While criminologists insist that female offenders represent only a fraction of the crime perpetrated in our society, the numbers of female criminals appear to be growing. Some act out in male-female teams while many initiate crimes on their own. Female killers get more press than offenders in other types of crimes, yet the less violent behaviors still do reveal a lot about women who break the law.
In Good Girls Gone Bad, journalist Susan Nadler talked with a variety of women in prison and found that they tended to fit into one of several categories:
- Acting out or defying an image: People think of you in a certain way and you want to do something outrageous to prove that you're not what they think.
- Snapping: While this is a controversial diagnosis, in ordinary language it means that someone was pushed by events to the breaking point.
- Being the outlaw: they pursue crime to develop an image that they perceive as cool or working outside social boundaries. (One woman with whom Nadler talked had grown up privileged, but by the time she was 24, "Rosa" had pulled over 500 burglaries, had three men working for her, and was earning over $200,000 a year.)
- Addiction: 90% of women in prison have substance abuse problems.
- Following a role model: Especially in gangs, girls who see those they respect committing a crime tend to do the same.
- Keeping someone's attention or affection: Many women who team up with men get involved in their criminal activities as a way to keep them romantically involved. They end up in prison for crimes they might not otherwise have done.
- Obsession: Some women develop a fixation that involves crossing legal boundaries.
- Justification by the act of others: they did it and so can I.
What Nadler does not mention is that many women end up in prison because they've retaliated against abuse as a way to protect themselves and their children. The majority of violent crimes committed by women fall into this category. Some women are also duped by boyfriends or spouses to become part of an illegal operation, and they unwittingly participate and get arrested. As a Court TV movie Guilt by Association illustrated, sometimes a woman has only to pick up the phone or carry a package, and she'll get a heftier prison sentence than the maneven than many murderers.
Wensley Clarkson interviewed many women in maximum security prison, as documented in Women Behind Bars, and found females who had kicked someone to death, slaughtered family members, based a business on drugs, and hired hit men to kill someone. "Female crime is now increasing at an alarming rate," he says, "fueled by a drastic increase in drug use and the cold hard fact that many women are now having to fend for themselvesand some of them, just like their male counterparts, cannot cope."
Yet there's been little research on the nature of female aggression. In Odd Girl Out, Rachel Simmons, a trainer for the Ophelia Project, tries to raise the self-esteem of girls, discusses female bullies and the fact that little has been written about what she calls the hidden aggression prevalent in the culture of girls. She went to several grade schools and sent out requests for stories from other women about experiences in their lives with female bullies, and she was amazed at the response. While society at large supports the myth that females are "civilized" and nice, in fact, there are some who simply want to gain power and control over others, and even to harm them. They do it in subtle ways, such as a hurtful glance, passing nasty notes, ganging up, and using innuendo to ruin another girl's reputation. "If girls are whispering," says one, "the teacher thinks it's going to be all right because they're not hitting people."
Such teachers contribute by accepting social stereotypes. The damage these girls do in quieter ways can be just as devastating as a bruise or broken bone and can have residual effects throughout the sufferer's lifetime. It isn't necessarily an outsider with a chip on her shoulder who does this, either; it might be the queen bees in some clique who plan to make the life of a target girl miserable.
"The adults pass through the same rooms and live the same moments," Simmons writes, "yet they are unable to see a whole world of action around them. So, too, in a classroom of covertly aggressing girls, victims are desperately alone even though a teacher is just steps away." And sometimes those victims want to hurt someone back.
It's no wonder then, that given the opportunity, some women will freely do things that harm others. In a culture that protects female bullies and psychopaths through denial and superficial stereotypes, aggression can seep in through many forms.