Queen Victoria and now

Last school holidays we went to Melbourne for a few days. One of the many great places we visited was the Old Melbourne Gaol*. It doesn’t look like much on the outside, but it was my favourite place of all the places we visited. Each cell is set up with information about a particular prisoner or prisoners, general information about the gaol or a re-enactment of conditions faced by prisoners. One of the displays had the following information about female prisoners:

Women criminals were treated quite differently from men. In the century dominated by Queen Victoria, loving wife (and grief stricken widow) of Prince Albert and devoted mother of nine children, women were expected to be nurturning, passive, submissive, self sacrificing, gentle and delicate. Men, on the other hand, were dominating, powerful, authoritative, strong and protective. It was deplorable but inevitable that men should commit crimes but when women did so they were thought unnatural – traitors to their sex.

So really, have things changed that much since Queen Victoria’s day in the way female criminals are seen by society? Are some parts of society more likely to fall victim to this type of thinking than others?

*Old Melbourne Gaol is a sandstone building. Inside the gaol there are three levels of cells, reached by steep iron staircases. Unfortunately there are no lifts inside so anyone not able to climb steep staircases cannot access the whole site and many of the doorways are narrow. You might fit a wheelchair in but a scooter may have difficulty fitting through.

Categories: arts & entertainment, Culture, ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, history, law & order, Life, social justice, work and family

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2 replies

  1. Only about a year ago or so, a report was released on this subject. The research focused on attitudes of magistrates to women and showed a strong tendency toward biases based on gender roles. For example, women who adhered quite closely to prescribed ideals of femininity, in appearance (white), voice tone, attitude etc. were treated with far more lenience by magistrates than were women who were Aboriginal, butch, loud, not demure enough etc. I can’t think of the name of the report off hand but if you really wanted it I could find it.
    The attitudes documented in the report can also be found within other areas of criminal justice, for example among law enforcement agents, prison officers, lawyers and social services that target this particular group. You could probably trace these attitudes back to classical understandings of crime, criminality and penology. It’s really just a reflection of gendered expectations in the broader context.
    Anecdotally, I can tell you that the personal accounts I have heard from women in the justice system would support the findings of the report.

  2. Good questions, Mindy.
    This post is kind of timely in light of this article about a book which seems to raise serious doubts about the medical evidence on the basis of which Kathleen Folbigg was convicted for murdering her children.
    Whcih also calls to mind the Sally Clark case, in which an expert gave bad statistical evidence which resulted in her conviction; that conviction was later overturned on appeal.
    The two cases are different, and especially given this topic: for example, in Ms Folbigg’s case, much of the evidence was circumstantial and a large amount was from her own diary. However, in both, and particularly in the focus on the mother in relation to SIDS deaths, I see a reflection of the attitude you mention.
    And then there is this article with the headline “Addicts aren’t necessarily bad mothers, study finds”. It’s quite a good article. Here’s the first para:

    MANY mothers with a history of serious drug use are still capable of caring for their children, given the right support, a new study has found. But most mothers in the state’s methadone programs were not getting the services they needed.

    Note the lack of reference to fathers – which may well be because the study itself focused on mothers. But even that might just reveal the social expectation that a mother will be part of a child’s life unless the State steps in, but a father might not be – and all the social expectations that come along with that.

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