A Dark Double Bind: Criminal Women in the Eyes of Reformers

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As part of a summer research project sponsored by the Women and Leadership Archives at Loyola University and the Carolyn Farrell, BVM, Professorship in Women and Leadership, I created an online exhibit exploring how the women of the Chicago Woman’s Club (CWC) shaped ideas about crime and proper womanhood around the turn of the twentieth century.  My research yielded troubling questions about the ways in which we historically—and contemporarily—talk about violent femininity.

I encourage you to explore the exhibit for some delightfully colorful language that makes the early Progressive Era an entertaining period of study.  In the meantime, here’s the main gist: the white affluent women of the Chicago Woman’s Club considered it within their distinct purview as wives and mothers to protect and reform delinquent children and criminal women in order to make Chicago a better, safer city.  Members of the CWC saw criminal women and delinquent children as both causes and victims of urban crime, a perspective which positioned the clubwomen as saviors of the women, children, and the city.

It’s tempting and perhaps appropriate to laud the women of the CWC for embracing a civic responsibility to assist the poor, the criminal, and the city.  At the same time, however, clubwomen failed to recognize their role in perpetuating and benefiting from an economic system that created the poverty they abhorred.

The most striking aspect of the CWC’s work, however, is the way in which members talked about criminal women and delinquent children as targets of reform.  Clubwomen spoke of protecting and reforming wards of the state, implying and explicitly stating that women and children were victims of the disorderly city.  Through industriousness, proper dress, and respectable leisure, criminal women and delinquent children could become acceptable members of society.

By viewing women and children as unwitting causes and victims of urban disorder, clubwomen failed to see crime, delinquency, and violence as meaningful acts by sentient humans.  Violent women in particular were considered neither threatening like criminal men nor appropriately feminine like club women.  Caught in a dark double bind, criminal women were denied full agency by reformers.  Even the fact that the Chicago Woman’s Club employed similar strategies in dealing with criminal women and delinquent children points to a long historical tradition of infantilizing women and their capabilities.

Contemporary parallels abound.  Do we discuss criminal women today with the same gravity that accompanies tales of masculine violence? Do we endow violent femininity with the legitimacy that we afford state-backed violence?  Perhaps more importantly, is there a way to talk about violent femininity that neither celebrates violence nor robs women of human agency?

Undated image from the Chicago Woman’s Club collection at the Women and Leadership Archives, Loyola University Chicago.

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