Early Reports: A History of Stereotypes

Gangs are studied because they are of social concern. That concern stems from typically “masculine” acts of vandalism, violence, and other serious threats. It was often assumed that females did not take part in such behavior, so early researchers were not interested in the delinquency of female gang members.2 Researchers and journalists saw gangs as a quintessentially male phenomenon. Thus, most early reports focused on whether female gangs were “real” gangs or merely satellites of male groups. One review concluded that in these early studies, “girls were defined solely in terms of their . . . relations to male gang members” (Campbell, 1990, p. 166).

“Sex objects or tomboys”—these are the images that, until recently, dominated the literature on female gang members. Individual females were portrayed in terms of their sexual activity, with an occasional mention of their functions as weapon carriers for male gang members (e.g., Spergel, 1964). Even when describing female gang members as tomboys, researchers emphasized that the females’ motivations were focused on males. Miller (1973, p. 34), for instance, explained that “the behavior of the [girls] . . . appeared to be predicated on the assumption that the way to get boys to like you was to be like them rather than [sexually] accessible to them.” Campbell (1984a) points out that “sex object” and “tomboy” are both variants of the “bad girl” role. Good girls are modest and feminine; bad girls are not.

These studies were conducted before women entered the labor market in such large numbers as they do today. It was an era when most people viewed homemaking as the only acceptable goal for women. The studies reflected the widespread notion that for males, gang membership might involve delinquency, but it does not violate gender-role norms. However, gang membership for females was more shocking because it involved real deviance and seriously violated gender-role norms.

The accuracy of early descriptions of female gang members as sex objects and tomboys is difficult to judge because there are not enough reliable data in these reports. Most historical information about female gangs comes from journalists (e.g., Asbury, 1927; Rice, 1963), who were likely to emphasize the sensational, and from social workers (e.g., Hanson, 1964; Welfare Council of New York City, 1950), who were likely to emphasize members’ personal problems. Both sources fed the “bad girl” stereotype.

However, in retrospect, the early skepticism about whether female gangs were “real gangs” seems odd. It seems to have been based on a very narrow view of what a gang really is. Gangs—male and female alike—differ greatly from one another. Those differences affect the behavior of young members and their chances of maturing into conventional, law-abiding adults. A female gang may be autonomous or allied with a male gang, or female gang members may be part of a fully gender-integrated gang (Miller, 1975). Unfortunately, there is not enough information to determine how each kind of gang structure affects the members’ behavior (Miller, 2000a). Existing information does indicate, however, that joining a gang—regardless of the gang’s structure—is a significant act for an adolescent female, often with important consequences later in life.

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Female Gangs: A Focus on Research Juvenile Justice Bulletin March 2001