Relation Between Occupation and Criminality of Women

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Relation Between Occupation and Criminality of Women

Government report

By: Mary Katherine Conyngton

Date: 1911

Source: Mary Katherine Conyngton. "Report on Condition of Woman and Child Wage-Earners in the United States, vol. XV: Relation Between Occupation and Criminality of Women." Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1911.

About the Author: Mary Katherine Conyngton (1864–1942) was a turn-of-the-century suffragette and early feminist who wrote about the effect of workmen's compensation laws in diminishing the necessity of industrial employment of women and children, and on why women should have the ballot.


In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century it was increasingly common for women to work in industry. Some criticized this trend, seeing industrial work as unsuitable for women and blaming it for social ills such as increasing crime among women. In an early twentieth century report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor, feminist and suffragette Mary Katherine Conyngton argued that the increased employment of women in the industrial sphere "can not be held responsible for a 'marked proportionate increase of criminality among women.'" To make her case, she first investigated the types of crimes for which women had been imprisoned and found that most female offenders were in jail for "the pursuits in which women have long been engaged," which had nothing to do with industrial employment. Her next line of argumentation questioned the very existence of the trend toward increased numbers of female offenders that critics of the employment of women in industry were decrying. In the primary source referenced in this section, Conyngton attempted to show that instead of a trend toward increased female criminality, there was instead a trend in the opposite direction.

The source article is a straightforward description of a falling trend in female criminality in the early twentieth century about which the authorities were genuinely puzzled. The article ends with three possible explanations for the trend: alternatives to prison in dealing with female crime may have emerged; laws had been less strictly enforced; or perhaps there was a real decrease in female criminality. Conyngton did not hazard an interpretation in this passage. She let the facts of empty women prison wards speak for themselves.

The falling rate of female imprisonment had a quaint practical consequence: there were not enough female prisoners to clean the women's prisons, and male prisoners had to be sent in to do this work. Furthermore, the number of female prisoners had dropped so low that authorities questioned the need to "maintain a matron."

From a statistical perspective, Conyngton in her thoroughness encountered a dearth of potentially explanatory data. For example, records of crimes committed, as well as the use of probation and other alternatives to prison sentencing were mentioned as potentially explaining the drop in the female inmate population, but no hard data on these other trends appears to be available. Nevertheless, her basic argument that no proportionate increase in women offenders exists is well supported by simple statistics on the falling rate of female imprisonment as a proportion of an increasing population.



Decreasing Number of Female Offenders in Confinement.

Now it is the general opinion among prison officials and prison workers that the number of female offenders is diminishing. "We don't get as many women as we did fifteen or twenty years ago" was a common statement. "We used to have as many as 50 women here at one time," said the warden of one institution, "but to-day we have 3, and I don't think we've had as many as 15 at once for five years past. Often we haven't enough to do the work of the institution." In one factory town where a decade or so ago a new house of correction was built with a large wing for women the number of female offenders has so diminished that it is not considered worth while to maintain a matron, and the women under sentence are boarded at the house of correction of a neighboring community. This arrangement was found in several places. Of course, in some States it is customary for several communities to unite in this way, but in this particular part of the country the device is not usual, and its adoption was directly due to the decreasing number of female offenders.

This tendency toward a decrease is most marked in States in which the laws are most exacting and most strictly enforced, and these are the States in which the largest numbers of women are committed. Naturally enough, it is more easily perceived in the serious offenses than in the misdemeanors. In New York the State prison for women has never been filled, and for years the number of inmates has either remained stationary or shown a slight tendency to decrease. The Massachusetts Reformatory Prison for Women was opened thirty years ago, and the year after its opening had 482 inmates. Of late years the number has shown a decided falling off. In 1906 the State commissioners thus commented on the decline:

This place has had a very small number of prisoners throughout the year; it is a long time since the number has raised above 200 … On September 30 there were 176 in prison. The reduction in number is not by a diversion of cases to other prisons, as sentences of one year or more, for felony or serious misdemeanor, to a house of correction, have for a time been exceedingly rare. The decrease indicates a general falling off in sentences.

The following year the number of inmates showed a still further decrease, getting down at one time to 127, the lowest number reached since the prison was opened. It rose a little after that, but on September 30, 1907, the date of the annual report, it was only 142. The same diminution shows itself all over the State, and for all kinds of offenses. "In some of the county prisons," says the latest report of the Board of Prison Commissioners, "there are no women at all. In others the number has become so small that there are not enough to do the domestic work, and male prisoners have taken their places. In all prisons the number of women has fallen far below any condition which has existed for a long time." In 1895 the whole number of women sentenced in Massachusetts for offenses of all kinds was 3,061; in 1905, when the population had increased by something over 500,000, it was 3,010. Two years later, in 1907, it was 2,513. The number of convictions not only failed to keep pace with the increase of population, but showed an actual falling off.

It is not possible to get equally conclusive data for the country as a whole, but all the figures accessible seem to point to the same result. In 1904 the United States Census Bureau made a study of prisoners and of juvenile delinquents in confinement. The figures obtained show that for the United States, as a whole, and for each main division of it, there had been a falling off in the number of female prisoners between June 1, 1890, and June 30, 1904, the date at which the later census was taken.

