Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Women and Crime: Essay and Syllabus

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Women and Crime: Essay and Syllabus

Article excerpt

The "Women and Crime" course taught at State University of New York, College at Potsdam is an elective course for sociology, criminal justice and women's studies students offered through the Sociology Department. The course is designed to support and further the study of American society by focusing on the social conditions that shape women's experiences engaging with the criminal justice system. The level of student skepticism encountered and the impact of the course on individual students makes this course challenging to teach.

The course examines three inter-related areas of study: women as offenders, women as victims, and the social construction of masculinities1 leading to violence against women. The course content is selected and presented to achieve three broad goals:

1. introduce the criminal justice system as a powerful social institution that intervenes in the lives of women as victims, offenders and in women's relationships with the men in their lives.

2. recognize that criminal justice system interventions are guided by relations of power (gender, race/ethnicity, and social class) reproduced through myths and stereotypes and pervasive throughout American society.

3. reveal social change through the expanding definition of women's deviant behavior and the increasing reliance on formalized mechanisms of social control (criminal justice response-law enforcement, court involvement, and correctional follow up) to regulate women's productive and reproductive labor and social relationships.

These goals support my personal and professional pursuit of women's equality through ending male violence against women.

Patriarchy is the unifying concept tying together the three areas of study. Patriarchy is defined as male control of women's sexuality and labor through control of the important institutions of power in society (family, government, law, military, religion, economy). Consequently, men are in a position to define law and use the criminal justice system to control women's reproductive and productive choices and relationships. Male power is the product of socially defined cultural and historical circumstances that placed women in the privacy of the home, and absent from public life. The recurring theme of social control of women's productive and reproductive capacity is applied to an analysis of society's definition of crime, women's opportunity for criminal behavior, and criminal justice response policies to women as victims and offenders.

The lens of feminist analysis identifies gendered hierarchies as defining all social relationships. However, in addition to hierarchies of gender, hierarchies of race and social class are introduced as a necessary focus of inquiry to achieve a fuller understanding of the relationship between women and the criminal justice system. Consequently, to understand the position of women in society, women and their intersection on various social hierarchies must be the focus of inquiry.

Focusing on the relationship between women and the criminal justice system highlights gender difference in society. A discussion of gender difference is somewhat confusing given that the criminal justice systems approach to gender is not clear. Feminist legal scholars believe the law, and by extension the criminal justice system, is androcentric in that the law operates in the image of men, such as through the test of "a reasonable man." As women moved out of the home into the public domain, the law was extended to apply to women too. However, the underlying premise of male interest and the male model never changed. Consequently, reliance on the gender neutrality of law obscures the context of women's offending behavior and victimization. Ignoring gender difference tailors criminal justice interventions to actually reproduce gender hierarchies that leave untouched patriarchy operating in the home and public life.

The following discussion will summarize the perspective and arguments I employ to introduce undergraduate students to the role of the criminal justice system as a powerful institution of social control in the lives of women. …

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