Why Girls Fight: Female Youth Violence in the Inner City

Why Girls Fight: Female Youth Violence in the Inner City

Why Girls Fight: Female Youth Violence in the Inner City

Why Girls Fight: Female Youth Violence in the Inner City


In low-income U.S. cities, street fights between teenage girls are common. These fights take place at school, on street corners, or in parks, when one girl provokes another to the point that she must either "step up" or be labeled a "punk." Typically, when girls engage in violence that is not strictly self-defense, they are labeled "delinquent," their actions taken as a sign of emotional pathology. However, in Why Girls Fight , Cindy D. Ness demonstrates that in poor urban areas this kind of street fighting is seen as a normal part of girlhood and a necessary way to earn respect among peers, as well as a way for girls to attain a sense of mastery and self-esteem in a social setting where legal opportunities for achievement are not otherwise easily available.

Ness spent almost two years in west and northeast Philadelphia to get a sense of how teenage girls experience inflicting physical harm and the meanings they assign to it. While most existing work on girls' violence deals exclusively with gangs, Ness sheds new light on the everyday street fighting of urban girls, arguing that different cultural standards associated with race and class influence the relationship that girls have to physical aggression.


The actual time it takes to write a book, though lengthy, is far shorter than the time it takes to become the person who writes that book. What follows is the result of a long period of intellectual meandering come to its natural resting point.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, as a newly minted social worker in New York City teaching hospitals and mental health agencies, it did not take long for me to grow disenchanted with the disciplinary paradigms meant to explain why minority youths in economically impoverished urban neighborhoods so readily engaged in violence, nor did it take me long to grow extremely skeptical of the institutions charged with “fixing” them. It became clear in talking day after day and, eventually, year after year with “these” kids that something larger than their personal foibles was driving the curiously consistent demographics of referrals to daytreatment programs, diagnostic facilities, and the juvenile justice system. It also became clear to me that violence by inner-city youths was not simply a dysfunctional compensatory adaptation to frustration or, worse yet, unbridled sociopathy, as it mostly was portrayed to be. Searching for a sensible way to think dynamically about social organization, culture, and the psychological development of children and adolescents in American inner-city neighborhoods, rather than continuing to consider them the separate “bounded” entities of inquiry that the social sciences of the time made them out to be, led me to travel for a while (literally) in different directions.

In the mid 1990s I found my way to the Center on Violence and Human Survival at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where I subsequently spent nearly a decade working either directly with Robert Jay Lifton or in close proximity to his work. Lifton’s way of delving into issues of mass violence offered me my entry point to think about the intersection of violence, cultural influences, and individual psychology, though I would ultimately focus on the practice and structure of violence in urban . . .

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