The Glueck Women: Using the Past to Assess and Extend Contemporary Understandings of Women’s Desistance from Crime
Recent increases in rates of female offending and associated longitudinal data collection efforts focusing on females have contributed to important advances in our understanding of the theoretical mechanisms that shape female offending from onset through desistance. Even so, this literature lacks a historical context against which we can assess the scope and breadth of recent empirical findings and their related theoretical implications. Focusing on desistance, we address this gap with analyses of life history data from a sample of female offenders collected by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck in the early twentieth century. Using these data, the current study provides a historical backdrop against which we compare contemporary theoretical and empirical findings on desistance, specifically the broad influence and specific character of external change mechanisms for women’s desistance.
Using complete retrospective life history and prospective follow-up data for 424 female offenders (264 of whom are desisters), we use logistic regression and conjunctive analysis to assess the influence of key external change mechanisms on the likelihood of desistance.
Findings indicate that, as with contemporary samples, external change mechanisms (marriage, motherhood, and work) are implicated in desistance. However, the specific pattern of effects suggests important and historically contingent differences in how these mechanisms operate over time.
We conclude that external change mechanisms not only activate informal social controls and commitments to a non-criminal identity, they implicate compliance with gendered social norms. As these norms change, the salience and character of key external change mechanisms for women’s desistance should also change. Of course, this is also the case for males, and we encourage desistance researchers to consider the importance of gender as a social institution and the ways in which it conditions the external change mechanisms available to offenders.
KeywordsGender Desistance Life course criminology Women’s history
The authors thank Susan Dennison, Rebecca Wickes, and Li Erickson for their critical comments on earlier versions of this paper. We also acknowledge funding from the National Institute of Justice under grant #2001-IJ-CX-0034.
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