Female gangs have been traced as far back as the 1800’s and are predominantly counter parts of male dominant gangs. Most female gangs are either African American or Latina, although there are small but increasing numbers of Asian and white female gangs. Ethnic marginality often lies behind economic marginality. In the 1920’s, most gang members were children of European immigrants (Thrasher, 1927). By the 1980’s, most were African American and Latino. Females were seen as inferior to males, which is one of the reasons why they have historically played a minimal role in gangs. Traditionally, females are not recognized as members of the gang but as someone’s girlfriend, sister, or relative. Females who associated with a gang were often used for holding weapons or drugs, as alibis or sex toys. Today, many of the same generalizations still apply to females although there have been some changes.
Female gangs formed in reaction to the sexism and gender in equality found in male dominated gangs. Girls are no longer just appendages to male gangs, and there is some indication that girls are beginning to form their own gangs as well. Many male gangs allow females to join their ranks, but others are exclusively female. Frustrated by the absence of equal rights and dissatisfied with risking their lives without voice or influence, girls formed their own groups. Female gangs are somewhat more likely to be found in small cities and rural areas than in large cities. Their ethnicity varies from one region to another, with African American gangs predominant in the Midwest and Northeast and Latina gangs predominant in the Southwest.
Female gang members emulate the behaviors of male gang members as a form of integrating into the gang. Females will wear gang related clothing, participate in criminal activities, and coordinate some of the crimes. Recently, females have tried to form their own gangs, taking characteristics from male dominant gangs and applying them to their own. Females apply characteristics such as jump-ins, graffiti, tattoos, weapons and violence, as a way for them to gain a good reputation and recognition from male gang members.
When females decide to be a part of a gang, they must be initiated by other members. Generally, females are initiated by being jumped-in or sexed-in. Being sexed-in to a gang entails having sex with a number of hard-core gang members. Females will often choose to be jumped-in because it is a way to gain respect from their fellow homeboys. Being jumped-in also gives females the tough image and reputation they seek. Females who choose to be sexed-in will not enter the gang with as much respect and are often used as sex toys for the gang. Joining a gang can be an assertion of independence not only from family, but also from cultural and class constraints. In joining a gang, young Puerto Rican women in New York felt that they would be able to express themselves as assimilated Americans, spending money freely and standing up for themselves.
Although joining a gang is only an adolescent episode for some females, for others it is a turning point and a gateway to a life offering very little chance for a socially acceptable career. Some authors studying Mexican American gangs in Los Angeles imply that once a female leaves a gang, the gang’s influence on her life ends (Quicker, 1983; Harris, 1988), but others disagree (Moore and Hagedorn, 1996; Moore, 1991). Membership virtually ruled out marrying non gang mates. Most female gang members married male gang members whose careers often involved repeated imprisonments.
Although females commit the same violent crimes that the male gang members do, they are often overlooked by law enforcement. Females will carry razor blades in their mouths, knives in their hair, and are able to conceal weapons and drugs with their bodies. It is critical to remember that female gang members can be just as dangerous as males and should not be underestimated because of their sex. It is important to know that females seek gang membership for the same reasons that males do, for protection, love, money, recognition, etc. Whereas males can be active in a gang for several years, females tend to phase out of this lifestyle at a much younger age. Several factors contribute to this, such as pregnancy, infection of sexually transmitted diseases, and the need for employment.
In general, female gang members commit fewer violent crimes than male gang members and are more inclined to property crimes and status offenses. Drug offenses are among the most common offenses committed by female gang members. It has been estimated that between one-fourth and one-third of all youth gang members are female (Maxson and Whitlock, 2002).
It is important to know that females seek gang membership for the same reasons that males do, for protection, love, money, recognition, etc. Mostly they come from economically deprived neighborhoods and live with a single parent. According to Chanequa (1998), peer relationships appear to be the most significant determinant of female gang membership. Economic and family pressures also motivate many young women to join gangs. They also join due to excitement, money, drugs, and even fear, threats and intimidation. The gang “family” promises to give them all the things they want or need.
Gang members are more responsive to peer socialization than to conventional agents of socialization, and the gang may become quasi-institutionalized (i.e., it may develop the capacity for self perpetuation). The female gangs are considered as a refuge for young women who have been victimized at home. Research consistently shows that high proportions of female gang members have experienced sexual abuse at home. In Los Angeles, for example, 29 percent of a large representative sample of Mexican American female gang members had been sexually abused at home, and their homes were more likely than those of male gang members to include drug users and persons arrested for crimes (Moore, 1991, 1994).
Unfortunately, female gangs have received little programmatic attention. Many aspects of female gang functioning and the lives of female gang members remain a mystery because relatively few researchers have considered female gangs worthy of study. The 1992 reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 specifically mandated more programmatic focus on female delinquent offenders. One of the programs that have made efforts to reach females is created by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America that are directed at reducing or eliminating gangs and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s (OJJDP’s) Comprehensive Communitywide Approach to Gang Prevention, Intervention, and Suppression, which is directed at gang-involved youth and their communities. These programs offer a foundation to build on, but much more work needs to be done to address the needs of females involved with gangs.
Chanequa J. Walker-Barnes, Rafael M. Arrue, & Craig A. Mason
A poster presented at the meeting of the Society for Research on Adolescence, San Diego, California (February 1998).
Girls and Gangs: Identifying Risk Factors for Female Gang Involvement
Harris, M. 1988. Cholas: Latino Girls and Gangs. New York, NY: AMS Press.
Maxson, C.L., and Whitlock, M.L. (2002). Joining the Gang: Gender Differences in Risk Factors for Gang Membership. In C.R. Huff (Ed.), Gangs in America III, (pp.19-35). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Moore, J.W. 1991. Going Down to the Barrio. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
Moore, J.W. 1994. The chola life course: Chicana heroin users and the barrio gang. International Journal of the Addictions 29:1115–1126.
Moore, J.W., and Hagedorn, J. 1996. What happens to girls in the gang? In Gangs in America, 2d ed., edited by C.R. Huff. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Quicker, J. 1983. Homegirls: Characterizing Chicana Gangs. San Pedro, CA: International Universities Press.
Thrasher, F. 1927. The Gang. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.