Female gang members have long been dismissed as mere tagalongs or laughable imitators of male gang members—girls who try to play with the big boys. Only in recent decades—as the number of women in detention has grown—have researchers taken a serious look at this population and youth delinquency groups included women as a focus in their programs.
Studies indicate that a large majority of female gang members are in mixed-gender gangs, with only a small fraction belonging to girl-only gangs. And according to Meda Chesney-Lind, a member of the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Deliquency Prevention Girls Study Group, gangs fulfill dramatically different needs for female than for male members, and girls' experience of gang life is in many respects quite distinct from boys'.
Chesny-Lind spoke to Mother Jones from her office at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she is a women’s studies professor.
Mother Jones:How long have female gangs and gang members been around?
Meda Chesney-Lind: As long as we’ve had gangs, we’ve had girls in gangs. They’ve always been there, and they’ve always been ignored by male researchers. The phrase we like to use is “present but invisible,” because the people who studied men in gangs tended to ignore the girls or only ask the boys about the girls. It wasn’t until some of us got into doing the research in the ‘80s that we realized we needed to ask the girls what was going on in their lives. As a result of that, we have a whole new literature that has emerged around girls in gangs.
MJ: About what proportion of gang members are women?
MCL: For jurisdictions with computerized databases like Los Angeles, you get a fairly conservative estimate, generally less than ten percent. But if you go out in the field and you look at some of the ethnographic research, you can find estimates that range up into the 30s. If you ask a lot of the young women, they will say that they’re either affiliated with a gang, belong to an auxiliary gang or have their own gangs. In our work in Honolulu, we’ve found it was up to 30 percent.
MJ: How have the numbers changed over time?
MCL: Girl involvement in gangs has pretty much tracked the overall gang problem. But there’s the gang problem, and there’s our awareness of the gang problem as a society. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, people didn’t pay a lot of attention to gangs. I think gangs still existed, but gangs had fallen out of criminological favor. When some of the gangs got involved with the drug trade, particularlythe crack cocaine trade, and the lethal violence started to flare up in the ‘80s, then there was a great deal of public attention on gangs and a great deal of concern about what was going on in these social groups. Now our attention has been directed elsewhere, but a few months ago I warned everybody that our gang problem was not getting better; I thought it was getting worse. But public attention is other places.
MJ: Why do women get involved in gangs?
MCL: Girls come to the gang for very different reasons than boys. For boys in marginalized communities, they have a gender problem, and they solve it often through gang membership. They find an ability to do masculinity in a way that reasserts their importance in a society that mostly ignores them. For girls, they’re coming out of more damaged backgrounds. Their families are often the reason they get propelled into gang membership. They will sometimes come to the gang to learn how to fight an abusive stepfather or mother’s boyfriend, for example. They live in dangerous neighborhoods, but—and this is much more important for girls—they also live in dangerous families. The girls go to the gang in order to get protection from victimization that’s occurring in their lives. And also it’s a place to be, because they’re often rejected from and rejecting their families.
MJ: What are some risk factors for female gang membership?
MCL: In these communities, families treat their boys and their girls differently. This is especially true in immigrant families—they expect a lot more from their daughters, who often chafe at the restrictions that the parents put on them. They might rebel, run away from home; they might be physically punished. If they’re suffering physical or sexual abuse at home, which is not all that infrequent, the gang serves as a refuge for them. (We know that sexual abuse, physical abuse, is a precursor for violence in girls.)
The gang may be a safer place than home, but it’s not without its problems. In some instances, especially in the Latino community, the boys have very traditional views of femininity even though they are gang members. The girls can be [seen] as sexually available, but not the good girl that you want to take home to your family, even by young men in the gangs. They may be sexually victimized by the boys in the gang. It also gets girls into legal trouble because a lot of the gang activities tend to be quite violent. If the girls are around, they get swept up in very serious crimes and do big time for them. That’s one of the real tragedies we see. They will be serving very long terms, so long that they’ll never be able to have children, for example.
MJ: Are girls in gangs less violent?
MCL: They’re less everything. They do a lot less serious offending. When you look at girls violence, if girls are acting out violently it’s usually against other girls and usually for fairly conventional reasons like, “I heard Lisa’s going out with Ian, and I’m mad at her so I’m gonna set up a fight with her.” Or she disrespected me or I heard a rumor about what she said about my weight. It’s really the kind of relational aggression we’re familiar with in girls, but they might act out violently. The victims of that will be other similarly situated girls. They’re not running rampant in the streets or through malls bashing little old ladies over the head, which is the public perception of gangs in general and girls in gangs.
One of the differences between boy gangs and girl gangs is for girls it’s much more relational and much less violent. If we socialized boys like girls, we would have a much lower crime rate in America. If you socialize people to care about each other and care about relationships, they tend to be much less violent and tend to think about the consequences of their actions more. Girls begin to have second thoughts about the violence. Studies show they feel a considerable amount of guilt about it. They feel bad later and want to apologize. This is the empathy, the concern for relationships. Violence among boys is so valorized and so encouraged that you have to do things different in violence prevention with boys than with girls.