In most countries around the globe, the criminality rate is much higher amongst men rather than amongst women. In fact, the word criminal tends to be associated with men as if they are more inclined to break the rules. This stems from the effects of socially built gender stereotypes in conjunction with negative associations with criminality.
The gender schemes operate in binary systems, dividing things between the opposites male and female, which establishes the roles and characteristics for men and women in society. Most commonly, the roles socially attributed to women are related to family and motherhood. Think of being a housewife, taking care of domestic functions and raising children. From these roles stem stereotypes like being kind, emotional, weak, peaceful, submissive, et cetera. The image of a criminal, on the other hand, is constructed in the opposite direction: It embodies characteristics of violence, evil, anger, subversion, uncontrol, and so on. Criminals are often seen as cruel, monsters who push against the order of the state and society. Women and crime, then, are built to be opposite concepts.
There is a clear cleavage between criminal activity and the “womanly” behaviour of a domestic(ated) being. How can a mother, an angel, a fragile and incapable person break a criminal law and become a monster? This totally opposes the expectations and traditional order established by gender stereotypes. Therefore, a woman who commits a crime is not deemed “normal”. Quite the opposite: She denies her nature. In this way, a criminal woman passes through a double level of criminalisation: She breaks not only the criminal law but also the unwritten social code of gender roles and characteristics. At once, she betrays society, family and law and puts herself against her own maternal “nature”.
For this reason, women criminals are judged by different standards than men in several social spheres, including the judiciary. Studies conducted on the Brazilian jurisprudence, for instance, showed that the jury uses gender stereotypes when judging criminal women. When building arguments for the acquittal, gender roles are used to prove that a mother and housewife cannot commit a crime. But when a criminal conviction is defended, gender stereotypes function as an aggravating factor – she is a mother but does not behave as such – in order to stress the evilness of the accused.
Interesting to note is the role of witches in the middle ages. Women attempting to break gender rules and occupy the public space were quickly framed as witches. The Inquisition used persecution as an instrument to prevent women from occupying “male activities” and to keep them in the domestic sphere. What is considered the genesis of women rebellion triggered violent reactions. Their attempt to escape gender rules and roles led these women to be demonized, hunted and killed. Until today the myth of the witch remains, either as a demonic being or as a symbol of resistance.