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Exploring Women in Violence

melal's picture

Exploring Women in Violence

   For a long time, the focus of domestic violenceand crime commitment has been put on men, who are believed as conductors of a vast majority of violence. bell hooks in her book Feminism is for Everybody (2000), yet suggests that women’s involvement in violent crime has increased over the past decade. I therefore want to explore women’s role in conducting violent crimes. What makes them commit violence? Is there a link exists between violence against women and women’s involvement in violence? Does it undermine the importance of feminism because women violence-perpetrators show the masculinity in their behaviors? This paper begins with a snapshot of violent women offenders in the US. The theories that have been proposed to explain women’s violent behaviors, as well as the factors that have been found to place women at-risk for violence, are subsequently reviewed. Finally, a discussion of women in violence and its connection with feminism and programs targeting violent behaviors among women offenders are highlighted.

   A snapshot of the federal women offender population revealed that 57% were in custody or under community supervision for having committed a violent offence. More women convicted of a violent offence were serving their sentence in an institution relativeto the community, most commonly for a robbery, assault, or second degree murder conviction. These women tended to be in their mid-30s, and more than half identified themselves as being of Caucasian ethnicity. In terms of the victimsof women-committed violence, most of them are children and women (Kelly, 2003). 

   Theories on women and violence stress the importance of processes both internal and external to the individual in understanding women’s acts of aggression. One of the most influential theories that has addressed why some women behave violently is the social learning theory initially articulated by Bandura (1978). Although not specific to women, this theory holds that modeling is central to the development of violence and is supported by the well documented finding that violent females are more likely to have experienced violence in their homes growing up than their non-violent counterparts, either between family members or as victims themselves (Babcock, 2003). Also drawing on socialization processes, personality theorists have illuminated an overcontrolled personality style among women who behave violently, while feminist theories have drawn attention to the importance of broader societal factors as contributors to women’s acts of aggression (Kurz, 1993). Models specific to domestic violence have also been proposed, and interpret women’s use of violence within the context of their own victimization histories, their experiences of childhood trauma, and the depressive and posttraumatic symptoms that ensue (Swan & Snow, 2006).

  The theories that have emerged are commendable for incorporating several of the risk factors related to women’s violence. Women’s status in a gendered society has been found to play a prominent role in their violent behavior, with low socioeconomic status, unemployment, poverty, and a lack of educational and vocational opportunities, all heightening women’s risk for behaving violently. At the familial level, witnessing violence in the family of origin and being the victim of physical or sexual abuse are significant contributors to women’s violence (Babcock, Miller, & Siard, 2003), and individual level risk factors include attribution biases, personality pathology, suicide attempts, and substance abuse (Batchelor, 2005).  

  But among all these factors, violence stands out in the lives of women who are currently in correctional facilities. Previously, the most comprehensive documentation of violence against women involved in illegal activity was reports of hearings conducted in 1985 at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York State. The Bedford Hills study established that many incarcerated women shared the experience of previous domestic and sexual violence and that the abuse they suffered was serious. Findings of a comprehensive follow-up study indicate that more than 80 percent of the women incarcerated in that same facility 10 years later had a much higher rate of past abuse and that the abuse was much more significant and traumatic.

 According to Exploring the Link Between Violence Against Women and Women’s Involvement in Illegal Activity written by Beth Richie, women, especially those who come from lower-class or disadvantaged minorities, have been victimized by violence, they may be reluctant to call the police, report abuse to other agencies, or use mainstream social services because of their marginalized social position and precarious legal status ( Beth E. Richie).  For example, women involved in prostitution or otherwise working in the sex industry are less likely to report having been raped by a customer or stalked by a pimp. Young women who are truant do not appear in data on victimization gathered in schools, and if a woman is hurt by her partner in crime during a robbery or is sexually harassed in a place where stolen goods are taken, there is little likelihood that her experience with violence will appear in official reports or research findings.

  By looking at all these factors, it is not difficult tofind a link between violence against women and women’s involvement in violence. More importantly, we can see a complex cycle exist here: women’s status in a gendered society let them easily expose them to violence with difficulties to use mainstream social services to make voice, consequently they tend to use extreme methods, such as violence or crime to express their needs and a way of releasing accumulated tension. In other words, such violence is economically motivated, undertaken for survival purposes. This makes them end up in jails or correctional facilities and be pot on a even more disadvantaged position in society.  

