A rise in female crime figures is challenging preconceptions of the “gentler” sex.

Anne, a 29-year-old mother of four young children, recently spent nine months in jail or the armed robbery of a Footscray clothes shop.

Equipped with a stolen bolt-action rifle in January 1996, she held up two women, threatening to shoot them unless they opened the till. When they refused, Anne grabbed a handbag from one of the women and ran out of the shop. No shots were fired.

She received a 23-month sentence, but was paroled after nine months and released in July 1997.

“I didn’t think about it; I just did it,” she explained. “I was desperate for money. I get $330 a week on a supporting parent pension, but I couldn’t pay the rent, the bills and my children’s school fees. I tried to get a job, but I’ve got no skills and left school at 15 and worked in a factory.”

It wasn’t Anne’s first violent crime, although she had never used a gun before. Aggressive behavior was an accepted part of her upbringing.

“My mother was pretty heavy-handed with me and physically abusive … At 15, I started hitting her back. I punched her up in the stomach and lost my temper,” she said.

An eight-week anger management course in jail did not quell a bad temper that frightens even her.

“I’ve never been good at words when it comes to speaking about how I feel. I tend to use my fists,” says Anne.

Women have long been perceived as the victims of violent crime, not the perpetrators. Certainly, men commit an overwhelming majority of violent crimes.

But Victoria Police crime figures reveal a rise, though small, in female violent crime, while male numbers have dropped. In 1996-97, women (including juveniles under 18) committed 2,608 violent crimes, compared with 2,390 in 1995-96. Male violent crimes dropped from 18,569 in 1995-96 to 18,421 in 1996-97.

Evelyn Field, a consultant psychologist, says women may be committing more violent crimes as a backlash against what they view is still a male-dominated society.

“Women have been so powerless and passive that some have flipped and become more aggressive instead of more assertive,” says Field.

“In some ways, they’re adopting male forms of abuse and are identifying with male aggression.”

Field believes the increased use of drugs and alcohol are also turning more women to crime.

“I knew of a rape of a woman by another woman where both woman had consumed large quantities of alcohol,” she says.

Field believes the rise in female crime is a more recent phenomenon. It requires more exploration in consultation with the police, the law, welfare organisations and the public, she says.

Female violence sits uneasily with our preferred perceptions of women – both physically and psychologically.

According to RMIT lecturer in social work Lee FitzRoy, who is doing a PhD on violent women, “we have quite a paradoxical relationship to women’s violence; on some levels we don’t wish to see it, we don’t wish to hear it, but the other side of that is that if women are violent, especially in relation to infanticide or sexual violence, they are actually defined as doubly deviant … and I think our society can’t quite find a place for women in the middle of it”.

The subject challenges our way of dealing with women as passive, caring and nurturing human beings, and our way of meeting that challenge is to say women are either evil or mad, or really, really bad, says FitzRoy.

Melbourne University criminologist, Associate Professor Christine Alder, believes society has turned a blind eye to female violence because it is inconsistent with our perspective of women as passive.

Not even the Federal Government National Crime Prevention program, with an annual budget of about $4 million, specifies gender as an explicit issue. It aims to identify successful strategies to prevent crime and violence, covering issues such as child abuse and negative behavior against children, crimes by indigenous people and crimes by young people, that by inference touch on the question of female violence.

Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health, Forensicare, clinical director Professor Paul Mullen, notes a change in traditional patterns of female behavior. He says women now drink more, are just as likely as men to be guilty of road rage and are equally as aggressive as men.

However, women still exhibit far less willingness to inflict serious damage or produce an environment of terror than men.

“To explain the difference as the Y chromosome in men is naive, and it’s unlikely to all lie in family and social upbringing, or the difference in physical strength,” says Mullen. “It’s quite important to know why, as if we could find out, we could do something about men.”

While assertiveness and aggression are normal human behavior, violence is often instigated by fear and anger. Research in the United States reveals that in terms of low levels of violence in domestic relationships – pushing, shoving, screaming, shouting and name-calling – women offend as often as men.

In Melbourne, the football field is just one area where women can exhibit physical aggression without breaking the rules. However, Kate Lawrence, 35, a player for the St Kilda Sharks in the Victorian Women’s Football League, has witnessed several incidents since she started playing in the early 1990s.

“There can be a skirmish, with some pushing and shoving, with words of abuse yelled as well,” she says. “Some players can get quite heated; there’s white-line fever, where women lose their temper. There’s always one player in every team who gets into strife.”

Indeed, she has been guilty of it, too. She told of an incident where an opposition player – “a nasty little player” – had jabbed her in the kidneys while they were running towards the ball. She turned around and, with a clenched fist, swung and hit her in the back.

“I’m not renowned for being an aggressive player and I was shocked with myself that I’d hit someone. Sure, I had hit my little sister sometimes – I come from a big family of six kids – but I was just shocked that I lost control in that way and I’d done that to someone. I never do that; I use words sometimes, but I don’t yell abuse, even though there can be frustration sometimes with another player or the umpires. I didn’t get reported for the hit, and I’ve only done it the once.”

Extreme domestic violence is nearly always perpetrated by men against women and women are more likely to be seriously injured than men.

MRA Commentary
Wrong, several studies make the particular point that men sustain more serious injuries because women often use a weapon in their attack. Ed

Female aggression and violence is commonly directed against men, particularly in domestic situations, but women can be just as violent towards each other. Evelyn Field has counselled partners in lesbian relationships where women have perpetrated acts of violence against each other.

She says both the police and the courts find it difficult to deal with women behaving violently towards each other and many put it in the too-hard basket.

“Male violence against males is seen more as the norm, but female violence against females is often unbelievable and labelled mad,” says Field. The women victims are often less believed and considered hysterical, imagining the crimes committed against them.

But female violence against other females can start in the school ground, says Field. Boys are not the only bullies. While girls perpetrate some physical violence against each other by hitting and kicking, their domain is more likely to be psychological violence, using words and excluding tactics against other students.

Field, who has written a book entitled Bullybusting, to be published in May, says female bullying exists across the board in private as well as public schools.

“Girls will bully by teasing and exclusion,” she says. “It’s a serious problem for girls as much as boys and usually starts in years four, five and six, and getting really bad in years seven, eight and nine. By year 10, it starts to peter out and is almost non-existent by year 11 and 12.”

Field says the emotional impact on the victims with this kind of psychological bullying can be devastating and could affect their friendships throughout their lives.

FitzRoy hopes her PhD may find some answers.

“Women working with violent women want strategies, skills and a more complex theoretical analysis about women’s violence in order to assist social change. I hope my thesis can offer that.”