Ethnicity and Gender Roles in the Gang

Most female gangs are either African American or Latina, although there are small but increasing numbers of Asian and white female gangs. Autonomy and male dominance, which are ongoing issues for all female gangs, tend to vary with ethnicity. For example, gender expectations in each ethnic group might suggest that African American and white female gang members would be more autonomous and Latinas more subordinate to males. They usually are, but not always. In other words, there is no universal ethnic continuum. Indeed, some factors related to female autonomy and male dominance affect gang members regardless of ethnicity. Male unemployment and the incarceration of the many males who are convicted of illegal economic activities remove males from both Latino and African American households. As a result, women must rely on their own resources to support themselves and their children.

African American and Latina Gangs

One of the first researchers to investigate African American female gangs was Laura Fishman, who was on a team studying an African American female gang in Chicago in the early 1960’s. Later, in a reanalysis of her field notes, Fishman argued that although the women in this gang were likely to play subordinate roles, they also showed elements of autonomy, committing “male crimes” and invading rival gang territory (Fishman, 1988, 1998). Autonomy was the keynote in a study of African American female gang members in Philadelphia, PA, in the 1970’s. Most of the gangs were gender integrated and seemed to reflect gender equality: “The female is an intrinsic part of the gang’s group identity who participates in gang activities . . . rather than just ancillary activities” (Brown, 1977, p. 226). Taylor, studying Detroit gangs (1993), concurs. Former female gang members reported that even though police ignored them, they were just as involved in gang warfare, drinking, and sex as the male members of their gangs. Taylor also found females in all types of gangs—from rowdy neighborhood groups to corporate, drug-dealing enterprises.

Further evidence of autonomy among African American female gangs was found in a substantial field study comparing African American and Latina (mostly Puerto Rican) gangs in Milwaukee in the 1990’s. African American females were more likely than Latinas to feel that they, not the male gang members, controlled their gangs. By the time they had reached their late twenties, most of the African American and Latina females had ceased to participate in their gangs. African Americans were more likely than Latinas to be employed, less likely to be on welfare, more likely to have moved away from their old gang neighborhoods, and less likely to use cocaine (Hagedorn and Devitt, 1999; Hagedorn, Torres, and Giglio, 1998). The comparison showed that “[f]or Latinas, . . . gang membership tended to have a significant influence on their later lives, but for African American[s] . . . the gang tended to be an episode” (Moore and Hagedorn, 1996, p. 210).

Latina gangs (Mexican Americans in the Southwest and Puerto Ricans in New York) have been studied more than African American female gangs. Latina gangs have been continuously present in Los Angeles since the 1930’s. Interviews with a large, representative sample of Latina females and Latino males from Los Angeles gangs active in the 1950’s and 1970’s revealed considerable change. The earlier female gangs were more autonomous and, although they fought rival female gangs, they did not fight side-by-side with males. The more recent female gang members did. They were also more likely to use hard drugs (see Long, 1990) and to feel that the gang played an important part in their lives.13 In both periods, female gang members were more likely than male gang members to come from troubled families and were far more likely to have run away from home. Another study of Mexican American gangs in Los Angeles reported that even though the female gangs were auxiliaries to male gangs, they often acted independently and their cliques held firmly to an egalitarian norm (Quicker, 1983). Indications of assertiveness were also found in a study of Mexican American female gang members in Phoenix (Moore, Vigil, and Levy, 1995). However, another study in Phoenix reported a persistent and pervasive double standard among Mexican American gang members—particularly when it came to sexuality (Portillos, 1999).

Photographs copyright © 1997-99 Photodisc, Inc. New York’s Puerto Rican female gangs were first analyzed in lengthy biographies of former members (Campbell, 1984a).14 Within their gangs, females took on different roles—“loose” girls versus “good” girls or “mother figures” versus “tomboys”—but all were dominated by males. Campbell (1984b) analyzed 64 fights involving Puerto Rican female gang members and found that most were generated by domestic conflicts and challenges to honor rather than by gang issues. Opponents of females in these fights were just as likely to be male as female. Campbell argued that female gang members are deeply conservative regarding gender roles. She was also one of the first researchers to discuss the importance of motherhood to female gang members and to note their desire to maintain a reputation within the gang as good mothers (Campbell, 1987).

The number of gangs declined sharply in New York in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. However, when Puerto Ricans began going to prison in large numbers, new gangs emerged in prison and on the streets. These new gangs included the Latin Kings (Curtis and Hamid, 1997). Preliminary research on the Latin Queens (the female counterpart to the Latin Kings) corroborates Campbell’s observation that male domination in Puerto Rican gangs tends to socially isolate females (Hamid, 1996). However, in the mid-1990’s, when increasing numbers of Latin Kings were imprisoned, the females’ roles changed dramatically. The Latin Queens who remained in the neighborhood became leaders, maintaining communication between incarcerated Kings and gang members still on the streets. The street branches of the Latin Kings became distinct from the prison branches. As females became more important, these street branches became more likely to emphasize community problem solving and to discourage violence (see also Venkatesh, 1998). By the late 1990’s, the prison and street branches were in conflict (Curtis, John Jay College, personal communication, 1998). The high rates of imprisonment that have accompanied the Nation’s war on drugs may have generated similar changes in gangs elsewhere, but these changes have not yet been documented. This is an important area for research.

In Milwaukee, slight differences in perceptions of autonomy were found between Mexican American and Puerto Rican members of the major Latina gangs. (Large samples from eight gangs, including almost all members of the largest gang, were interviewed in the mid-1990’s.) Whereas Mexican Americans saw their gang as a separate, female clique of the male gang, Puerto Rican females saw themselves as part of the male gang. Hagedorn and Devitt (1999) concluded that the difference might be explained by the fact that Puerto Rican females were more likely to have boyfriends or relatives among the male gang’s leadership, which was predominantly Puerto Rican.

The number of immigrants is increasing in Latino communities, and immigrant gangs are forming in a number of cities. A study in San Francisco compared Mexican American, immigrant Salvadoran, and African American female gangs and found distinctly different patterns of sexual exploitation by male members and drug dealing activity among females from one gang to another. However, both Latina gangs—but not the African American gang—were fighting gangs and were highly territorial (Brotherton, 1996). This study supports the argument that communitywide ethnic patterns of gender relations—in particular, relative degrees of subordination—are directly reflected in gangs.

Other Ethnic Groups

White female gangs have rarely been studied except for a brief report on an Irish gang that was active in Boston, MA, in the early 1970’s (Miller, 1973).15 Members of the female gang were arrested for truancy, theft, drinking, and vandalism. According to the report, these females, known as “Molls,” wanted to be accepted by their affiliated male gang and “gloried in” their dependency on the male gang (Miller, 1973, p. 35).

A student of New York City’s Chinese gangs remarked that “[w]omen are an essential part of Chinese gangs, although they are not allowed to be members” and noted that these women were a major source of gang conflict (Chin, 1996, p. 173). Unfortunately, the author did not elaborate on this point. These Chinese gangs appear to be criminal organizations rather than traditional youth street gangs. A Los Angeles newspaper reported that there were six female Vietnamese gangs involved in violence in the Orange County area (Klein, 1995), but as with immigrant Latino gangs, there have been few studies on male Asian immigrant gangs in the mainland United States and none on their female counterparts.

Previous Contents Next

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