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The Feminist Approach to Criminology

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Background and Education

Dr. Freda Adler (born 1934) is an American criminologist and professor, perhaps best known for her contributions in feminist criminology theories and ideas regarding female criminality – primarily her theory on how the feministic social movement has influenced female criminality. Dr. Adler received her B.A. in Sociology in 1956, M.A. in Criminology in 1968, and Ph.D. in Sociology in 1971 from the University of Pennsylvania. She has also received an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of Scranton in 2011. At eighty-five years old, Dr. Adler currently holds positions as both Visiting Professor and the Director of the Master Program of Science Program in Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also noted as a Professor Emeritus in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University.

Awards and Recognitions

Dr. Freda Adler is well-distinguished in the field of criminal justice for her numerous accomplishments and awards in both her career as an educator and her career as a criminologist. As mentioned earlier, Dr. Adler has multiple degrees in both sociology and criminology and is recognized as Visiting Professor and the Director of the Master Program of Science Program in Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania and as Professor Emeritus in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University. In addition to these current positions she holds, Dr. Adler also currently serves as Permanent Representative to the United Nations of the Centro Nazionale di Prevenzione e Difesa Sociale.

In the past, Dr. Adler has also served as the President of the American Society of Criminology (1994-1995), Regional Secretary General in North America, and the International Society for Social Defense. She has also been recognized as a member of the Board of Directors of the International Scientific and Professional Advisory Council of United Nations Programs in Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (otherwise known as the ISPAC), a member of the Hogeschool van Amsterdam (University of Amsterdam), a member of the Police Foundation in Washington, D.C., a member of the University of Pennsylvania Alumnae Association, a faculty member at the National Judicial College, and an independent fellow researcher at Yale University. Dr. Adler has also served in the past as Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and as Research Director of Drug and Alcohol Abuse at the Medical College of Pennsylvania. She has also served a position as Distinguished Professor at Rutgers University.

Due to her extensive background and research in the field of criminology, Dr. Adler has been a consultant to many organizations including the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, the United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Branch, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the United Nations Secretary-General, the United States Congress, as well a multitude of other federal agencies and commissions. It can also be noted that Dr. Adler has engaged in consultations with over twenty foreign governments. She has also acted as a co-organizer of the Bilateral Think Tank, in coordination with the USSR Academy of Sciences and the American Council of Learned Societies. Dr. Adler is also acknowledged as one of the founding faculty members at Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice, which can be noted as one of the very first schools of criminology in the United States.

Dr. Adler has contributed handfuls of published works to the field of criminology. The majority of her published works are scientific articles, monographs, reports, and testimonies. Dr. Adler has written/co-authored fifteen books, edited nine books written by other authors, and has written and edited well over one hundred scientific articles, monographs, reports, and testimonies. Dr. Adler acts as co-editor of the Advances in Criminological Theory series, a publication devoted to the distribution of original work in criminology theory. She also is tributed as being on the Editorial Advisory Boards of Criminal Justice Studies, Women in Criminal Justice, European Journal of Criminology, and The American Sociologist. As mentioned previously, DR. Adler is the author to fifteen books. These books include Politics, Crime and the International scene (1972), Drug Abuse and Its Prevention (1974), A Systems Approach to Drug Abuse (1974), Medical Lollypop (1974), Sisters in Crime (1975), The Criminology of Deviant Women (1979), The Incidence of Female Criminality in the Contemporary World (1981), Nations Not Obsessed With Crime (1983), Outlaws of the Ocean (1985), Criminology and Criminology and the Criminal Justice System(1991, l994, 1998, 2001, 2004, 2007, 2010, 2012), Criminal Justice: An Introduction (1993, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2011), Advances in Criminological Theory, Volume 1 (1989) and Volume 2 (1990), New Directions in Criminological Theory (1993), The Legacy of Anomie Theory (1995), and The Criminology of the Criminal Law (1999). The majority of these books are prominent published works in the field of criminal justice and have been translated into numerous languages. Due to her distinguished published works, Dr. Adler has been given the opportunity to lecture (about her works) in nearly fifteen countries.

Feminist Approach

The Feminist Approach to Criminology first surfaced in the 1960s and 1970s as a response to the egregious lack of attention to women in crime, both perpetration, and victimization. This approach is tightly linked with the Second Wave Feminist movement of the mid-20th century, as it was at this time that it was becoming more and more evident that there was a lack of attention to women in all aspects of crime, yet incarceration rates among women were rising. The Feminist Approach attempts to explain the various gender inequities within the criminal world, such as the disparity between offenses, sentencing, and victimization.

