International women’s day – formally international working women’s day – is the yearly celebration of the political, economic, and social contribution of women over time and around the world. International Women’s day is also a valuable chance to raise awareness of the many challenges still facing women today, and an opportunity to promote a fairer, more equal society.
Should the recognition of women’s contribution, and the fight for equality, start and end with those who stay within the perimeters of the law? Perhaps when we look closer, a large proportion of female offenders both past and present are those most suffering from some of the legacies centuries of entrenched patriarchy have left.
For many in the nineteenth century (as well as in some more modern historical accounts of the Victorian period), ‘criminal’ women often constituted their own, separate tier of society. In the minds of many authorities, and Victorian elites, criminal women – be they serious habitual property offenders, or low level public order offenders like prostitutes, or those convicted of drunk and disorderly behaviour – contributed nothing to the running or advancement of society. In fact, women who committed crime were considered in many ways to be worse than their male counterparts, they threatened the highly gendered social order of the period- and even worse, were primarily responsible for the physical and moral degeneration of the nation.
There are of course a small minority of WaywardWomen who fitted very closely to this stereotype. Those women who perhaps chose not to work, and subsisted solely by criminal means, and most particularly those whose violent and disturbing crimes seem to defy all rational explanation, or logic.
However, in stark contrast to these few cases, over three-quarters of the WaywardWomen were employed either before or during the period when offending took place. These women were the factory operatives, shop assistants, domestic servants, barmaids, and general labourers that helped to build and operate modern Britain. They were also the street sellers, laundresses, and piece workers that served the more fortunate in society. For a good number of these women, it was the failure of society to fully recognise these contributions (a problem that remains today) which in many ways determined their offending.
Cecilia Tierney (pictured above) could not earn enough money to feed herself, her elderly mother, and her illegitimate daughter Ellen, she held multiple convictions for theft of small amounts of food.
Most working class women in Victorian England were eligible only for the poorest paying and most menial of jobs in any industry, the best paying and most senior jobs would almost uniformly be held by male workers. Likewise, a failure to properly recognise the separate needs of female employees – provision for childcare being a major example – could also lead to some of the most troubling female offences.
Emily Church (pictured above), killed her eighteen month old daughter when the cost of child care outstripped her wages.
Most importantly, the sexual double standard that permeated most kinds of employment held many female workers to a higher moral and behavioural standard than their male colleagues. This double standard, could see a woman fail to gain a job, and even lose employment depending on the judgement of her ‘respectability’ and ‘reputation.’ Likewise, the number of recidivist women more often than not outnumbered that of recidivist men in this period because regaining respectability after a conviction was a far more important for women, but practically this achievement was made much more difficult for them.
Jane Colebrook (Pictured above) found it increasingly difficult to find work as a dressmaker after summary convictions for drunk and disorderly behaviour at the age of seventeen. Jane spent the latter years of her life working as a prostitute.
Of course we are right to acknowledge that in the past, as now, personal agency and choice must always play a role in offending. It is also right to acknowledge that not all crimes are a product of inequality, nor that everyone suffering at the hands of inequality will go on to offend.
Yet until we fully address the issue of a sexual double standard by acknowledging the role and contribution of women in every society, until we fully achieve equal rights and opportunities regardless of sex or gender, and until patriarchy rules no more, can we really be surprised if the historical outcomes of inequality – of which crime is just one example -continue to repeat themselves?
This was originally posted on Lucy’s website, Wayward Women, and can be found here.
Lucy Williams has just finished her third year of a PhD at the University of Liverpool, her thesis traces the lives and experiences of female offenders in Victorian England and is due for submission in 2014. For the last year or so she’s been running the blog and social media associated with Waywardwomen. Her broader academic interests include women’s and gender history, feminism, history of crime, digital histories, and the social history of the nineteenth century.