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Wretched Sisters

Examining Gender and Capital Punishmend


Mary Welek Atwell

Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, fourteen women have been put to death in the United States. The criminal justice system defines crimes committed by women in a particularly gendered context. Wretched Sisters is unique in its analysis of the legal and cultural circumstances that determine why a small number of women are sentenced to death and provides a detailed account of how these fourteen women came to be subjected to the ultimate punishment.
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Chapter 1. Why So Few and Why These Few? Gender and Criminology


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It is a cliché to state that mainstream criminological theory does not adequately address issues relating to women’s criminality. Much empirical research examines the delinquent behavior of young males and, until the fairly recent contributions of feminist theory, most researchers failed to consider the two big questions regarding gender and crime. Why do women consistently commit many fewer crimes than men? And, why do a small number of women commit serious offenses? It is beyond the scope of this study to attempt general answers to those questions. However, a vital part of this inquiry involves an effort to find the themes in criminological theory that help to explain the crimes committed by the fourteen executed women and to address why they evoked the most extreme response. As Chesney-Lind and Pasko note, feminist criminology is concerned with “how gender matters,” not only in explaining the pathways into and out of crime but also regarding how the criminal justice system responds to offenders.1 Those issues are at the heart of this work.

Historically, explanations of female crime have fallen into two major categories. On the one hand, biological and psychological approaches argued that women offenders were more “masculine” than law-abiding women, that their crime was anomalous and attributable to some unnatural male-like qualities. Another more sociological perspective claims that males and females are ← 11 | 12 → influenced by the same social forces and...

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