1920's Female Criminality Discussion/Mar 1998


Query From Mara Dodge mdodge@udel.edu 25 Mar 1998

I have just completed my dissertation on the history of women's imprisonment in Illinois, and found that female prisoners served much harsher sentences in the 1920s than during any previous decade. It also appears that the state was far more willing to sentence white women (as opposed to African-American, who had previously represented 50% of the prison population) to prison, even for first-time offenses, and even though Illinois only had a custodial rather than a reformatory-style institution.

Does anyone know of any references re: attitudes towards female criminality in the 1920s? This is also the decade in which female criminals begin to gain more national notoriety as "gun molls," "girl bandits," and evil temptresses leading men astray. Thanks for any help.

Responses:

From Genevieve G McBride gmcbride@csd.uwm.edu 26 Mar 1998

You might find it useful to look at studies of media coverage in the 1920s. For example, historian John Stevens in *Journalism Quarterly* found social control theory a possible explanation for his findings that amounts of media coverage of disgraced divorcees, murdered married women in "love triangles," fallen women, etc., soared in that era, especially out of proportion to actual incidence. ...See also *Journalism History* and several standard texts in the field.

From Andrew August axa24@psu.edu 27 Mar 1998

On images of female criminality, you might look at my colleague David Ruth's Inventing the Public Enemy: The Gangster in American Culture, 1918-1934. It has a chapter on gender in the gangster myth.

From Tim Hodgdon Tim.Hodgdon@asu.edu 27 Mar 1998

In a vein related to Genevieve McBride's suggestion (see below), you might also consider Jane E. Larson's article on the law of seduction, which includes a discussion of the concurrent movement to repeal the "heartbalm" statutes in the early decades of the twentieth century. Jane E. Larson, "'Women Understand So Little, They Call My Good Nature "Deceit"': A Feminist Rethinking of Seduction," *Columbia Law Review* 93, no. 2 (March 1993): 374-472.

From Donna Crail-Rutozke crail@pioneer.nevada.edu 27 Mar 1998

After reading your post, I wonder how many of your women were convicted of prohibition offenses and how many were immigrants. The criminalization of liquor may have increased the number of women in prison. Criminal justice authorities may have cared more about punishing white women than African American women because white offenders may have been more likely to sell alcohol to whites. Prosecutors may have been more concerned about the destructive influence of alcohol on whites than African Americans.

Another aspect you may want to examine is the attitude toward immigrants during the 1920s. Immigrant women may have not enjoyed the same benefits as white native born women. Anxiety about immigration may account for increasing numbers of white women and men in prison.

I am not suggesting that you exclude attitudes toward gender from you work. You may, however, want to examine and compare the sentence men received during the 1920s. If men, especially white men, received longer sentences, than gender attitudes alone will not explain the longer sentences of your female offenders.

Currently, I am researching a similar project on gender and ethnicity in Southwestern prisons. I am interested in knowing if you or any of the members of this list have encountered the Edmunds Tucker Act of 1887. This federal law made certain types of cohabitation illegal including adultery. I am wondering if criminal justice officials mainly enforced this law in the territories or if it also was enforced in the states.