Correctional Service Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Common menu bar links

Women Offender Programs and Issues

Warning This Web page has been archived on the Web.

Understanding Violence By Women: A Review of the Literature


Why women's violence has been neglected
The literature
Defining violence

This review of the literature has been prepared at the request of CSC as part of the Federally Sentenced Women Initiative. It was designed to be fairly wide-ranging in terms of the disciplines covered, and to consider in addition any specific programmes and assessment methods designed for women offenders who have acted violently.

In the time available for the study, this review could not be exhaustive, nor deal with some of the fundamental problems in defining and understanding violent behaviour in any depth. It attempts rather to highlight the main views and interpretations relating to violence by women, and the most useful recent literature available which might act as a guide for the development of programmes. It has not been a very fruitful search, reflecting the scarcity of work in this area.

The review considered publications relating to violence by women from 1984 to 1994, as well as material on understanding women's use of anger and aggression. The areas of search requested included criminology, sociology, psychology, psychiatry, social work and education ( See Appendix I). This report deals with a number of aspects:

• the extent of violence by women and the different forms it takes in society and the correctional system;

• the problems of understanding women's violence;

• explanations of how and why violence arises in women on the basis of differing perspectives;

• specific studies of violence by women;

• any assessment instruments developed specifically to measure violent behaviour by women;

• any programmes for such women which have been developed and evaluated; and

• how such programmes might be constructed.

In relation to criminal justice issues, it has long been established that accounts of violent crime receive far greater attention in the media than non-violent crime (Roberts & Doob 1989). While it may be argued that this is justified in terms of the public's right to know about such issues, the overall effect is to increase the sensitivity of the public to such violence, to create an impression that it occurs with far greater frequency than is in fact the case, and to raise unnecessarily fears about its increase. It is not the intent of this review to raise fears about violence by women, but to attempt to understand it.


Why women's violence has been neglected

Top of page

As Frances Heidensohn (1992) has argued `there can be no doubt about women's violent potential.' Yet the issue of violence by women has in recent years been neglected or avoided as a number of writers have pointed out (eg. Krug 1989; Simpson, 1991; Morris and Wilczynski, 1993; Dougherty, 1993; Campbell, 1993; Shaw 1995). In part this refects the fact that men have been, and still are, primarily responsible for most violence. But it has also stemmed from the very legitimate focus on violence against women, and the need to sensitize society to its extent and seriousness.

For feminists in particular, the issue of women's violence has been difficult to come to terms with. Since the focus of public and academic attention tends, as always, to fall upon murder, much of the discourse and literature about women's use of violence over the past 15 years has been concerned with women in abusive relationships who kill their abuser. Thus women's violence has been framed largely as a response to an abusive situation or past abusive experiences.

Yet not all violent acts by women are in direct response to abusive relationships. Women may use violence in other situations, against children, against acquaintances, against those in authority over them, very occasionally against strangers. To deny or avoid consideration of women's use of violence does them a great disservice (Carlen 1985; Worrell 1990; Simpson 1991; Campbell 1993; Allen 1987; Shaw 1995). Anne Worrell (1990) has argued that it does not help our understanding of women to see them always in a submissive role and men in a dominating one. Sally Simpson (1991) stresses that:

`The simplistic notion that males are violent and women are not contains a grain of truth, but it misses the complexity and texture of women's lives' (p. 129).

What is important to underline is that to avoid consideration of violence by women encourages a `backlash' effect where some investigators feel challenged to `prove' that women are just as violent as men, it contributes to the fiction that women who are violent must somehow be extraordinary freaks, its denies women any agency or choice in their lives, but perhaps most crucially, it leaves society and the justice system with little understanding of their behaviour, or guidance on how we should react to them or help them.


The literature

Top of page

The great majority of concern about violent behaviour centres on violence by men. The great majority of the literature on violence is based on male violence. Very little consideration has been given to violence by women. The most obvious (but not the only) reason for this lack of focus, is because women commit little violence compared with men.

The sources available for literature searches in Canada are primarily American or North American. Books and articles identified are also predominantly American. It is important to be aware of this dominance in considering the relevance of findings to the Canadian context. As has been recently pointed out, the United States is more violent than most other industrialized countries:

"Homicide rates in the United States far exceed those in any other industrialized nation. For other violent crimes, rates in the United States are among the world's highest and substantially exceed rates in Canada..." (Reiss and Roth, 1993 p. 3).

America differs from Canada in other ways too, in terms of the greater use of imprisonment and length of sentences passed, the racial and ethnic composition of the country, in levels of drug-related crime, in the availability of guns, and in sentencing practices. Gilfus (1992) notes that half of all incarcerated women in the USA are from racial and ethnic minority groups (primarily African-American and Hispanic). It is essential, therefore, in developing programmes for sentenced women to recognize the particular features of Canadian society which distinguish it from the USA as well as other countries, and which affect the patterns of crime as well as the characteristics of those who end up in prison. There are, after all, only some 300 women at present serving a federal sentence in Canada, and a similar number on parole in the community.

It should also be recognized that the process of publication favours established academic disciplines. Practical projects in institutions and the community, and particularly women-centred programmes tend not to reach public circulation or literature searches.


Defining violence

Top of page

Most accounts of violent behaviour distinguish between individual and collective violence (eg. crowds or gangs), and between instrumental or planned violence, and reactive or expressive violence. However, reaching a definition of violence which everyone would agree with is very difficult for a number of reasons.

1. There is little consistency in the definitions used by different disciplines or researchers. The definition of violence used in a major American study of violent crime is behaviour by individuals which intentionally threatens, attempts or inflicts physical harm on others (Reiss and Roth, 1993). Others, particularly those concerned with violence against women, do not restrict their definition to physical harm. Stanko (1994) describes violence as the infliction of psychological, sexual, physical and/or material damage. A number of studies regard self injury and suicide as violent behaviour. In the literature on child abuse there are conflicting views on what differentiates `violence' from `punishment'.

2. However it is defined, violence includes a very wide and diverse range of behaviour - from bullying and minor assaults, to major assaults resulting in serious injury or death. It may involve physically aggressive behaviour as well as throwing or smashing things up, controlled anger or sudden outbursts of temper, a single event such as murder, or on-going physical and sexual abuse or a series of planned robberies. It may occur in the home, the community or inside institutions.

3. This diversity creates major problems in conceptualizing and understanding violence. Official statistics use categories which `lump together diverse behaviours' (Reiss and Roth, 1993 p.35). This means that minor events are included with much more serious events, making it difficult to judge the severity of `violence'. The criminal classification of violent behaviour also structures and gives `meaning' to events in a way which obscures the diversity of cause, intent, circumstance and history of the event, or even the extent of injury. It is these classifications which the criminal justice system comes to rely on. As Reiss and Roth point out, most empirical research on violent crime has to rely on such categories and this limits our understanding of violence as well our ability to develop preventive strategies.

4. The context in which behaviour takes place also gives it meaning and significance. Physical attacks in the course of organized sporting events are not classified as violent although their consequences may be similar to such events on the street, or in the home. Physical attacks on the street are what many people regard as violent offending. Until recently, such violence against women in the home was not seen as, nor dealt with, as criminal. Thus individual acts of violence, as the great majority of accounts point out, need to be considered within the context in which they take place - to be contextualized. Violence, whatever its links with individual factors is seen primarily as situationally induced, and as the outcome of a history and combination of factors. It is never a simple event.

The focus of this review is on violence by individual women. It considers criminally defined violence, violence in the home, and in institutions, as well as self-injury.