There are a number of criminological theories that are addressed by the Feminist Approach to criminology. There are those that they developed and groomed themselves, as well as those that the Feminist theorists condemn as inapplicable to women or even omitting the idea of women in crime in its entirety. One such criticized theory amongst Feminist theorists is the Strain Theory or the theory that economic or other such difficulties are conducive to crime as a whole. This theory is criticized by Feminist theorists because the focus is placed on the barriers which block one’s economic goals, and thereby omits the existence of women in crime. They come to this conclusion through a line of reasoning based in economic gender inequity; seeing as women are given less opportunity to reach their financial goals, yet still commit less crime than men, if this theory applied to women, it would follow that women should perpetrate more crime than men, but this is not the case.

Another theory that is under scrutiny by Feminist theorists is Social Learning Theory. This theory states that one learns how to behave from those that they have bonded closely with, and in order to maintain their bonds, people will act in a similar manner to those who they observe. This theory is criticized as being non-applicable to women because it fails to take into account the gendered nature of relationships. Feminist theorists state that male deviancy could be applied to this theory seamlessly, but it fails to mention the potentially dangerous nature of male-female relationships in which the male is significantly older than the female. Intimate relationships such as these are treacherous for young women, as they would be introduced to the life of crime through their partner, who learned it from their male counterparts.

Both of these theories have room for redemption. Feminist Theorists state that, if tweaked slightly, both of these theories could also be utilized in the Feminist Approach to Criminology. Strain Theory need only add a simple facet acknowledging that the economic disparity for women does not produce more crime amongst the group. Social Learning theory should be required to acknowledge the larger possibility for women to fall victim to the life of crime at the hands of their male partners, more so than their female counterparts.

To make up for the lack of inclusion of female deviants, the Feminist Approach formulated their own theories of crime. One of which is called Feminist Pathways Theory. This theory states that crime among women is linked closely with the experiences of women. Feminist Pathways Theory places its focus on how a “woman’s place” would lead her to a life of crime, through the patriarchal standards of the criminal justice system when placed alongside childhood abuse. This theory is evidenced by the fact that girls’ first interactions with the justice system are commonly for status offenses, such as running away or consuming alcohol. Women are referred to the justice system for this type of behavior, whereas their male peers are ignored or discarded by the justice system. Women in this position are seen as needing “correcting,” whereas boys are seen as simply “being boys.” condemning women to be perceived as criminals far younger than boys, regardless of the fact that boys commit more crimes. Instead of intervening in the family relations that may be bringing about this behavior, the system sees girls as criminals, rather than those needing protection.

The other major theory brought about by the Feminist Approach to Criminology is that of Socialist Feminist Criminology. Socialist Feminist Criminology (or Theory as some prefer) states that patriarchal capitalism dictates the female experience, which leads a number of women to a life of crime. Males who are deemed as low-class commit street crimes, whereas women in the same circumstance are more likely to commit low-level larceny or fraud. This theory also addresses the victimization of women as a means to financial gain. In third-world countries, lower-class women are sexually exploited as a financial strategy, women are reduced to objects rather than human beings, for the sole purpose of men’s financial gains.

Feminist theorists also examine the gender gap, or disparity of offenses between the sexes, that is present in crime. There is a clear differentiation between the crimes committed by male and female offenders, (SAGE). This gap is more evident when observing violent crimes, such as assault and murder, but far narrower regarding property and drug offenses (SAGE). Prostitution is largely dominated by women, whereas, as mentioned above, status offenses are more recognized among female deviants, but remain on par with their male counterparts. Regardless of the types of crime women choose to commit, they mostly share a similar background, riddles with childhood and adult abuse, as well as poverty in their childhood (SAGE).

Sentencing for female offenders is analogous to the ignorance of male status offenses, but rather in the woman’s favor. The idea of chivalry born from Victorian-era society left men with a feeling of obligation to treat women in a paternal fashion and see them as their wives, mothers, or sisters. This results in lighter sentencing for crimes, rather than fair punishment and corrections. This idea coupled with the fact that crime among women is seen as a breach of social code, a violation of the “rules of womanhood,” rather than a criminal offense against the people, women is more likely to receive lenient sentences (SAGE). Women are seen as less of a threat than men by the justice system; instead of being seen as criminals, they are seen as breaching the societal rules of women’s behavior, leading them to receive less treatment than necessary, and therefore returning them to a life of crime (SAGE).

Another facet of crime that is examined by the Feminist Approach is the victimization of women. Feminist theorists have identified a correlational relationship between a woman’s victimhood and her likelihood to offend (SAGE). The vast majority of women who are currently incarcerated share a history of childhood abuse, or are victims of other long-term acts of violence (SAGE). This creates a cycle of abuse, victimhood, and offending that is so tightly wound, that there are few ways to escape once the woman is trapped.

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