Violence and Social Organization in Female Gangs

Article excerpt

Introduction

Most young people in the inner city, even gang members, would agree that the streets can be a dangerous place (Shakur, 1993; Rodriguez, 1993). It is on the streets that young men and women are constantly confronted with contests of honor and respect. It is also on the streets that they find themselves getting into trouble as they search for meaning and ways to deal with a bleak environment. Lucinda, a homegirl, describes the futile nature of the streets:

I. What does being a homegirl mean to you personally?

R. Being in the street all the time, getting into trouble, getting things for free, getting drunk, like not being in reality. If you are on the streets, you are doing drugs, you don't give a shit what is going on. If you think about it, it is a good life, except that it is not taking you anywhere but to your death (p. 648). (All interview quotations are from the original study reported in Waldorf [1993] and Joe [1993].)

Since the 1980s, popular assumptions about gang members have taken on a life of their own and have been the basis for endless scores of television talk shows, radio programs, and magazine features. Essentially, male and female gang members are characterized as being wild, hedonistic, irrational, amoral, and violent (see Chesney-Lind, 1993). Moreover, the popular image of female gang members portrays these "bad girls" as even more problematic than their male counterparts because they challenge traditional gender roles. Popular assumptions also have been the basis for much of the punitive policy response to the grimness of street life, like the stiffening of sentences, criminalizing drug addiction among pregnant women, remanding juveniles to adult courts, and reducing monies for diversion. Remarkably, juvenile justice policies continue to move in a more punitive direction, even though very little is known about the nature and context of violence among gangs, particularly among female members.

How are we to understand the violence in these young women's lives? Is it the case that they are becoming more violent than before? Are they defiantly challenging traditional images of femininity? What is the context in which these girls find themselves in violence-prone situations? What other factors are important to understanding violence and gender in gangs? Critical analysis of these issues is needed in light of current attempts to repeal the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDP) and toughen national juvenile justice policies.

This article challenges recent portrayals of the demonic character of female gang members by examining the life histories and social organization of several different female gang groups. It is specifically concerned with illuminating the ways in which the different types of social organization of these groups are connected with particular situations of violence. That is, how is the group's organization related to involvement in violent situations both as offenders and as victims?

We address these questions in the following sections first by considering existing frameworks on gang organization and then by examining the variations in female gang organization and violence among members interviewed in an ethnographic study.

Understanding Female Gang Organization and Violence

The social organization of gangs has been of long-standing interest to gang researchers, dating from the pioneering work of Thrasher (1927) through the etiological studies of Miller (1958), Cohen (1955), and Cloward and Ohlin (1960). In these studies, gang violence was perceived to be an expression of ethnic rivalries in rapidly changing environments like Chicago and, in later works, a reflection of status frustration and structural constraints among lower-class boys. From the 1980s onward, concern over gang organization reemerged center stage as gangs became inseparable from, and almost synonymous with, other social "evils" of society, particularly drugs, violence, and inner-city decay. …