By Alana Piper
At Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas in 2012 a discussion was held on the question of whether all women hate each other. The panel, which featured feminist icon Germaine Greer, social activist Eva Cox and model-turned-crime-writer Tara Moss, was organised in response to a developing meme within the media claiming that women are more competitive and antagonistic towards each other than they are to men, and than men are to each other. While acknowledging that there is a grain of truth in the ‘mean girl’ paradigm posited by scholars of juvenile delinquency, the panellists argued that negative interactions between women receive a disproportionate amount of attention in society. As Moss pointed out, global crime statistics reveal an overwhelming pattern of male-on-male violence, but no one was suggesting that all men hate each other.
Moss’s allusion to crime trends was a particularly apt rebuttal as discourses about crime have historically perpetuated a trope of female enmity. This is evident throughout the burgeoning criminological, sociological and social welfare literature of the late nineteenth century. Relationships among women of the criminal underclasses were portrayed as vicious, exploitative and deliberately corruptive. Italian father of criminal anthropology, Cesare Lombroso, offered the Darwinian explanation that centuries of competing for male attention to ensure their survival had instilled in women an ‘instinctive and implacable hostility’ toward one another that inevitably underlay their relations; criminal degeneration only removed any remaining vestiges of civility. Other Victorian commentators likewise purveyed the idea that female offenders were not only intent on each other’s destruction, but that this reflected malevolent feelings latent among the sex as a whole.
Contemporary popular culture indicates that such perceptions of female relationships may not have shifted much. This became apparent as I was working on my PhD thesis, completed at the University of Queensland in January 2014. There was a common point-of-reference most people raised upon learning I was examining female social networks in the criminal subcultures of urban Australia between 1860 and 1920. Taxi-drivers, dinner party companions and fellow academics alike asked me about 1920s underworld queens Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh, whose famous rivalry provided the plot for the 2011 historical mini-series Underbelly: Razor, the premiere episode of which achieved the highest ratings ever for an Australian television drama. I would then feel the need to explain that I was investigating the various roles that criminal women played in each other’s lives as friends, family members, accomplices and sexual partners, as well as occasional enemies and competitors. In contrast to both past and present representations of contentious relationships among women, my conclusion was that criminal women were heavily reliant on the support provided by their associations with other women until legal changes in the early twentieth century shifted the pattern of their activities.
Affective relationships between criminal women were a defining aspect of their lives across the economic, social, domestic, judicial and disciplinary spaces in which they moved. Rather than the rancorous interactions of contemporary imaginings, most fields of female criminal activity necessitated or benefited from co-operation with other women as they stole, solicited and sold sly grog together. Within domestic contexts, the transience or absence of male figures, as well as the general instability in their home lives caused by financial uncertainty and periodic incarcerations, encouraged women from criminal subcultures to draw together in female-centred households. Likewise, while men were usually passing figures in disorderly women’s recreational culture, the more continuous sociality they enjoyed with each other empowered them to contest the limitations that class and gender placed upon their pursuit of pleasure. Such connections between women were hardly uniformly harmonious or beneficial in their effects. They were facilitated, however, by the growing disciplinary action and institutionalisation underclass women faced, which encouraged a greater sense of community among them. Courtrooms became a stage from which female defendants trumpeted their rejection of mainstream values and commitment to the alternative ethics of their criminal subcultures. The reformative goals of various institutions went unachieved as women’s sense of belonging to a criminal milieu was augmented by the time they spent inside with each other.
This research constitutes an important challenge to the worldview that women’s lives can best be understood via their associations with men, rather than their relationships with each other. The denigration of connections between criminal women by contemporaries can be read as symptomatic of a more pervasive hostility towards affective relationships among women, and the potential agency they represent, which has never entirely disappeared from society. My findings suggest that women’s participation in criminal lifestyles, apart from the obvious monetary motivations, was about establishing a sense of power and self-worth, which women were able to derive from identification with each other. This connects with my current postdoctoral research for The Prosecution Project on the negotiations of identity evident in theft trials. My research matters because it speaks to the tensions between how society perceives an individual or group, and how people themselves experience or understand their own lives.
Dr Alana Piper is a Research Fellow on the Australian Research Council project ‘The Criminal Trial in Australian History’ at the Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security (CEPS), Griffith University. She is co-author (with Melissa Bellanta) of ‘Looking Flash: Disreputable Women’s Dress and “Modernity”, 1870-1910’, in the current issue of History Workshop Journal (no. 78).