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Dangerous women: Constructions of female criminality in Western Australia 1915-1945

Farrell, Rita (1997) Dangerous women: Constructions of female criminality in Western Australia 1915-1945. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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In the last three decades the subject of female criminality has received a great deal of attention. Many studies have criticised existing models of male-oriented criminology and have attempted to formulate femaleoriented models. Others have analysed patterns of female offending in an attempt to explain the motivations for particular types of offences. This thesis does not offer explanations for offences; nor does it address patterns of offending. Rather, it examines the rates of prosecution and conviction on a broad range of offences to assess the treatment that women received once they entered the criminal justice system as offenders.

Despite the attention devoted to female criminality in the last thirty years recent studies indicate that the differential treatment of female offenders remains unexplained. Three distinct arguments have been put forward to account for the way in which female offenders are dealt with by the courts: the chivalry or paternalist thesis argues that women are treated more leniently than men; the 'evil woman' hypothesis contends that women are dealt with more harshly; and the 'equal treatment' theory is based on the contention that the criminal justice system does not discriminate between the sexes.

This thesis argues that these hypotheses are merely variations of an argument which assumes that gender is the only explanatory framework within which the treatment of female offenders can be understood. It argues that the treatment women received in the criminal justice system throughout the period under review was dependent on a number of factors: the degree to which these women conformed to prevailing gender expectations; the nature of the offences with which they were charged; the differing philosophies of the Police Act and Criminal Code which defined those offences; and, significantly, the culture of the courts within which the offences were heard.

In analysing a broad range of offences over a thirty year period, the treatment of women as offenders is placed firmly within a social context. Far from assuming that the law operates as a neutral discourse, this thesis argues that the criminal justice system was one of the mechanisms by which the social order was managed and that the criminal laws were interpreted within the broader frameworks of the need to maintain social stability and the prevailing understandings about the nature of femininity.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Division of Social Sciences, Humanities and Education
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Reece, Robert and Layman, Lenore
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