What are the Causes of Female Crime?

Darie Klein (The Etiology of Female Crime: A Review of the Literature, 1973) offered a summary of much of the literature on causes of female crime discussed by Lombroso, W.I. Thomas, Kingsley Davis, and Otto Pollak.

According to Klein, the shared assumptions running through the works of all these persons include the proposition that female crime is the result of physiological or psychological characteristics of individuals, with little or no recognition being given to the importance of social-structural factors.

These physiological or psychological traits of women offenders were usually viewed as pathological distortions or departures from the normal, inherent nature of women.


As per this view, these females were seen as disposed towards characteristics such as aggressiveness which is a violation of their true nature. Individual counseling was therefore suggested for crime control, through which errant women could be drawn back into ‘proper’ feminine behaviour.

Freud (Cf. Simon, Women and Crime, 1975: 2-9) offered a physiological explanation of female criminality holding that normal women accept and internalise societal definitions of femininity but women criminals suffer from ‘masculinity complex’.

Thus, normal women exhibit ‘normal’ feminine traits but criminal women exhibit perversion of or rebellion against the biologically natural female role. Critics have described these arguments as defective because they contain erroneous assumptions about biological characteristics of women.

W.I. Thomas (The Unadjusted Girl, 1923) described female deviancy as departure from conduct that is biologically and psychologically ‘normal’ for women.


Kingsley Davis (“Sociology of Prostitution”, in American Sociological Review, October 1937) presented a functionalist interpretation of prostitution, arguing that it arises in circumstances where demands for sexual novelty cannot be supplied within the framework of damage and/or where some males are cut off from access to sexual partners because they are unmarried or are at a sexually competitive disadvantage.

Commercial prostitution arises as a black-market in sex. The problem with this theory is that it supports the thesis that the only proper role for women is that of a child-bearer and housewife.

Pollak (The Criminality of Women, 1950) asserts that women crimes are characterised by deceit and double standards. Just as physical weakness forces a woman to resort to deception, the use of physical charm enables her to attract the victim.

Poisoning a child or an adult at home, sexual crimes, shoplifting and other thefts, abortions, etc. are easily hidden by them.


Greater freedom has allowed them to enter new positions and new roles, thereby giving them more opportunities for participation in crime. Maintaining double standards by women also helps create female crime because it leads to frustrations and envy on their part.

It pushes them to false accusation against men (charges of rape, for example). However, Pollak’s propositions are not based on any evidence. In fact, some statements made by him are described as ridiculous and biased. Pollak has paid more attention to petty crimes committed by them and ignored their serious crimes like murder, robbery, etc.

Freda Adler (op. cit., 1975) studied prostitution, drug addiction, and juvenile delinquency among females. She has attributed these crimes to the liberation movement of women and women’s assertiveness.

She contends that educated girls and women are more willing than ever to challenge traditional restrictions and social roles. The easing of restraints on women is further likely to increase female crime.


Empirical studies conducted on female crime in India have by and large supported this author’s etiological explanation. B.R. Sharma (1963) concluded in his study that strained interpersonal relations with husband and other family members, husband’s extra-family relations, deprivation and denial of basic needs of life (like affection, security, etc.) were the main causes of frustrations and ultimate crimes.

Rani Bilmoria (1980) and Sohoni Neera Kuckreja (1986) also supported this author’s theory of family maladjustment as cause of female crime. Let me, therefore, analyse my study on female crime and discuss the hypothesis regarding the role of “family maladjustment” or “role conflict in family” in female criminality. We will first examine the crime of murder.

My study revealed that in 77 per cent cases, the victim was the member of the offender’s family, in 5 per cent cases, he/she had kinship relationship with the criminal, in 9 per cent cases, he/she was her neighbour, in 8 per cent, he/she was the member of her village community, and in less than 1 per cent cases, he/she was a complete stranger.

This shows that in 99 per cent cases, the female offender had primary relationship with the victim. Of the 77 per cent cases in which the victim was a member of the respondent’s family in 92.2 per cent cases, he (the victim) was a member of respondents family of procreation and only in 7.S per cent cases, was he a member of the family of orientation.


