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Female Crime: Gendering of the ‘Jailbirds’

A look at Australian judicial practices towards females


Female criminality has been a topic of research, novels, stories and movies for hundreds of years. You only need to explore the Bible to read how Eve was portrayed as a seductress that led Adam (man) in to temptation. With a story such as this laying the foundation to many Christian beliefs, the portrayal of women as evil is part of the culture of some societies. In this essay, I will discuss how gendering of female criminals has been part of Australian society as far back as colonial times. It is the imbalance in rhetoric when reporting on the female criminal that will be discussed and how society has perpetuated this stereotyping through to modern day. To do this I will look at how female crime was viewed around the time of Federation in Australia. The rationale for this period is that many of the crimes committed are reported from a single perspective. This makes some qualitative analysis of the use of language somewhat easier.

One of the first modern researches in to female criminality was done by the Italian Cesare Lombroso in his book, The Female Offender. Lombroso takes a biological approach to female criminality and links their behavior to certain physical traits. He also describes that part of the female’s deviance is sexual in nature and that they were predestined to criminal behavior from birth. Given that his book and research were carried out in the late nineteenth century, his work has been viewed in recent history as an example of male bias and perspective being placed on female behavior. Unfortunately, his theory of the deviant women was adopted by many scholars at the time. The prevailing concept of the times was one of the ‘proper’ female, that she was a mother and wife. If a woman deviated from these roles, then she was morally corrupt and prone to criminal behavior by not adhering to cultural standards and norms. Australian women were also expected to meet the criteria of that of the good woman. By adhering to ways of being through her appearance or speech, a women’s place was behind that of the man regarding the gender role.

Other traditional theories that were used to describe female criminal behavior were Freud’s psychoanalytical theory that women suffered from penis envy and that unless they fulfilled the proper female role they may be rejected by society. Otto Pollak describes female crime as driven by sexual motivation and that they hid their crimes by being more deceitful than men. Role Theory looks at how women attempt to be more masculine by breaking the law as crime is more associated with male behavior. An example of this can be seen in studies of Australian female larrikins in the major East Coast cities showed that in the late nineteenth century that young women, through their involvement in prostitution and gangs, rejected the feminine stereotype of the time and that they had no interest in being respectable. Howard Becker’s Labelling Theory posits that individuals who are labelled by society as being deviant then in turn accept their deviant label.

Much of the above stereotyping of female behavior can be seen in many of the ways in which women were represented in both the courts and the media at the time. This is not just a modern phenomenon either, it has been documented that women that abuse alcohol in modern times receive a disproportionate amount of attention, as they did over one hundred years ago. This is particularly the case for crimes against ‘good order’ and drunkenness for women. If we are to take the above Labelling and Role Theories as a basis for this, then one could assume that many women in a colonial environment were acting out their masculine desires and the response by society in labelling their behavior only reinforced it and led to increased recidivism by these women. But do statistics back up the assumption that female criminality was a major problem in Australia? In 1905, it was reported that 6762 cases of women that had been convicted over 20 times compared to 3830 men. These women were classed as ‘habituals’ and seen as much worse than men. In Brisbane between 1900 and 1910, there was a far higher incidence of men being drunk than that of women with a far more men being arrested. Males that were born between 1891 and 1910, compared those born in recent years, were likely to drink alcohol twice as much as females. Similarly, in Western Australia, over 90% of cases taken to the court of petty sessions were for males. When it came to capital offenses, females accounted with 13.5% but only 7% of those executed in Australia between 1842 and 1967. This less severe treatment of women regarding capital punishment is consistent with other western societies at the time.

What the above statistics highlight are the inconsistency in how numbers can, and are, presented to reflect female criminality. On the one hand, there are reports stating the high propensity of women to reoffend, yet others show that males outnumbered females in committing offences. Much has been written about drunkenness of females and whether this is a reflection on society given the skewing of numbers to male offenders. These same authors also highlight how many of the cases reported painted the female offender in an almost cause celebre in the way that they aroused interest and created discussion into the behavior of the offenders and, in these cases, broader problem of female drunkenness in society. The Truth newspaper was complicit in some of this in the case of Johanna Kane by making her appearance in court an item of interest that was not reciprocated for male offenders of the same crime. Kane was an eighteen-year-old who died in 1906 following a week-long binge drinking session.

A Royal Commission was established in Queensland in 1901 to investigate the liquor industry and identified concerns over the level of female drunkenness. During this, there was evidence of the patriarchal nature of the Australian society at the time when the Sheriff of Queensland indicated that women should not be allowed in to bars until married and that the age to enter should be thirty years of age. The implication that females could not be trusted to look after themselves and they needed a husband to do so was also echoed in the Truth in their opinion that increases in female drunkenness was due to this inability to monitor their own behavior, particularly teenage girls. Further reforms to drinking resulted in the introduction of the Liquor Act in 1912 that included increasing the drinking age for women and resulted in a perception that female drunkenness decreased and less imprisonment for public intoxication.