  At first, it seems to me that violence perpetrated by women as a symbol of the well development of feminism, because women show their ‘masculine’ desires of injuring the other person or achieving control and compliance.  However, I came to realize that I made two mistakes in regarding so. First of all, feminism has nothing to do with encourage violence; instead, feminism is about ending violence. According to bell hooks, the goal of feminism is to eliminate sexism and patriarchy, which requires ending of violence against women. If we want to challenge the wrong system, there is no reason for women to conduct violence and join the system. Moreover, feminism is not to pursue “masculinity”, otherwise the pursuit itselfis a recognition and reinforcement of patriarchy and sexism. As a matter of fact, women’s engagement in violence exactly reflects the necessity and need of feminism. As stated before, for many women committing violence is an economically motivated behavior due to their marginalized social position and precarious legal status.  What should we do in order to help improve the situation?

  I think that those who design programs to address the needs of incarcerated women or women at risk of arrest would do well to consider the correlation between violence against women and their involvement in crime. Prison-based programming, which is in dire need of gender-specific approaches, would benefit in particular. Such emphasis is consistent with the current interest in addressing the concrete needs of women while they are incarcerated, preparing them to make life changes once they are released. The National Institute of Justice, other Federal agencies, criminologists, and advocates for incarcerated women and female ex-prisoners are looking for ways to improve the reentry process and decrease recidivism. Considerable attention is being paid to minimizing the factors that contribute to re-arrest and to strengthening opportunities for women’s empowerment and reintegration into society upon release from prison.

   In a zealous effort to call attention to male violence against women reformist feminist thinkers still choose often to portray females as always and only victims. The fact that women perpetrate many violent attacks is not equally highlighted and seen as another expression of patriarchal violence. However, violence perpetrated by women offers another perspective for us to understand what feminismcan do in order to eliminate sexism. And it will be harder for the public to dismiss attention given patriarchal violence by seeing it as an anti-male agenda. 


A book foucs on women's involvement in violence: No Angels: Women who Commit Violence by Alice Myers & Sarah Wight (1996)


Swan Suzanne C. &Snow Susan L. A Typology of Women’s Use of Violence in Intimate Relationships.  Web. 20 Apr. 2012.               <,%20Snow,%202002,%20A%20typology%20of%20women's%20use%20of%20violence.pdf>.

Richie, Beth E. Exploring the Link Between Violence Against Women and Women’s Involvement in Illegal Activity. Web.20 April, 2012. <>

Babcock, Julia C. Miller, Sarah A. and Siard Cheryl. Toward A Typology Of Abusive Women. Web.20 April, 2012 <>

Bottos, Shauna. Women and Violence: Theory, Risk, and Treatment Implications. Web.20 April, 2012 <>


Anne Dalke's picture

Violating Women?

As you know, I am preparing to teach in a 360° next fall, Women in Walled Communities, which will be attending (among other things) to the experiences of women in jail; so you find in me an especially engaged reader --particularly when you get to the part of this essay where you advocate for programs designed "to address the needs of incarcerated women or women at risk of arrest."

The most interesting piece of your essay for me, however, comes @ the moment when you turn from your initial belief --that violent women exemplify feminism (because such violence shows them enacting "‘masculine’ desires of injuring the other person or achieving control and compliance")--to your more reflective awareness that feminism (@ least as advocated by bell hooks) aims "to eliminate sexism and patriarchy, which requires ending of violence against women"--along with the violence of women. What this means is that--having read some supporting material-- you end your project in the same position as hooks, lamenting women's violence (both what they suffer as well as what they commit) as an index to their social, economic and legal marginalization.

My question (as always) has to do with next steps. If the violence of women, like the violence perpetrated against them, is the result of--and an expression of/response to --their oppression, what might be some productive interventions into that dynamic? How to begin to reduce the incidence of this phenomenon?

This project still needs some editing, btw, for smoother sentences, as well as an alphabetized and fuller bibliography (Kelly? Bandura? --and that wierd cover for what looks like a vampire story?).