For generations, crime has been associated with maleness in our society.
Reporting, recording, and writing about crime all reflected a basic value system in which the male role was dominant. Men were considered the primary perpetrators of most deviant activities. They were both the feared and revered participants in this sub-rosa world.
The few women discovered joining in criminal activities were regarded with distaste but were not treated too severely by the courts. But neither did they receive the full protection of the law - men were free to pursue many of their illicit pleasures, such as prostitution, with little fear of moral or legal recriminations, even though females were often the abused participants and victims.
This male dominance of the criminal world is now beginning to change.
As sociologist Freda Adler has noted recently, another generation of women will enter this criminal world, "a generation who, as girls, will think it perfectly natural to become carpenters or architects or steeplejacks or senators; a generation who will dream of running away from home to join the circus or growing up to become desperados or gunslingers."
The traditional view of the role of women in crime is thus responding to changes in the role of women in our society at large. But the emerging picture appears full of contradictions and conflicts.
According to arrest data, women's involvement in property crime, such as theft, embezzlement, and fraud, has increased dramatically in the last decade, with the arrest rate among females rising almost three times faster than that among males. Still, the rate of female arrests is only about one-third that of men. Female arrests for violent crimes, such as assault and homicide, have remained relatively low and stable.
Consistent with traditional sex roles, prostitution is a relatively frequent female crime. Male customers, in all but a few cities, are ignored as parties to a criminal act.
The statistics on rape indicate almost a fourfold increase in male arrests in the last 15 years, but obtaining a conviction for this charge is still very difficult.
Furthermore, although men are reported and arrested for rape, the primary accusations and stigma still fall on the female victims. For example, a Wisconsin judge recently declared rape a "normal" reaction of a teen-age boy to women's revealing clothing and a sexually permissive society.
In the judicial system, data from courts indicate that in the past women have tended to receive preferential treatment in terms of charges, convictions, and sentences. In some states, for some types of offenses, female still are treated more leniently than males, but there are signs of increasing equity or even more severity in convictions and sentences for women.
Nevertheless, women still are less likely than men to be sent to prison.
Furthermore, if they do go to one of the few female institutions, they will find that there are fewer training and rehabilitation opportunities than in men's institutions, although the actual living conditions also tend to be less severe.
How, then, do we make sense out of this changing situation? Several factors have to be considered, including traditional societal sex roles and their supporting sterotypes. These sex roles have had a strong impact upon the ideologies and practices of those who attempt to control crime.
The traditional activities for women in our society have revolved around the wife-mother and sex-object roles.
In the past, female involvement in crime has been seen as an outgrowth of these roles.
A woman might have been a shoplifter, child abuser, or prostitute and was probably motivated by her relationships with men, emotional instabilities, or sexual maladjustments. It was assumed that such traditional roles provided both the framework as well as the restraining factors for female participation in criminal activities.
It is within this cultural background that citizens and criminal justice personnel responded to female criminals. Witnesses and victims of female crime were hesitant to take action against women since they felt women needed society's protection and probably were not particularly dangerous anyhow.
Similarly, police exercised more discretion when they encountered a woman in criminal activities, and they seldom either brought her in or charged her with an offense. Courts also tended to be lenient with the relatively few women who appeared before them.
However, this paternalistic and preferential treatment has its costs. Throughout the criminal justice system, "a fallen woman" often experienced discriminatory, severe treatment. For example, prostitutes were regularly rounded up and treated with disdain; rape victims were embarrassed and humiliated.
These same themes and sterotypes were embodied in the scant social science studies on women and crime until very recently.
Many writers from a variety of disciplines offered social, economic,political, and psychological explanations of male involvement in criminal activities, but the few social scientists who focused on females emphasized primarily biological and/or psychological factors.
Women involved in crime were either maladjusted psychologically, inferior biologically, or had failed to adjust to the expectations surrounding traditional roles. These ideas prevailed until the 1970s.
The contemporary women's movement that began in the late 1960s has had at least an indirect impact on crime and sex roles.
The movement has resulted in increased awareness and sensitivity to changing sex roles on the part of the general public, criminal justice personnel, and women themselves.
There have been pressures for official agencies to alter their policies and practices and there is some evidence this is happening. For example, sociologist Rita Simon interviewed police, prosecutors, and others in the criminal justice system, discovering this recurrent theme: "If it's equality these women want, we'll see that they get it."
If, indeed, this attitude is reflected in official behavior, then we would expect that there would be some decline in preferential treatment for women in the criminal justice system.
We could surmise, then, that some of the increase in reported female crime could be accounted for these changes in official policies.
However, these same changes will mean that equal protection will increase, and that the often degrading and discriminatory treatment of women will decline.
We can speculate about other changes in sex roles and their impact on patterns of crime. For example, close to 50 per cent of all women participate in the labor force, and increasing numbers are pursuing higher education. However, the majority of women still are employed in relatively low status clerical and service occupations and are not compensated for their labors commensurate with their training. Nevertheless, women are increasingly involved in activities similar to those of men.
Some social scientists believe that expanded roles for women will influence the motivations and opportunities for female involvement in crime. Females will acquire aspirations, expectations, and experiences beyond traditional roles - both legitimate and illegitimate.
Women will learn about the financial world, firearms, physical force, and other heretofore exclusively male realms. Their move into a wider variety of occupational and scoial rolds will provide the necessary settings and opportunities for criminal activities, even the motivation and skills for violent crime. However, these changes are bound to be slow and will probably not result in dramatic increases in total female crime.
This means that when women are so inclined they will not have to depend on their relationships with men to enter, participate, or direct their criminal activity.
In the future, then, we can expect a gradual increase in female participation in a wider range of criminal activities. At the same time, as our value system changes, some predominantly female crimes such as prostitution probably will be decriminalized.
Another long-term effect of changing sex roles will be the increased proportion of women entering occupations in the criminal justice system. Already cities are hiring more policewomen, more female lawyers are practicing criminal law, and women judges are becoming less of a curiosity. Indeed, these changes are becoming so accepted that they are reflected in television programs such as "Police Woman."
The overall effect should be increased equality and due process for both men and women in the criminal justice system.