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.
MJ: What are the different types of involvement girls can have in gangs?
MCL: The most dangerous kind of girl involvement with gangs is one where the girls are just sort of hanging around the gang boys or even being part of the male gang. We have some pretty horrific accounts of what happens to girls in those situations, particularly sexual assaults. [Even if] those are labeled as a way to get into the gang, it’s not a stretch to say they’re […] gang rapes. That kind of gang involvement is one where girls are the most vulnerable. But I still think the gang solves for those girls a problem of giving them identity and visibility in a society that typically ignores them. It’s a reaction to even worse situations at home, which is a horrific thing to have to say. And a kind of a sense of power—girls often feel very powerless in their lives and their families, and they kind of mimic the male violence as a way to try and get some of that male power that they see lacking in their own lives.
Independent gangs like the Potrero Hill Girls [in San Francisco] can even support the young women economically. That gang would go through the housing project there and ask people what they need from Nieman Marcus and various other tony stores, and shoplift on order and then bring them back and support children that way. We understand that’s theft, but that kind of economic independence and that kind of moxie, I think a lot of people can relate to.
MJ: : How are female gangs structured?
MCL: One researcher of L.A.’s Latina gangs in the ‘70s found that they functioned a lot like a Girl Scout troop. Girls came to Girl Scouting at about the same age in white communities as girls in Hispanic communities came to gangs. They had lists of rules for their members. It was very much like a club for girls. Some early gang work in the ‘50s tried to take the girl gangs and turn them into social clubs because in many ways that was already how they were functioning. Girls tended to leave the gangs at the age that girls tended to leave Girl Scouts in white communities. Of course, you don’t have a Scout leader.
MJ: What is the age range of women who join gangs?
MCL: They come to the gangs around age 15, but girls age out of gangs somewhat earlier than boys, often because they get pregnant. That gives them a legitimate out from gang involvement—you’ve got economic pressures of being a mom. This might propel them into petty crime, as it did with the Potrero Hill Girls, and in fact many of them shoplifted with their young babies. But it sobers you up. Some of the bravado, the craziness, la vida loca is no longer as attractive as it was when you were younger.
MJ: Are drugs a problem in female gangs?
MCL: Drugs and alcohol are omnipresent, especially in mixed-gender gangs. What gangs really do is they mostly just hang around and drink and tell stories of past confrontations. But then the boys will launch out and respond to some imagined wrong and get in serious trouble. And then when the drug trade is involved, it becomes lethal. That’s more typical of boy gang membership—the gang becomes the employer as well as a social outlet. Men frequently get locked up, come out, try to get their lives together, can’t, and fall back into the gang because the it offers economic sources of support in the illicit economy. That’s less true of girl gangs.
Girls are on the edges of that environment, and that’s one of their problems. When they’re arrested with their boyfriends, often the boyfriends can trade information for reduced sentences. The girls can’t; they don’t have the information. They don’t know where the drugs came from or the names of the people up the line.
MJ: What do you think about the media’s portrayal of women in gangs?
MCL: There’s only one thing worse than not paying attention to girls in gangs—it’s paying attention to girls in gangs. The public reaction to girls and women who engage in nontraditional behavior—the hysteria that often surrounds girls in these groups—is almost as interesting as the behavior itself. There was a time when Oprah and Geraldo and everyone in the world were doing really terrible programs on girls in gangs. The nuanced analysis of what’s going on in the lives of these girls is important: they’re still girls of color, they face enormous educational neglect, they face terrible poverty, they don’t see a great life ahead of themselves. They’re realistic, especially African-American girls, about the fact that the men in their community will not marry them. They’ll never have a conventional family to look forward to. They’re trying to negotiate a grim future for themselves.
MJ: What are some of the most common misconceptions about female gang members?
MCL: That they’re exactly like their male counterpoints. The media construction of them makes them look masculinized and very scary. The media will often stuff guns in their hands or bandannas over their faces and take pictures of them. That’s often positioned against stereotypical white femininity, the Lindsay Lohan kind of whiteness. Girls in gangs typically don’t carry guns, they certainly don’t brandish them the way male gang members do. That isn’t an accurate portrayal of girls in gangs at all.
MJ: What are some possible solutions being discussed nowadays to female gang membership?
MCL: Gender-responsive programming is very important—accessing traditional girls-serving organizations and women’s organizations to provide mentoring opportunities for young women, to reach across race and class divides, to work with the Girls Scouts and YWCA; to work with women legislators to make sure there’s advocacy for girls in the justice system. If you’re doing gang peacemaking, I hope that the men–and it’s almost always men who work in these youth-serving agencies—realize that there are girls there and that they need to hire young women from those ethnic groups to work with those young women. I don’t think the men can do it. They’re often too identified with boys they’re working with, and they have some of the same attitudes. Gang research has also typically been a male domain. Our stereotype is that gang delinquency is a boy problem.
MJ: Are there many groups doing outreach to female gang members or involved in prevention?
MCL: Around the country, juvenile courts are seeing more girls than they ever have before as a proportion of their caseload. We’ve just topped 30 percent in terms of juvenile arrests of girls. There’s a whole national conversation about gender-responsive programming for girls. Places like Baltimore have experimented with female-only probation caseloads. Delinquency prevention and intervention programs are a little slower to pick this up because they’re so used to working with boys. Girls have historically been ignored.