Anyone with moderately feminist sympathies and a political turn of mind is likely to find reflecting on the history of ideas about women and crime an unsettling experience. It evokes complicated reactions: anger at injustice compounded by paternalistic hypocrisy; despair at the tenacity of stereotypes, however false or contradictory; incredulity and even hilarity at the sheer ludicrousness of some of the ideas peddled in the name of science. Successive generations of criminologists (I need hardly say, most of them male) have struggled to come to terms with what is still the single most striking feature of criminal statistics: the very small number of women, compared with men, who commit crimes. While the criminologists' theories can be pretty clearly divided into those which espouse biological explanations and those emphasising differences in socialisation and opportunity, both camps are equally inclined either to pathologise or to infantilise women offenders. Some criminologists, with admirable scientific scepticism, even deny the validity of the statistics. In a brilliant combination of all that is worst in the history of criminology, Otto Pollak, writing in the Fifties, suggested that women's natural capacity for deception, which he related to their capacity to fake sexual arousal, enabled them to conceal large numbers of crimes committed in the course of the domestic round. Given that this counted as academic endeavour in the mid-20th century, it not surprising that it is F. Tennyson Jesse's novel A Pin to See the Peepshow, published in 1934, which represents the period's most perceptive analysis of the influence of gender on the social and legal construction of crime.
LRB 19 November 1992 | PDF Download