Criminology is defined by Nigel Walker as "a generic name for a group of closely allied subjects: the study and explanation of lawbreaking; formal and informal ways in which societies deal with it; and the nature and needs of its victims." ( Outhwaite & Bottomore 1994) To apply a feminist model that encompasses all the aspects listed here has been achieved to the extent that female writers have addressed each section of criminology as defined by Walker. From the late 1960s onwards, there has been a growing number of research on women & crime, while acknowledging the very important research that has been undertaken in this area, this essay will argue that mainstream criminology has continued to be 'malestream'.
Women do not represent a large proportion of the total of offenders involved with the criminal justice system has been well documented over the years (Heidensohn 1985; Williams 1991; Lombroso 1968). In 1993, there were 1,560 women in custody in England and Wales compared to 43,005 men, a proportion of about 4%. Eaton maintains that because "the majority of women are never involved, personally, with the formal agents of law enforcement." (Eaton 1986) together with the small numbers of women who do become involved with the criminal justice system, has led to the study of women and crime being generally disregarded as a sociological problem, dominant criminological theories were based on men, and little attention had been paid either to the deviance (including crime) or the apparent conformity of women. To see how accurate this statement by Eaton is, it is necessary to examine the issues that have dominated criminology since it became a subject in its own right.
Williams provides information, both historical and current, on the various traditions that have contributed to the field of criminology. One of the first theories of crime and its causes was the biological explanation. "Theories which advance this type of explanation tend to adopt the stance that crime is a sickness or illness which afflicts individual criminals, and is the result of some biological dysfunction." (Williams 1991) Cesare Lombroso was one of the founding fathers of what has come to be known as 'positivist criminology' (Heidensohn 1985; Williams 1991). "Lombroso's theory assumes the existence of a distinct anthropological type – the born criminal – who is likely or even bound to commit crime, a criminal is supposed to be a throwback in the evolutionary chain, a reversion to an earlier and more primitive being who was both mentally and physically inferior." Williams 1991).
In his study of female criminality in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Lombroso held that all the data on criminology illustrated that "women are much less criminal than men" (Lombroso 1968), and that women turn to criminality at a later age than men do. For Lombroso, sexuality and a woman's ability to be attractive to a man, plays an important role here. We see that for all classes of crimes female criminality reaches its highest point, as compared with that of men, at the most advanced age; that is to say, when the special characteristics of sex have been effaced by age, and when prostitution no longer offers a career.
Despite Lombroso later modifying his theory to allow for external factors, his formula for the causes of crime has more or less been abandoned for more socio-economic attributions; the methodology that Lombroso used has also been criticised heavily. Eaton (1985), for one, regards this foundation of criminology as having a part to play in the perpetuation of pathological theories as to female criminality; to quote: "Female criminality has been explained by female biology and female psychology which accounted for the acceptable behaviour of the 'good' woman and the 'unacceptable' behaviour of the bad woman."
By linking behaviour to 'nature' such theorists ignored the social construction of gender roles. Morris discusses further the theories, which link female criminality and areas of biology, including the many articles, which have been written on the link between female crime and menstruation from Lombroso and Ferrero in the nineteenth century through to Pollak writing in the 1960s. Again, this use of biological determinism as the only cause for criminality negates the existence of other socio- economic reasons generally accepted for male criminality. Explanations of female crimes have usually been given in terms of the failure of individual women to adapt themselves to their supposedly natural biological and/or socio- sexual destinies. The implication has repeatedly been that it is the individual women who should change – rather than the social formations, which impose restrictive and exploitative roles upon all women. As a result, criminal women have always been presented as being 'Other'.
Women, after all, experience the same deprivations; family structures and so on that men do. Theories of crime should be able to take account of both men's and women's behaviour and to highlight those factors which operate differently on men and women. Whether or not a particular theory helps us to understand women's crime better is of fundamental, not marginal importance for criminology." (Gelsthorpe & Morris 1988)
Carlen, in her book, confronts the myth that women who break the law "rather than being serious and intentional criminals, are nothing more than deviants from what are supposed to be their natural, biologically-determined socio-sexual roles and destinies." (Carlen 1985; Kennedy 1992). A 'criminal woman', then, is considered to be a worse character than a 'criminal man' as she has not only broken the law of the land, but also broken the unwritten law of what is right and proper behaviour for a woman.