Academic journal article Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology

Does Feminism Spoil Girls? Explanations for Official Rises in Female Delinquency

Academic journal article Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology

Does Feminism Spoil Girls? Explanations for Official Rises in Female Delinquency

Article excerpt

Official rates of female delinquency have been rising steadily in countries such as Australia, England, Canada and the United States since the 1960s. They have also generally been rising at a rate faster than that for boys. As yet there is little consensus about the reasons for these rises or even whether such rate rises reflect any real increase in female delinquency at all. Against this backdrop of rising official crimes rates for young women, this article revisits the various criminological explanations for these trends.

Gender and Juvenile Justice: Global Trends

The overwhelming dominance of young men represented in crime rates, arrest rates, prisons and before the courts is an indisputable global phenomenon. Studies from England and Scotland (Gelsthorpe, 1989; Heidenson, 1994; Jefferson, 1994; Walklate 1995), the United States (Campbell, 1981; Daly 1994; Chesney-Lind & Sheldon, 1998), Canada (Reitsma-Street, 2000) and Australia (Alder, 1996; Alder, 2000; Cain, 1996; Carrington, 1993, Cunneen & White, 1995, Crime Prevention Division, 2000; Freeman, 1996, Hancock, 1980) all confirm this gendered pattern of offending. This gender predominance is widely referred to as the 'masculinity of criminality'.

It is somewhat understandable therefore that the relative conformity of girls compared to boys has attracted more attention than their nonconformity. Their higher rates of conformity have been attributed to stricter forms of social control and parental surveillance (cf. Chesney-Lind & Sheldon, 1998; Heidensohn, 1985, Naffine, 1987). The more intense social control of young women is thought to reduce their risk of offending, and enhance their attachment to authority figures such as teachers and parents (Steffensmeier & Allan, 1996).

Given the dominance of the male sex in almost all crime figures it is also understandable that academic interest in the relationship between masculinity and crime has increased substantially over the last decade (i.e., Collier, 1998; Jefferson & Carlen, 1996; Jefferson, 1997; Messerscmidt, 1993; Newbum & Stanko, 1994). This new and welcome interest compares favourably to the historical neglect of the 'masculinity question' in criminology prior to the 1990s (Allen, 1988), a valid and recurrent complaint of feminist scholars since Francis Heidensohn's famous lament of these 'lonely uncharted seas' in 1968, and Carol Smart's pioneering exposure of the masculine bias of the discipline of criminology published in 1976. It is somewhat ironic then, that during the period when criminologists were belatedly discovering the masculinity of criminality (Collier, 1998, pp. 176-79), the gender gap between official rates of male and female delinquency has been narrowing, and in some instances, significantly.

Young women represent the fastest growing population within juvenile justice systems around the world. In Canada for instance, the number of young women charged with criminal offences rose from 7919 in 1980 to 21,898 in 1996, although the patterns vary by province and race (Reitsma-Street, 2000, p. 133). In the United States the arrest rates for young women rose by 250% between 1960 and 1975 (Chesney-Lind & Sheldon, 1998, p. 10). In 1987, young women accounted for only 13% of all juveniles arrested in the United States; by 2000, they accounted for 25% of this population (Schnelle, 2000, p. 122). During this period, the ratio of male to female delinquents declined from eight to one (8:1) to four to one (4:1). Increases in arrest rates were also greater for young women in almost all offence categories including violent crime (Acoca, 2004, p. 78). In England, the gender gap has also narrowed, with the ratio of delinquent boys to delinquent girls declining from seven to one (7:1) during the 1960s to five to one (5:1) in the 1990s (Walklate, 1995, as cited in Gelsthorpe, 2000, p. 68). As will be seen, a similar pattern of rising adolescent female crime rates is evident in Australia. …

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