and interior sources.  Their rule-breaking behaviour is typically motivated by relationships, romance and sexual jealousy; it is effected by deception; it often features mental breakdown; and it is invariably shaped by pressures within a family, sexual and patriarchal context! Moreover women’s literary bad behaviour often takes place in historical novels, and is therefore rendered less threatening by being displaced in time.

This suggests that changes in women’s legal and political status and their economic opportunities have not been accompanied by nearly such a striking change in underlying constructions of gender difference.  

For worse, or perhaps better, the harder edges of formal state control represented by the official crime and imprisonment figures pale into insignificance alongside the informal discipline exerted by conventional gender norms and the power structures which sustain them – norms which are distinctly represented in the typical novel.

Sexualisation in particular remains a key means of denigration and control: indeed, ironically – and as perhaps reflected in social media assaults on women – it may have strengthened in the wake of the greater sexual freedom ostensibly accorded to women in recent decades.   

20th century women made up 17% of prison populations with under 20% convicted of more serious offences

Hillary Clinton offers a vivid recent example

As women’s undoubted progress in the worlds of work, politics and education continues, this under-representation may seem unimportant, indeed something to be celebrated. It would, after all, be absurd to regard a rise in women’s representation among offenders as a salutary marker of gender equality. But we should remember that these same differences – related as they are to surrounding structures of power – may also be the very things which keep women radically under-represented in the top echelons of the business, political, legal and media worlds, and are often – Hillary Clinton offers a vivid recent example – vilified and disrespected when they do enter these realms. More importantly, these same differences in many parts of the world continue to expose women to disproportionate levels of poverty and sexual exploitation and make them vulnerable to violence. 

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

The huge economic shocks of the 1970s and since, along with the social changes which ensued in their wake, have affected the status system, which I argued in my book Women, Crime and Character have been a key part of what shaped legal and literary patterns of female deviance in the 18th and 19th centuries. That realignment has in some ways increased women’s status relative to men’s.

Arguably, unpleasant phenomena such as the increasing harassment of women on social media are a backlash against this realignment of gender opportunities and status. In other words, women’s material progress and growing independence may have intensified informal social control.  

Whatever the power of this tentative interpretation, one point emerges. The relative stability of the gender patterns of criminalisation over the course of the 20th century suggests that material changes themselves are an incomplete explanation of the development of the social phenomena of criminalisation and punishment over time. 

In 2010 women formed only 6% of prison populations with under 15% representing indictable offences.

What cultural forms, such as literary fiction, help us to appreciate is the key role played by gender norms, expectations and assumptions in shaping human judgment or behaviour: of people defining rules and conventions; of breaching established rules and conventions; and of those interpreting and responding to perceived breaches. 

As well as a case study in the potential for bringing law, criminal justice and literature, the social sciences and the humanities, into dialogue, I also offer my work as a case study into the pitfalls of the prevailing strong tendency in the social sciences to separate quantitative and qualitative approaches; and to separate questions of material power and interest from questions of culture. 

Women, Crime and Character in the 20th Century by Nicola Lacey is published in the Journal of the British Academy

Cover of "Women, Crime and Character by Nicola Lacey
The cover of an earlier work, "Women, Crime and Character from Moll Flanders to Tess of the D'Urbervilles" by Nicola Lacey