Condensed Reading Notes "Womens subjective accounts..."
Week 2: Gender and Social Control
Kruttschnitt & Carbone-Lopez Moving Beyond the Sterotype - Women's Subjective Accounts of
Their Violent Crimes
Scholars, the courts, and especially the media have shown increasing interest in women’s
involvement in violent crime. However, their interest in this topic has been perhaps more prurient
than analytic. Focusing in particular on women who kill, the question has been, how do we explain
this aberration in the “kinder and gentler” sex?
The answers appear to have changed relatively little over time and include biological defects,
hormonal influences or, more recently, psychological syndromes that emerge from a history of
severe victimization (Downs, 1996; Rasche, 1990).
What all of these approaches have in common is that they deny women’s agency or the possibility
that women are involved in violent acts as active, rational human subjects (Morrissey, 2003).
Study: We aim to contribute to this scholarship by analyzing narratives of 106 incidents in which
sixty-six women used violence toward another person, whether an intimate partner or someone
else. We want to determine how they construct their involvement in these violent incidents.
We set the stage for our analysis by examining research on violent female offenders in the context
of three advances in feminist criminology:
1.The first draws attention to the role of institutions in reproducing gendered hierarchies (see
especially Connell, 1987, 2002).
2.The second focuses on how women realize their goals in gendered environments.
3.Finally, in this examination of women offenders’ agency, we also draw attention to the
important, but somewhat limited, work that addresses how intersectionality can further our
understanding of women’s violence.
INSTITUTIONS REPRODUCING STEREOTYPES OF FEMALE VIOLENCE
Media Accounts of Women’s Violence
Morrissey suggests that because news stories, like other narratives, are the product of “the cultural
and social organization of the institution in which they are situated” (Morrissey, 2003: 15), they
rely on“stocktales.”Chesney-Lind (2006: 11–12) argues that in the recent depictions of girls’
violence, the liberation-masculinization tale is most often invoked.
Today, though, violence by women is largely portrayed as a by-product of their husband or
partner’s violence toward them or of the abuse they experienced in their families of origin.
If a woman’s violence cannot be readily linked with a conventional explanation such as child abuse
or spouse abuse, she represents a threat to traditional gender norms and regimes, breaking down
what some have called “the essentialist argument that gender and sex are indissolubly linked”
(Gilbert, 2002: 1295).
Interestingly, however, the use of these stock tales may also be conditioned by race. As Allard
(1991) suggests in her critique of the battered woman syndrome, whereas a killing by a white
woman can be seen as “inapposite to traditional gender roles; the same conduct by a black women
may be viewed as typical of her character”
Morrissey (2003: 19–20) also argues that the media and the courts have a symbiotic relationship,
not only because they rely on the same stock of narratives to depict criminal events, but also
because their constructions of these events legitimize and reinforce one another.
Analyzing the sociology of narratives, maintain that in formal legal processes “certain types of
truth claims are disqualified and thus shielded from examination and scrutiny”.
Analyses of court reports by psychiatrists, probation officers, and parole agents consistently reveal
that the portrayal of women’s violence is one that either pathologizes and neutralizes women’s
responsibility for their actions or demonizes them because they fail to conform to gender
Example: Battered Wives Syndrome theory takes away the notion that women are being capable of
making decisions and label them helpless, exempting them from taking accountability for their
However, as was true in media narratives, we find that legal constructions of women’s violence
often hinge on their race and ethnicity.
The earliest case studies of homicidal women formed the basis of the good versus evil dichotomy
we have seen replayed throughout this century (Rasche, 1990).
Although victimization may be an important component of a woman’s pathway to crime, many
feminists essentialize it and, in so doing, give primacy to this experience. As Daly so aptly puts it,
“a seamless web of victimization and criminalization tends to produce accounts which focus on
victimization and leave little agency, responsibility or meaning to women’s lawbreaking”
AGENCY AND INTERSECTIONALITY
The problem with an approach that pits the aggressive and inherently evil female offender against
the victimized or incapacitated offender is that it ignores the complexity of gender identities and
fails to see women as active subjects and responsible human beings (see Downs, 1996; Miller,
2001; Morrissey, 2003; Motz, 2001).
Recent ethnographic work on female offenders suggests that women’s involvement in violence, like
men’s, has multiple motives and meanings in different contexts.
Baskin and Sommers Study (1998) conducted life history interviews with 170 black and Hispanic
women in three “hyperghettoized” neighborhoods in New York City: heir findings challenge
“generic and gender-based generalizations” about violent female offending. Women’s motivations
for offending and their choice of victims were often rational (to recover stolen money or to avenge
a disrespectful act, for example) but not devoid of gendered considerations as they were careful to
target those who looked weak or vulnerable.
Lisa Maher’s Study (1997) ethnography of forty-five racially diverse women living and working
in the drug markets of the Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Looked at women in
drug trafficking business. She argues, the violence perpetrated by these women was largely
reactive, a response to their living conditions and the collapsing economy rather than evidence of a
new breed of violent female offenders. Race was critical in determining women’s life chances,
influencing when they worked, how often they worked, and how much they earned (Maher, 1997:
202–3). And, though all women operating in the drug market were at a relative disadvantage
compared to men, as is true in the legal market economy, white women fared better than
Miller’s Study (2001) ethnography of primarily black gang (N = 48) and nongang (N = 46) girls
in St. Louis and Columbus furthers this line of work by illustrating the importance of particular
structural contexts in determining how gender is played out. Here we learn that though the motives
for gang involvement are not necessarily gendered, the types and levels of their involvement in
gang activities are. Further, Miller’s analyses of these girls’ subjective views of their positions and
activities in the gang reveal a surprising level of complexity: though they readily acknowledge hat
the gangs reify existing gender relations, they are able to see themselves as operating outside of
this traditional framework.
Gartner and McCarthy Study (2006) examined police records of 103 neo-naticides and
infanticides committed over the course of the twentieth century in Seattle and Buffalo. robing the
veracity of the stock portrayals of women who kill their children as “mad, bad, or victims,” they do
find that the female perpetrators were often constrained by poverty, social isolation, and other
personal problems. However, they also discover evidence suggesting that many of these women
were rational and resourceful when disposing of their children.
As these works highlight, where and under what conditions a crime occurs—in disadvantaged
neighborhoods, in drug markets, and in gangs—has as much to do with the patterns and motives of
criminal activity as gender, at least in terms of street level violence.
Yet as Gartner and McCarthy’s study show, much of female violence is private.
data and method: The women whose narratives we analyze were part of a racially diverse sample
of 205 women drawn from the female population incarcerated in the Hennepin County Adult
Detention Facility (Minneapolis, Minnesota). This is a short-term jail (postsentence) that provides
separate housing for both male and female offenders. Working inductively, we each coded the
narratives separately according to what we thought was the primary motivation for the encounters.
We crossclassified our individual results and we found substantial reliability in our categorization
of these events. Most of the women we interviewed were poor; many had drug habits, and some
were street prostitutes. As a result, violent encounters were hardly unusual events for them. In table
2, we show the results of our coding of the 106 incidents of violence.
Five main motives for violence as these women recounted them to us: jealousy, disrespect, self-
defense, self-help, and victim precipitation.
The most common reason for a violent encounter among these women was perceived disrespect or