An Exploration of the Marked Decline of Women’s Involvement in Crime: 1700–1900

Malcolm M. Feeley, Law, University of California, Berkeley

Research Grant, 1998, 2000

A number of years ago while working on another project, I discovered that in several locations in late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century Europe, women constituted 60 percent or more of those charged with serious crimes. These are figures several times higher than contemporary levels, and wholly at odds with conventional criminological understanding, which holds that serious criminal activity is overwhelmingly male behavior. Once I found that virtually no one had explored this phenomenon, I developed plans for a systematic study to see how widespread this pattern was, to see if it applied to violent as well as nonviolent (serious) crimes, and to explore its causes and consequences.

The proportions of men and women charged with crime, including serious crime, have varied widely across time and space.

With support from the foundation, I have been able to explore this issue systematically. I have gathered a vast body of data from records on charging, prosecution and sentencing, and drawn on a vast amount of secondary materials from archives and libraries in England, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, and elsewhere to explore shifts in criminal prosecutions of men and women from roughly 1650 to 1850. I continue to analyze these data, but am able to offer several tentative findings. The proportion of those charged with serious crimes who were women declined markedly in a great many locations in Northern Europe during this period. This pattern holds for both violent and nonviolent offenses, though is much stronger for nonviolent offenses (e.g., theft). However, this pattern also holds for petty nonviolent offenses. These patterns are strongest in a handful of commercial or international shipping centers that had expanded rapidly, and whose economies depended heavily on casual laborers, often young, single immigrants. It is not so pronounced in locations in more traditional societies.

Two general factors appear to account for the high levels of women caught up in the criminal process. First, as to more serious criminal offenses, these commercial and industrial centers attracted a disproportionate number of young single women, many of whom got into trouble with the law. As the cities adapted to the new conditions, this problem appears to have declined. Second, in the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries, a variety of less-serious public nuisance offenses, such as scolding, gossiping, slander, immodest dressing, and the like, came to be decriminalized. Women constituted the vast majority of such offenders, and so with decriminalization came a decline in the numbers of women offenders. Together these two factors, I believe, account for much of the dramatic decline in the proportion of women charged with crimes during this period. It may be that these changes are simply the consequence of general demographic and cultural shifts not directly related to issues of gender. However my research suggests that they are also due in some considerable part to a marked shift in the forms and methods of patriarchy at the outset of the industrial revolution, a shift that led to the decline of public controls of women and an expansion of a variety of informal, private controls. Whatever the case, this study challenges the conventional wisdom that crime, including violent crime, is and always and everywhere has been overwhelmingly male behavior. It reveals that the proportions of men and women charged with crime, including serious crime, have varied widely across time and space.

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