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Understanding the Female Offender, Final Report

NCJ Number
Date Published
June 2006
38 pages
To better understand the female offender, this federally supported study examined how social capital generated via commitments to marriage, motherhood, and work influenced women’s desistance and the influence of women’s personal motivation to change.
The results of the study support the contention that social capital and personal agency are implicated in the desistance process (to cease doing something). Specifically, the findings indicate that theoretical developments linking male desistance to the accumulation of adult social capital are applicable to women. The marriage effect is a prime example of the gendered and historically specific ways in which these key processes operate. The centrality of marriage to the desistance process may be historically contingent, such as marriage becomes less accessible; its role in the desistance process becomes less prominent. Marriage among the women in the sample was important because of the social control it induced and because it legitimized women’s sexual behavior, reducing the likelihood to illicit sexual behavior. Findings also suggest that work operates in gendered and historically contingent ways. Among the key predictors of desistance for these women was the ability to leave the job market and live as a homemaker. The type of job women secure also proves important with domestic work, in particular being implicated in desistance. The findings indicated that embracing the role of motherhood hastened desistance. The findings suggest that social capital was central to desistance for these women because key forms of adult social capital (marriage, motherhood, and work as a homemaker) were also a reflection of a broader commitment to conventional social norms regarding women’s place in the social world. Utilizing historical data on 500 female offenders collected by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck in the 1920s, the study supported by the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice analyzed the centrality of social capital and personal agency to women’s official offending trajectories. It focused on these dynamics in the context of working class women institutionalized in the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women in the 1920s. Tables, references

Date Published: June 1, 2006