Women and Violent Crime in Enlightenment Scotland.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Subject:||Books (Book reviews)|
|Author:||Wood, John Carter|
|Publication:||Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529|
|Issue:||Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4|
|Topic:||NamedWork: Women and Violent Crime in Enlightenment Scotland (Nonfiction work); Victims and Viragos: Metropolitan Women, Crime and the Eighteenth-Century Justice System (Nonfiction work)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Kilday, Anne-Marie; Durston, Gregory|
Women and Violent Crime in Enlightenment Scotland. By Anne-Marie
Kilday(Woodbridge, UK: The Royal Historical Society, 2007. x plus 183
Victims and Viragos: Metropolitan Women, Crime and the Eighteenth-Century Justice System. By Gregory Durston (Bury St Edmunds, UK: Arima, 2007. iv plus 253 pp.).
Although these two books join a now substantial literature on crime history, they consider an aspect of that topic that still remains relatively understudied: women's participation in crime, particularly violent crime. Both focus on the eighteenth century, but they have divergent approaches and tackle different geographic locations, each of which, the authors argue, possessed distinctive conditions that shaped female criminality.
Anne-Marie Kilday's examination of violent women in lowland Scotland is based upon the records of the Justiciary Court, the country's highest criminal tribunal, between 1750 and 1815. In a helpful introduction for readers unfamiliar with Scottish history, she establishes the broader legislative, judicial and cultural context before considering homicide, infanticide, assault, popular disturbances and robbery. Throughout, Kilday seeks to revise what she argues is a consensus among historians that has unfairly downplayed women's violence. She even seems to suggest that historians have internalised misogynist assumptions about women's meekness and passivity: this "bias" means they have "neglected," "ignored" or "compartmentalised" the study of violent women, causing the historiographical "marginalisation" or "ghettoisation" of female violence (22-24). Pioneering feminist histories of crime are reproached for depicting women "only" (23) as victims. Kilday aims to give women hack their "autonomy" in the realm of criminal history, highlighting their potential to be "just as capable as men of being arbitrarily bad and bloodthirsty" (22), and she also argues that Scottish women were more violent than were women elsewhere.
The high quality archival research visible in this book is unfortunately marred by a few recurring problems. Kilday depicts eighteenth-century normative femininity as so successful in imposing passive subordination that each counterexample she finds can be depicted as an astonishing example of female agency. This somewhat caricatured view of expectations about women's behaviour--whether on the part of eighteenth-century judges (who, based on the evidence here, would have encountered enough criminal women to have taken a more realistic view) or modern historians--tempts the author to exaggerate her findings: is it really "both startling and unexpected" (49) that female Scottish killers were "violent".' Is it possible to undermine a "long-held assumption that women only ever attacked other women in violent offences against the person" (99, emphasis added) if this assumption has neither been held by historians nor dominant in popular culture? Claims to "shatter expectations" (79) or "shatter the orthodoxy of passivity" (127) also evince a sometimes dismissive attitude to the work of other crime historians. Such sensational language is used in other contexts, such as statements that Scottish women were "bloodthirsty" (22), "shocking and unusually bloodthirsty" (60) and even "shocking, brutal and bloodthirsty" (78). Female robbers in Scotland engaged in "ultra-violence" in their "uncompromising" and--yes--"bloodthirsty" behaviour (146), and the author, at times, almost appears to celebrate the "typical ferocity of Scottish murderesses" (48) who were "unparalleled in brutality and ferociousness" (129).
She also seems to want to have her evidence both ways. She suggests that the Scottish legal system was particularly horrified by violent women. This would, logically, inflate their rate of prosecution; however, Kilday--despite stated caveats--tends to come down on the side of seeing those records as proof of real rates of violence. In this effort, quantitative evidence is sometimes interpreted incautiously. The proportions of prosecutions in "town" and "country" areas are compared without reference to their relative populations. More seriously, Kilday, finding that a higher proportion of accused female rioters than male rioters were also charged with aggravated assault, states not only "Scottish women do appear proportionately more violent than their male counterparts" (113) but also "women appear to have been more violent than men when carrying out collective protest" (127). These are curious conclusions considering that more than twice as many men as women were charged with rioting. Men additionally charged with assault also outnumbered women, indeed, the lower proportion of accused men also charged with aggravated assault is a statistical side effect of men being even more prone to damaging property while rioting. Kilday's data shows that more than eight times, as many male as female rioters were also charged with property damage, but she does not consider what this might mean for her claim that women were "more violent" than men.
The same problem recurs in the conclusion, where we find the argument that "Lowland Scottish females were proportionately more than twice as likely as their male counterparts to be indicted for a violent crime" (147) and that "proportionately Scottish women were more likely than men to be indicted for a violent offence" in her period (148). True, 72 percent of the women brought before the Justiciary Court were indicted for violent offences compared to only 40 percent of the men. However, assuming a roughly equal sex division in the general population, the figures she provides actually show that men were nearly twice as likely as women to be indicted for violent crimes (1294 cases versus 696); men's lower proportion among those prosecuted for violent offences at this court results, again, from their being more than seven times as likely as women to be charged with other offences (1962 cases compared to 271).
