The essentialist assumptions concerning women’s gendered position subject them to differential treatment from the criminal justice system (Jewkes, 2004: 111). This is because the law was written for men by men, without recognition that women may have the ‘same criminal potential’ (Short, 1989, cited in Knelman, 1998: 9). The image of violence that is maintained within society is based on male violence, hence, society struggles to conceptualise violence committed by women (Shaw in Dobash et, al. 1995: 122) as it does not coincide with traditional gender expectations.
Van Schie (1989) emphasises that criminal activity is stereotypically pronounced as masculine behaviour. In turn, those characteristics typical of masculinity, such as aggression, violence and dominance, are accredited to male offenders and considered to provide the main explanation for their behaviour. Abuse is believed to be a reiteration of masculinity through power, with the ability to maintain predetermined gender roles (Colton and Vanstonre, 1998).
Within western cultures, child abuse is a prominent issue as children are treated as possessions (Barnett, 2006: 426); therefore, it is not surprising that approximately 90% of abusers are male (Young in Elliott, 1993: 112) as these acts of violence are a reflection of the power of a pervasive patriarchal society that allows them to continue. Although not acceptable, male offending is deemed expectable, and abusive acts via the use of violence are justified because they are in conjunction with the constructed gender rules prescribed to men.
However, for female offenders their acts of violence, especially those against children, are seen only through a lens solely focused on their sex (Berrington and Honkatukia, 2002: 50) which is deemed the fundamental explanation in an attempt to understand their criminal actions. Female criminals are considered to be an ‘expression of…the social fabric falling apart’ (Kennedy, cited in Jones and Wardle, 2008: 58) as they are thought to be more threatening to the social structure that is centred on the production and reinforcement of the narrow boundaries surrounding gender.
They are continually judged against the ideology of the ‘ideal woman’ which regards nurturing and maternal characteristics as symbiotic of femininity. As children are held to be in need of nurturing and protection (Jewkes, 2004: 58), the assigned gender roles of women place them in a more likely position to be protective rather than abusive towards children. However, when these are defied and woman participate in acts of child abuse, Stevenson (2008, 148) argues that they are socially condemned far more harshly than men who commit the same crime.
This resembles what Crew (1991, cited in Collins, 2016: 498) describes as the ‘pedestal effect’, which ensures women are treated more punitively because they have transgressed traditional gender norms and have somehow ‘fallen from grace’. Schissel (2006: 71, cited in Collins, 2016: 297) states that this double standard in the punitive responses awarded to female and male offenders is the result of the ‘feminist push for equality’.
However, this appears to be a misconception of the ideals of feminism. Feminism strives for equality amongst men and women, not the apparent inequality that is experienced by female offenders within the criminal justice system for subverting rigid gendered stereotypes. Yet, as violence is deemed as a trait of male criminality the female offenders of the same crime are ultimately treated like men in a sense that they are not treated as ‘women’.
However, by accepting that violence and aggression are solely masculine characteristics society encourages the ‘cultural ignorance’ (Jewkes, 2004: 129) of the fact that reducing women’s violence to explanations of masculinity denies the acknowledgement that women can be violent as women and not as women trying to be like men. Nonetheless, those such as the likes of Young (in Elliott, 1993: 111-112) maintain that violence is a form of ‘male’ behaviour and that just as men are held accountable for their male behaviour, so should women for negative female behaviour.
However, all acts of violence should be regulated solely as ‘criminal’ behaviour, not divided and judged based on the gendered categories that play into stereotypes that operate to segregate men and women. This framework of masculinisation (Chesney-Lind and Eliason, 2006: 31) provides substance to the reductive concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ femininity, as female criminals question the traditional norms that present a risk of them becoming like men.
This is considered dangerous as violations of gender boundaries pose a threat to the order that serves to consent to the subordination of women by men (Seal, 2010: 7), thus, challenging the supremacy of a patriarchal society. Therefore, in order to reclaim the controlling grasp of a pervasive patriarchy and allow the ideal of the ‘good’ woman to endure, society permits the demonization of women who actively transgress the gendered margins attributed to acceptable womanhood.
The unforgiving category of the ‘fallen woman’ is attributed to criminal women as a way of distinguishing them from the ideal of the ‘good woman’. The association between female guilt and sexuality can be traced back as a far as the story of Adam and Eve (Knelman, 1998: 255), which locates women as the fundamental source of the damnation of mankind. Images of criminal women, as deviant and innately wicked, are polarised between the extremes of ‘mad’ and ‘bad’ (Frigon in Dobash et, al. , 1995: 29) as the idea of a ‘good’ woman deeply contrasts that of a criminal.
The labels ‘mad’ and ‘bad’ act as signifiers that contribute to the ‘othering’ of criminal women, considering them as wholly abhorrent and atypical of the socially accepted woman. The concept of the ‘mad’ woman is designated to the abnormality of the mind, illustrating the ‘normal’ and ‘pathological’ meanings attached to womanhood. It is a representation that plays into the stereotype of women as irrational and that criminal women act as a result of their inability to maintain the same level of self-control as men, instead acting out of emotion.
By describing them as mad it indicates that something is wrong with them, again functioning as a tool of subordination which sees the assumed mental stability of men as superior to women. In addition to the category of the ‘mad’ woman is the narrative of the ‘bad’ woman which is considered absolute and unchanging (Weare, 2016). The ‘bad’ woman is branded as the ‘monstrous’, ‘unnatural’ and ‘masculine’ female (Inchley, 2013: 193), and constructed as the antithesis of femininity who is ‘diametrically in opposition’ (Easteal, 2001: 22) with the traditions characteristic of her gender as caring and nurturing.