Of the 92.2 per cent cases in which the victim was a member of the female criminal’s family of procreation, in 57.9 per cent cases, the victim was ego’s husband, in 18.9 per cent cases, ego’s own child, in 4.2 per cent cases, ego’s secondary kin (SoWi, SoSo) and in 19 per cent cases, ego’s husband’s primary or secondary kin.

This fact of the victim being usually a kin or a close associate of the offender in crimes of murder was also discovered by Bullock (1955: 572) in his study of urban homicides in Texas, by Svalastoga (1956: 40) in his study of 172 Danish cases, and by Sutherland (1950: 548) in his study of 324 murders by females. Wolfgang (1958: 212), however, had found such relationship only in 23.13 per cent cases in his study of 588 homicides in Philadelphia.

In the cases where the victim was the respondent’s own child, the murder was committed either because the child was illegitimate or the woman was afraid of social ostracism, or in a moment of extreme danger because of an altercation with the husband.

Thus, in about four-fifths cases, husband-wife relationship proved quite an important factor in the causation of murder.


In 45.5 per cent cases, the cause was illicit relations of the offender with some man; in 10.9 per cent cases, it was illicit relations of the victim with some woman; and in 27.3 per cent cases, it was conflict with husband and/or ill-treatment by husband. This proves the validity of our hypothesis of family maladjustment as the main cause of female criminality.

Not only in murders but also in other crimes, family was found to be an important factor in criminality. For example, in excise offences, when husband was arrested for illicit distillation, his wife too was arrested for helping the husband in illegal activities.

In these cases, the wife merely helped her husband in his economic pursuits because of her dharma (religious duty) and not because of any desire to violate the social or legal norms.

Similarly, in one case of theft (in which 4 men and 3 women of a Gujar family were arrested, convicted and given one year’s imprisonment), the male members of one Gujar family stole the cows and buffaloes of other Gujar family with which they had a family feud.

While returning from the village with the animals, they were arrested by the police. Since women accompanied men, they too were arrested and penalised.

This case also shows that women were labelled ‘criminals’ not because they had ‘criminalist tendencies’ but because their family male members were so labelled. My contention is that most of the thefts committed by women are not the result of psychological or social aberrations but are due to family and economic compulsions.

Women convicted for minor thefts are mainly housewives who usually lack money to be able to buy things which were later stolen. Many a time, they steal to ‘stretch their budgets’. The lower-class social status of women convicted for thievery is a further proof of our hypothesis.

In crimes of above types, women arrested play secondary/supportive roles. Their involvement in the offence is closely tied to woman’s role as a wife. They seem to commit crimes in roles auxiliary to men, in keeping with their sex roles. They are, therefore, not to be treated as sole perpetrators of these crimes. Our hypothesis regarding the role of family in female criminality is thus fully justified.

Simon (1975) and Adler (1977) have explained the recent increase in the incidence of female crime in terms of the breakdown of prevailing patterns of ‘sexual inequality’. According to Simon, increased labour-force participation of women and other developments in the direction of sexual equality have expanded the crime opportunities and pressures towards law-breaking among women.

According to Adler, a growing trend towards female assertiveness, manifested in the contemporary women’s movement in the United States as well as in other ways, has led to consequences in the area of criminality.

These explanations do not explain crime situation in India in spite of the fact that in our country too there is a Women’s Liberation Movement. But this movement is confined to the urban areas whereas a large number of female criminals in our society come from the rural areas where women never talk of equal rights with men and there is no breakdown of sexual inequality.

We, therefore, cannot hold the view that in India as labour-force participation increases, opportunities to engage in criminality would expand for women as well.

Could we examine ‘adult female crime’ in terms of factors offered for explaining ‘delinquency in young or adolescent girls’?

Some of the factors suggested are: family tensions or ‘under-the-roof culture’ (Gibbons, 1976: 169), self-concept deficiencies and perceptions of lack of opportunity (Datesman et al., 1975: 107), excessive weight or other physical problems (Cowie et al., 1982).

My contention is that it is not the physical and psychological factors which account for female crime but it is the non-harmony and instability in family relationships or disintegration of family life which mainly explain crime among women.