Versatile Offending: Criminal Careers of Female Prisoners in Australia, 1860–1920
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Versatile Offending:
Criminal Careers of Female Prisoners in Australia, 1860–1920

The use of longitudinal data from the criminal records of a sample of 6,042 female prisoners in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Victoria reveals limitations in the traditional method of examining criminality within specific offense categories. Investigations devoted exclusively to particular categories of women’s offenses potentially obscures the extent to which women resorted to multiple forms of offending. Such versatile activity challenges conceptions of women as predominantly petty offenders by suggesting that some women were arrested for minor offenses because of their engagement in more serious crimes and their participation in criminal sub-cultures.

Most of the criminal offending by women in common-law jurisdictions during the nineteenth and early twentieth century fell into three main categories—property, personal, and public-order. As Williams comments in respect to Victorian England, “Whilst crimes of theft most often saw women convicted of felonies and sent to convict prisons and violent crimes stole newspaper headlines, women who drank excessively or sold themselves on the streets (often both) probably constituted the largest single group of female offenders in Victorian England.” Many historical studies of female offenders consequently approach the study of the different crimes committed by women in isolation from each other, largely treating the women involved in each category as belonging to a different group. They seldom deal with the potential overlap between these groups in depth.1

In Australia, scholarly work about women’s offending has been even more piecemeal; most of the analyses concentrate on women’s involvement in specific crimes. The only monograph offering a more overarching narrative of female offending, Judith Allen’s Sex and Secrets: Crimes involving Australian Women since 1880 (New York, 1990), for the most part discusses offenses connected to sexuality and reproduction so as to explore how the policing of such “gendered” crimes reinforced traditional power hierarchies. Other work devoted to female crime in Australia also tends to concentrate on the [End Page 187] incidence and social discourse surrounding such “feminine” offenses as abortion, infanticide, baby farming, and prostitution. Only a few studies examine the policing of women for public-order offenses, particularly vagrancy and drunkenness, which represent the majority of the charges historically brought against women. Even less attention has been paid to female theft, despite the fact that property offenses dominate women’s felony indictments (due, in part, to the dearth of historical studies about property crime in Australia, beyond the ongoing popular and academic interest in “bushranging” crimes). Rarer still, both inside and outside Australia, are historical works that explore the interaction between these categories of offense as a reflection of the versatility in women’s offending patterns throughout their criminal careers.2

Only in recent years has a limited body of literature—in historical criminology and the history of criminal justice—about offending throughout the entire life course emerged, encouraged by the increasing digitization of historical records. The most thorough [End Page 188] historical analysis of criminal careers to date—a study of persistent offenders in Crewe, England, between the 1880s and 1940s—concentrated largely on male offenders. The few female offenders included in the sample confirmed the conclusion, already advanced in historical research, that female recidivism was predominantly characterized by the “repeat prosecution of prostitutes and destitute women” for public-order offenses. Other works dealing with longitudinal female offending also tend to focus on the petty offending that comprised the bulk of women’s criminal careers. However, in a study of the criminal careers of thirty-three female prisoners interviewed as part of the 1887 Royal Commission into the Queensland prison system, Piper pointed out that despite their vast number of public-order offenses, the majority of these women were also versatile offenders who amassed a number of convictions for theft and violence.3

In contrast, a considerable corpus within the field of criminology traces patterns in crimes committed, relating to both offense specialization and versatility. Yet, many of the contemporary studies of specialization and versatility tend to rely exclusively or predominantly on male samples. A prominent exception is a broader study of criminal offending within the 1953 birth cohort...