In January last year, during his State of the Union speech, President Obama raised his concerns about female equality, he stated that in the USA women are still unequal, and that this is not acceptable. He stated …

“Today, women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment”

One area that he didn’t mention is how women are also treated unequally from a criminology perspective. Criminology as the scientific study of crime and criminals has been criticised for being “androcentric” meaning that the research is centred and focussed around men, only to refer to women in certain types of crime.

One writer, Amanda Burgess-Proctor, recognised that to fully achieve equality, feminist principles should be applied equally across the entire spectrum of society. In her 2006 paper on feminist criminology she demonstrates the innovative “intersectional” approach, highlighting the many elements that influence criminal behaviour, and provided a feminist focus alongside the approach. Burgess-Proctor‘s intersectional approach describes how two or more influential factors can cross over and cause either a certain behaviour or a specific reaction, which can provide an effective method to look at crime and sentencing. By focussing on oppression and inequality across many aspects of society, i.e. not just gender differences but also race, sexuality, age, nationality, culture and physical capabilities the framework is able to describe a wider view of the effects these have on sentencing and crime rates.

To understand what Burgess-Proctor meant by intersectional feminist criminology, her work needs to be placed in the context of feminist history, partly to see how far it has come, but also to show what the real world implications of intersectionality in crime really are. There have been many feminist movements, all with the key similarity of aiming for gender equality, the most commonly cited are:

  • Liberal feminism
  • Radical feminism
  • Marxist feminism
  • Socialist feminism
  • Black and lesbian feminism
  • Post- modern feminism

The names themselves suggest that feminism tended to arise in pockets and lacked the overall societal force and acceptance that would drive real change. More recent views would suggest that feminist ideals and equality are becoming mainstream, however the criminal perspective still remains absent.

Through these perspectives of feminism, feminist criminology has risen in what can be seen as effectively three major waves. The first through feminist writers increasingly objecting to the fact that studies on women were not being included in mainstream research, despite the obvious impact that gender had on crime. The second wave quickly followed when although criminological research began to involve women it tended to focus on white middle class women, an obvious bias. The third wave built on this idea and started the concept of intersectionality. The debate of whether men and women should be treated equally or whether differences should be highlighted and lead to different treatment for both genders, also arose through this wave of feminism.

In this context, and against a backdrop of rising demands for racial equality, multiracial feminism added extra elements to explain the difference between genders, but also extended the discussion to identify an inclusive race-class-gender framework relevant to all, regardless of their social situation.

When placing an intersectional structure into criminological research, it is necessary to look broadly at social attitudes and beliefs. Research by Steffensmeier, Ulmer, and Kramer in 1998 provided an early look at how the American court system was influenced by a person’s social background. It concluded that when sentencing, young black males, tended to receive harsher punishments demonstrating that race influenced sentencing and a clear view that it needs to be included in mainstream research. It is highly likely that other factors such as class and sexuality also play a part in influencing sentencing, this highlights the need to study the relationship between race-class and gender and their effect on crime and punishment.

As the first black president of the USA, Obama demonstrates that race equality is closer than ever in the west. However his speech, as well as many remaining discriminative views held by certain members of society, shows that gender equality both in society and criminological research still has a long way to go. Building equality and fairness across society by changing the underpinning attitudes and beliefs takes generations. Burgess-Proctor’s paper, is now seven years old but still provides a proven and effective approach to evaluating racial, class and gender stereotypes and going some way to eliminating their influence from the criminal system. The future of feminist criminology lies, in the ability to fight for broader equality not merely gender.

This blog was written by first year Criminology student Harriet Bryan as part of the assessment for the module “ASC 111: The Criminological Imagination” last term and was based around the article: 

Burgess-Proctor, A. (2006) ‘Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and Crime: Future directions for Feminist Criminology’, Feminist Criminology, 1(1), pp. 27-47.

March 24th, 2015

Posted In: Criminology Theory

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