Historical perspectives within criminology are undergoing a renaissance, particularly in relation to the study of gender and crime. With the development of digital archives, the future looks set to develop our understanding further.
Contemporary scholars need to be aware and tread carefully in the interpretation of historical sources, which are dogged by a series of methodological flaws.
History has demonstrated quite clearly that crime was an activity perpetrated overwhelmingly by men. It has also confirmed women’s presence in all categories of crime (both violent and non-violent forms), albeit to a lesser extent. Despite the expectation that some women would claim their share of criminal activity as their roles in public life increased and barriers to gender equality were removed, the historical evidence has not borne this out. This remains a persistent gendered reality in the twenty-first century.
Adopting a historical perspective enables us to provide a more critical reading of the present, identifying both change and continuities in the past and present in the study of gender and crime.
We have argued that considerable continuities can be identified, particularly in relation to contemporary concerns about the rise of the ‘new’ female offender – history demonstrates an enduring societal anxiety about the criminality and deviancy of women and girls and their transgression of the legal, social and moral order.
In relation to the female offender we have identified a range of persistent cultural myths over time, i.e. that she is not violent; she is more likely to be mad than bad; that she is a liar and deceiver; that through her sexuality she is both dangerous and risky; and lastly, that she is in need of both care and control.
A historical perspective has also afforded us an insight into the construction of ‘respectable’ and ‘unrespectable’ masculinities over time.