Although joining a gang is only an adolescent episode for some females, for others it is a turning point and a gateway to a life offering very little chance for a socially acceptable career. Researchers are divided in their assessment of gang membership for females, some arguing that it is “liberating” and some that it causes “social injury” (see Curry, 1998).
Some authors studying Mexican American gangs in Los Angeles imply that once a female leaves a gang, the gang’s influence on her life ends (Quicker, 1983; Harris, 1988), but others disagree (Moore and Hagedorn, 1996; Moore, 1991). In the 1990’s, most African American female gang members in Milwaukee regarded their gang involvement as an adolescent episode, but for Puerto Ricans in Milwaukee, as for Mexican Americans in Los Angeles, gang membership had long-term consequences. In Los Angeles, Mexican Americans who joined a gang were likely to be from families that were already stigmatized by conventional community residents. Joining a gang and wearing its conspicuous clothes further labeled them as unacceptable to the wider community. Many had joined the gang to escape abusive families, but gang membership actually constricted their futures. Membership virtually ruled out marrying nongang mates. Most female gang members married male gang members whose careers often involved repeated imprisonments. (By contrast, only one-fifth of the male gang members married females from the gang.) When they were young, these Mexican Americans, like Puerto Ricans in New York City, glamorized the gang, but on mature reflection, most felt that joining a gang had been a mistake (Moore, 1991).
Regardless of the cultural context, there is one constant in the later life of most female gang members: most have children. Most male gang members also have children, but the consequences are greater for females. When male gang members in Los Angeles were asked about major turning points in their teens and twenties, they usually talked about the gang, drugs, or arrests. By contrast, females referred to motherhood and marriage. Although most males abandoned responsibility for their children, most females reared their own children (Moore, 1991). In Milwaukee, as gang involvement in the drug business became riskier, women with children were more likely to opt for safer, if less lucrative, means of support (Hagedorn, 1998).