Parallels can be seen in Western Australia as female habitual drunks were prone to being exposed to institutional sexism via restrictive legislation and in front of the courts, further adding to the notion of bad women. The Police Act of 1892 (amended in 1902) gave the Police the ability to tackle drunkenness directly. These new discretionary powers meant that the Police could prosecute people based simply on reputation.

The treatment of female criminals by society, the press and institutions all had a commonality that displayed the need to objectify women as bad or evil. As Australia raced towards Federation and an opportunity to self-govern and put itself on display as a new nation, the need to rain in criminal behavior escalated. Paradoxically, there was a tempering of punishment when it came to some instances of capital offences for women. This informal chivalry was evident in one case when a pregnant woman was sent to the gallows only to have her life spared. However, this example is isolated, and some historians have argued that executing a female showed that the government could get tough on women at a time when female emancipation was being called for. Chivalry may have been present in some cases involving female offenders but was not a constant feature and as seen above could be easily discarded if there was another agenda at hand, such as a political gain. This distortion of the law showed mercy to some women but upheld capital punishment for others who were deemed as ‘monsters’. There is some contrast to be seen in how the good female victim is treated in capital cases against men. When a young girl was raped by three men in NSW, a secret investigation was conducted at the time to confirm her chastity. This attempt to ensure the purity of a good woman is absent when the law came to punishing women, as will be discussed below.

The male perspective of the female offender was evident in the treatment of prisoners that were sent to prison also. Although there is some justification in the shaving of prisoner’s heads to restrict lice, there is also an element of defeminizing of women through this. This is counter to the punishment that was offered to women in the form of domestic service, a type of feminizing through specific role of the time. The prevailing view that the drunkenness and sexual license being displayed by women was in direct contrast to the sense of virtue and decency they should be displaying required a lasting sign of punishment. Men were punished by the lash and therefore female offenders needed outward sign of their deviant behavior. To make the females look less feminine and then limit opportunities for prostitution, they were also limiting their abilities to find a stable life out of prison and contributing to recidivism amongst female felons.

Although the media cannot be the only medium complicit in denouncing female criminals as deviant or bad, they are very much a large contributor to this problem. At the time of Federation in Australia, the public were reliant on the written press for their news and social discourse. It would not be prudent to single out any publication as most Australian capital cities had their own mastheads. There is a common theme across the ones listed in the many academic articles into the use of gender, regarding female offenders. The Truth newspaper, Brisbane 1903, blamed the ‘knowing woman’ as a temptress that seduces young women in to a life that was similar to theirs as someone who had the ‘habit’. This is similar to Labelling Theory in that it is perpetuating the view that the hardened women are living up to the label they have been given. This view of the knowing women and subsequent trope that existed would have helped to rationalize the increase in drunkenness amongst young women. There is also evidence of sexism via institutional means by labelling female offenders as ‘bad’ and ‘worst’ type of woman, something that was not done frequently to men once they were outside the judicial system but was applied to many women.

The constructed version of the good Australian woman and the associated virtues were used to describe many of the traits of bad woman. For example, the good woman was seen as pure, clean, rationalized and domestic. The words used to describe the woman that did not fit this image were those that were opposite in meaning. Good — bad, pure — fallen, clean — dirty, rationalized — mad, domestic — homeless.

But it is not only the descriptions of female offenders from Federation time that fall prey of this gendering. Lindy Chamberlain (1981), Joanne Lees (2001) and Schapelle Corby (2004) all endured a certain trial by media with many similarities to the language used a hundred years before. The Chamberlain trial was one that is reflected upon by many academics and social commentators for its portrayal of a mother. The treatment that Chamberlain received at the hands of the media, and even worse by the law, polarized a nation and still casts a shadow on Australia today. The term ‘Lindyfication’ has even been used in describing the ordeal that Joanne Lees went through.

This essay looked to explore how female gendering has been part of the Australian female criminal history since before Federation. Public access to news has increased exponentially over the last one hundred years and we have become bombarded with online news in every aspect of our daily life. This increase in content and speed of delivery has not changed the way we view female criminals though. Gender is still a determining factor and even though there has been much work done on the effect of class and social standing, these become sideline issues to the commentary of the bad or fallen women. Although we have come so far as a society and diverse in culture, one of the first stories that many people read in The Bible of Adam and Eve, still has echoes how women are still portrayed in the writings of today.



warren coppard

Interested in history, culture, business and the pursuit of knowledge