Although these two books join a now substantial literature on crime history, they consider an aspect of that topic that still remains relatively understudied: women’s participation in crime, particularly violent crime. Both focus on the eighteenth century, but they have divergent approaches and tackle different geographic locations, each of which, the authors argue, possessed distinctive conditions that shaped female criminality.
Anne-Marie Kilday’s examination of violent women in lowland Scotland is based upon the records of the Justiciary Court, the country’s highest criminal tribunal, [End Page 1086] between 1750 and 1815. In a helpful introduction for readers unfamiliar with Scottish history, she establishes the broader legislative, judicial and cultural context before considering homicide, infanticide, assault, popular disturbances and robbery. Throughout, Kilday seeks to revise what she argues is a consensus among historians that has unfairly downplayed women’s violence. She even seems to suggest that historians have internalised misogynist assumptions about women’s meekness and passivity: this “bias” means they have “neglected,” “ignored” or “compartmentalised” the study of violent women, causing the historiographical “marginalisation” or “ghettoisation” of female violence (22–24). Pioneering feminist histories of crime are reproached for depicting women “only” (23) as victims. Kilday aims to give women back their “autonomy” in the realm of criminal history, highlighting their potential to be “just as capable as men of being arbitrarily bad and bloodthirsty” (22), and she also argues that Scottish women were more violent than were women elsewhere.
The high quality archival research visible in this book is unfortunately marred by a few recurring problems. Kilday depicts eighteenth-century normative femininity as so successful in imposing passive subordination that each counterexample she finds can be depicted as an astonishing example of female agency. This somewhat caricatured view of expectations about women’s behaviour—whether on the part of eighteenth-century judges (who, based on the evidence here, would have encountered enough criminal women to have taken a more realistic view) or modern historians—tempts the author to exaggerate her findings: is it really “both startling and unexpected” (49) that female Scottish killers were “violent”? Is it possible to undermine a “long-held assumption that women only ever attacked other women in violent offences against the person” (99, emphasis added) if this assumption has neither been held by historians nor dominant in popular culture? Claims to “shatter expectations” (79) or “shatter the orthodoxy of passivity” (127) also evince a sometimes dismissive attitude to the work of other crime historians. Such sensational language is used in other contexts, such as statements that Scottish women were “bloodthirsty” (22), “shocking and unusually bloodthirsty” (60) and even “shocking, brutal and bloodthirsty” (78). Female robbers in Scotland engaged in “ultra-violence” in their “uncompromising” and—yes—“bloodthirsty” behaviour (146), and the author, at times, almost appears to celebrate the “typical ferocity of Scottish murderesses” (48) who were “unparalleled in brutality and ferociousness” (129).
She also seems to want to have her evidence both ways. She suggests that the Scottish legal system was particularly horrified by violent women. This would, logically, inflate their rate of prosecution; however, Kilday—despite stated caveats—tends to come down on the side of seeing those records as proof of real rates of violence. In this effort, quantitative evidence is sometimes interpreted incautiously. The proportions of prosecutions in “town” and “country” areas are compared without reference to their relative populations. More seriously, Kilday, finding that a higher proportion of accused female rioters than male rioters were also charged with aggravated assault, states not only “Scottish women do appear [End Page 1087] proportionately more violent than their male counterparts” (113) but also “women appear to have been more violent than men when carrying out collective protest” (127). These are curious conclusions considering that more than twice as many men as women were charged with rioting. Men additionally charged with assault also outnumbered women. Indeed, the lower...