Possible Explanations of Decrease in Number of Prisoners

There are three possible explanations for this falling off. First, it is conceivable that public standards might be growing laxer, the laws might be less strictly enforced, and as a consequence the decreasing number of commitments might really accompany an increase of criminality among women. Second, other methods of treatment, such as fines, probation, or commitment to private reformatory institutions might be growing in favor, and hence the diminished number of women in prison might bear no relation whatever to their criminality. And as a last explanation, it may be that the prison statistics reflect the real state of affairs and that criminality among women is actually diminishing.


In her Labor Department report, Conyngton maintains that there is little statistical basis for determining whether society is experiencing a trend toward more strict or more lax enforcement of laws. Every statistic on female imprisonment available at the time pointed toward decreasing crime rates among women. Although one might interpret this trend to be indicative of greater laxity in law enforcement, Conyngton does not attempt to refute this explanation. She observes that when fewer arrests are made within various crime categories over time, the case can be made that "the standard of public morals is rising, not falling." She concludes that "if there is a progressive decrease in the number of arrests and convictions within a certain class … the criminality of that class is at least not increasing."

Conyngton urges the liberalization of public attitudes toward working women and of employer policies toward the hiring of women, and defuses one of the more emotive arguments against liberalization: that employment leads to the deterioration of women's morality. Subsequent research on female offenders appears to leave intact her conclusion that employment does not increase female criminality. However, other social influences, including unemployment, might indeed increase the numbers of female offenders.

The situation regarding the numbers of female offenders in Massachusetts at the turn of the twentieth century appears to be the mirror image of the situation one hundred years later in our own time. Information posted on the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) describes a disturbing trend in the incarceration of women. According to the National Bureau of Justice Statistics, 90,668 women were incarcerated in U.S. jails, 6.6 percent of the total jailed population. While this number is still only a small fraction of the total population, the growth rate of female adult offenders has exceeded that of males every year since 1981.

The number of women entering the nation's state and federal prisons between 1980 and 1994 increased nearly fourfold, while the number of men only doubled. In 1990 the American Correctional Association published a profile of contemporary female offenders based on a survey of 2,094 female offenders in four hundred state and local prisons. This profile of surveyed offenders showed that most are between the ages of 25 to 29, economically disadvantaged minorities with children, not married or single parents and former runaways from home as teenagers. About twenty-five percent had attempted suicide and many had drug addictions. Over half of the offenders were physical abuse victims and most of these victims had been sexually abused. A high proportion of the offenders had not graduated from high school and more than twenty-five percent had been unemployed in the three years before incarceration. The latter statistic points to unemployment as being a potential cause and at least a consequence of female criminality, which lends support to Conyngton's perspective of a century ago.

According to the survey, the most common crimes leading to female imprisonment are larceny, theft, or drug crimes. Drug crimes are highly correlated with prostitution, one of the "pursuits" that Conyngton found accounted for rates of female imprisonment. When the survey was taken, the offenders were serving time for drug crimes, murder, larceny, theft, or robbery. A high proportion of women convicted of manslaughter or murder had killed a boyfriend or husband who abused them. Half of the women committed for homicide were first time offenders.

Based on their own review of literature, the DOC observes that "Crimes committed by women have not gotten more serious; instead, the system is now 'tougher' on all offenses, including those traditionally committed by females." Nowhere is there any mention of an indication in the statistics that women are committing higher rates of crimes of types not traditionally committed by females.

This "tougher punishment" interpretation of statistics appears to be at best only half of the correct explanation. The profile of female offenders relates to a more racially diverse female prison population than a hundred years ago, with more problems of drug addiction, which in turn have contributed to rates of theft and larceny. Yet the Department's statement that most of the women inmates were first-time offenders and that many of the most serious crimes were against men who had assaulted them still seems to indicate that the U.S. has not seen a fundamental shift in women's tendency toward criminal activity. While the employment of women in industry has exploded, the types of female crime have remained basically the same.

On the other hand, the present time has been described as harsh and censorious, and many a politician has made his or her political fortune by taking a "tougher" stand on crime (even as crime rates have recently fallen in many large U.S. cities). While circumstances such as the drug epidemic, social disintegration and family breakdown over the past half-century may have increased the female crime rate, the Florida DOC's suggestion that society has been prosecuting offenses more aggressively is plausible.

Employment may have a beneficial effect on crime rates among contemporary women, who are subject to social stressors not widely experienced in Conyngton's time. It is possible to view employment as a type of social "glue" that reinforces social responsibility and self-management in today's society, while traditional morality and female roles are considerably weakened as forces that prevent women from committing the types of crimes that they have done in the past.



Young, Cathy. Ceasefire!: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality. New York: Free Press, 1999.

Web sites

Young, Cathy. Reason Online. "License to Kill: Men and Women, Crime and Punishment." 〈〉 (accessed February 26, 2006).

Florida Department of Corrections. "National Profile of the Female Offender." 〈〉 (accessed February 26, 2006).

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Relation Between Occupation and Criminality of Women

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