Labelling Women Deviant: Heterosexual Women, Prostitutes and Lesbians in Early Criminological Discourse



In 1893, the internationally-renowned psychiatrist, Cesare Lombroso, published the first criminological treatise on women. Entitled Criminal Woman, the Prostitute and the Normal Woman (hereafter Criminal Woman), it offered a plethora of examples from around the world to support Lombroso’s assertion that female ‘born criminals’ — that is, women who had inherited a biological and psychological propensity to deviancy — were more terrible and monstrous than their male counterparts. Bell Star represented one of his prime examples, an ‘outlaw [brigantessa] who had terrorised Texas until a few years ago’.1 By the age of ten, she had learned the use of the lasso, revolver and shot-gun from her father, an officer in the Confederate army during the Civil War:

Strong and brave like a man, her greatest pleasure was to ride horses that the most expert soldiers had failed to tame. One day she won two races, one dressed like a man and one like a woman, changing her clothes so quickly that no one realised that it was the same person.2

She was not only strong but lusty, having ‘as many lovers as there were desperados and outlaws in Texas, Kansas, Nebraska and Nevada’.3 For 18 years she and her band fought government troops and committed a string of spectacular robberies. Preferring male attire, she even shared a hotel room one night with a sheriff whose mission it was to catch her.


Sexual Ambi Positivist School Female Crime Sexual Inversion Female Criminal 
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  1. 1.
    Cesare Lombroso and Guglielmo Ferrerò, La donna delinquente, la prostituta e la donna normale (Turin: Roux, 1893), p. 467. Because Ferrerò, Lombroso’s future son-in-law, was a decidedly junior partner in this project, I am attributing the major ideas to Lombroso.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    The classic Enlightenment text was Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments, published in 1764. On the positivist school of criminology, see Mary Gibson, Born to Crime: Cesare Lombroso and the Origins of Biological Criminology (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002). Two excellent intellectual biographies of Lombroso are Delia Frigessi, Cesare Lombroso (Turin: Einaudi, 2003) and Renzo Villa, Il déviante e i suoi segni (Milan: Franco Angeli, 1985).Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    Lombroso set out his racial theories several decades earlier in L’uomo bianco e l’uomo di colore (Padua: Sacchetto, 1871) and in the first edition ofL’uomo delinquente (Milan: Hoepli, 1876).Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Lombroso’s treatise was quickly translated into English, in 1895, under the title of The Female Offender. The English edition, however, radically abridged the original and omitted the entire first section on ‘normal’ women, almost all references to sexual organs and sexual practices, and much of the material on prostitution. A new translation, which reincorporates this material, is forthcoming; see Nicole Rafter and Mary Gibson (eds), Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004). Quotations in this chapter are taken mostly from material that does not appear in the original English edition.Google Scholar
  5. 17.
    The earliest feminist criminologists felt it necessary to refute Lombroso and his legacy before constructing alternative theories of female crime. See Dorie Klein, ‘The Etiology of Female Crime: A Review of the Literature’, Issues in Criminology, VIII (1973), 3–30 and Carol Smart, Women, Crime, and Criminology: A Feminist Critique (Boston, MA: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976).Google Scholar
  6. 20.
    In a long footnote to the chapter on moral insanity in the third edition of L’uomo delinquente, Lombroso cites the well-known authorities James Cowles Pritchard and Benedict Augustin Morel, as well as Italian members of the positivist school. See Cesare Lombroso, L’uomo delinquente (Turin: Bocca, 1884), 3rd edn, pp. 543–4.Google Scholar
  7. 24.
    Nerina Muletti traces the origins of the words tribade and saffismo in her pioneering article entitled ‘Analoghe sconcezze. Tribadi, saffiste, invertite e omosessuali. Categorie e sistemi sesso/genere nella rivista di antropologia criminale fondata da Cesare Lombroso (1880-1949)’, DWF (1994), pp. 50–122.Google Scholar
  8. 37.
    The phrase is that of Eugenio Garin. See his ‘II positivismo italiano alla fine del secolo XIX fra metodo e concezione del mondo’, Giornale critica della filosofia italiana, Series 5,1 (1980), p. 4.Google Scholar
  9. 38.
    On the regulation of prostitution, see Mary Gibson, Prostitution and the State, 1860–1915 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986); Lucia Valenzi, Donne, medici e poliziotti a Napoli nell’Ottocento (Naples: Liguori, 2001); and Alberto Forzoni, Prostituzione e sanità ad Arezzo (Provincia di Arezzo: Le Balze, 2003).Google Scholar
  10. 39.
    Foucault’s categories of discipline, enclosure, surveillance and examination apply equally well to the regulated brothels of Italy as to prisons. See Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage, 1979), pp. 170–94.Google Scholar
  11. 40.
    An example of the writings of one feminist critic can be found in Rina Macrelli, L’indegna schiavitù: Anna Maria Mozzoni e la lotta contro la prostituzione di stato (Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1981).Google Scholar
  12. 42.
    The Italian model differed from that of the USA and England, where the earliest female administrators in women’s prisons were lay and often feminist reformers. See Nicole Hahn Rafter, Partial Justice: Women in State Prisons, 1800–1935 (Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1985); Estelle Freedman, Their Sisters’ Keepers: Women’s Prisons Reform in America, 1830–1930 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1981); and Lucia Zedner, Women, Crime, and Custody in Victorian England (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991).Google Scholar
  13. 43.
    Lesbianism was rarely mentioned in European penal codes. Unlike Italy, however, male homosexual behaviour, specifically sodomy, was not only stigmatised but also illegal in many countries such as Great Britain and Germany. See George Mosse, Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe (New York: Howard Fertig, 1985), pp. 27–8.Google Scholar
  14. 44.
    During the 1880s and 1890s, local Leghe di Tutela degli Interessi Femminili were founded throughout Italy, modelled on the first chapter founded in Milan by Anna Maria Mozzoni. Succeeding organisations included the Unione Femminile (1899), the Consiglio Nazionale delle Donne (1903) and the Comitato Nazionale Prosuffragio (1904). On the Unione Femminile, which actively challenged the regulation of prostitution, see Annarita Buttafuoco, Le Mariuccine (Milan: Franco Angeli, 1985).Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2004

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