Kilday seems to imply that in order for women's violence to be seen as fully meaningful, it must achieve parity with male violence, either in terms of frequency or ferocity. Since, with a few exceptions, the former cannot be demonstrated, her emphasis falls on the latter, with repeated assertions that women could be "just as" violent (or "bad" or "iniquitous" or "bloodthirsty") as men. It strikes this reviewer as odd for such an avowedly feminist approach to insistently make male violence the historical gold standard of physical, aggression, especially since feminist historians have done much to explore the sexes' distinctive patterns of violence. Given the well-developed state of violence studies, it is also somewhat disappointing to see male aggression dismissed as "random, drunken disputes with strangers" (148) in contrast to women's more putatively purposeful approach to physical force.
It may be that Scottish women were more violent than women elsewhere, but far from overturning what we know about women and violence (the very exceptionality of the findings here should perhaps have led to more measured conclusions), this would, if true, raise questions about why Scotland was distinctive. Kilday poses interesting theories in her conclusion, but they remain cither unconvincing--Scotland was far from the only "society in economic flux" at the end of the eighteenth century (149)--or speculative. Despite somewhat heavy-handed argumentation, however, the book contains a great deal of fascinating, vivid evidence and is clearly based upon careful archival work.
Gregory Durston's recent volume on women and crime in metropolitan London in the eighteenth century is largely based on the Old Bailey Sessions Papers as well as contemporary pamphlets and newspapers, and it considers women's roles in a range of crimes--from "instrumental" property crimes and prostitution to homicide and robbery. While many crime histories have been based on these sources and centred on London, Durston's focused attention to women and effective combination of social historical background with a deep appreciation of the law (Durston is himself a barrister) make this a worthy and readable addition to crime historiography, which will be particularly useful to those seeking an introduction to the field.
The diversity of women's encounters with crime comes out quite clearly across eight chapters that are mainly organised by type of crime, and each chapter includes a careful discussion of the procedural and discretionary factors that must be taken into account in any quantitative analysis of this period's crime. Durston confirms that women were less likely than men to become involved in most crimes; however, without overstating their criminality, he asserts the necessity to give more attention to women as offenders (including as violent offenders) than has so far been the case.
Throughout, Durston emphasises the distinctive features that metropolitan life offered to women and their impact on women's involvement with crime, in particular their relatively greater degree of independence in London. Durston finds evidence that eighteenth-century female Londoners--like Kilday's Scottish women--may have been more prone to using violence; alternatively (or additionally), he suggests that they may have acted or been perceived to have acted more "like men" (65) than previously, sparking a greater willingness to prosecute them. For example, although most female killers (as is typical) committed homicides in a domestic context, female Londoners were somewhat more likely to murder strangers, which Durston links to the capital's "equalising" effect (67).
Some women were quite violent, signalled by using weapons or killing without assistance. While suggesting that "women were less 'passive' when it came to homicidal violence than is sometimes assumed," he also points out that "considerable caution is necessary when extrapolating such conclusions" from the records (63). Still, he observes, "there are sufficient examples of extreme female brutality during the 1700s to make any observer cautious over coining generalisations about the 'gentler' sex" (79). Unlike Kilday, Durston does not systematically examine the methods that infanticidal women used, but he provides a concise legal history of the offence, the only form of fatal violence in which women predominated. He strikes a subtle tone in dealing with the mixture of offending and victimisation in the crime that has historically been most associated with women: prostitution. As to women's treatment by the courts, Durston finds a pattern of general (relative) lenience combined with a selective stigmatisation for particular women who--whether because of the nature of their crime or their reputations--were punished severely. Here, Durston emphasises the extent to which non gender-specific trends--such as the growth in due process--might affect women's position in court.
One of the book's strengths is its attention to procedural issues and social factors that affected when (and in what ways) women were prosecuted. For instance, while noting chat female crime was especially prominent in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries--when they made up over a third of prosecutions at the Old Bailey (113)--Durston points out several relevant factors (arrest contexts, military recruitment, the equal extension of "benefit of clergy" to women) that shaped these figures. The author also goes beyond his legal focus to give appropriate consideration to social and economic factors, linking, for instance, broader changes in sexual morality with infanticide and considering the impact of women's employment patterns on their involvement with theft. A discussion of expert medical testimony in infanticide cases leads to a discussion of medical knowledge in the period. Durston also ranges beyond his period to discuss, for example, the precursors to and legacies of patterns in eighteenth-century infanticide prosecutions. In a few places, he offers untypical perspectives, such as his emphasis that signs of official hostility to wife beating can be seen to extend hack into the seventeenth century (even if, in practice, many of these restrictions were ignored).
There are times when the author somewhat breezily annotates some fairly broad claims by citing a single court case or an individual contemporary pamphlet. Occasionally, a more intensive engagement with existing historiography or systematic approach to the sources would also have been be desirable. Since Durston makes frequent reference to quantitative data, the absence of any tables organising and summarising his figures is regrettable.
However, Durston presents a well-balanced discussion of women's involvement in crime, and he even offers a concise summary applicable to both of the books under discussion here. Some evidence might be seen to "challenge behavioural stereotypes by indicating that, although women may he inherently less violent than men, in the right environment they are just as capable of criminal dishonesty. Nevertheless, the conjunction of circumstances necessary for this to occur appears to be highly unusual and historically very rare" (140).
John Carter Wood
The Open University
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