Author's note: Previous readers have asked that this article be updated to include the appropriate reference list. I have add a bibliography at the end. Though somewhat dated, the research and observations provided by this article are still pretty much relevant today.
Why do young females join gangs? Research and conjecture on their reasons for joining have been well documented. For example, Miller (1998) suggests that young women in gangs "have histories of victimization before gang involvement as compared with non-gang females (p. 430)." Miller cites the foregoing as evidence that women join gangs to protect themselves from violence from the men in their lives, either family or otherwise. Likewise, Curry (1998) discusses environmental influences and a theory of "the urban underclass." This theory postulates that unlike minorities of the past, our current inner-city residents are permanently segregated and isolated from the mainstream of opportunity, and gangs are a natural and permanently entrenched outgrowth of this ecological phenomenon.
Sociologists Bowker and Klein (as cited by Curry (1998)) suggested in 1983 that the "overwhelming impact of racism, sexism, poverty and limited opportunity (p.110)" were more important than other factors (e.g., relations with parents) in determining whether inner-city women and girls joined gangs. However, as Jankowski (1991) points out, there are reasons besides poverty and inner city isolation for women joining gangs. Among other things, the gang provides a means of social activity and a way for the women to meet men and participate in social events.
Campbell (1989) also says that female gang membership should be seen in a community and class context: what it means to be a female and growing up their environment as well as "the mainstream culture of which their class forms a marginal part (p. 172)." Poverty-class girls, Campbell maintains, seek gang membership to escape a future of "meaningless domestic labor." The "powerless of underclass membership" as well as handicaps of race and gender (particularly in the Hispanic culture) make women "victims" of a social and economic system and prey to crime and violence within their own communities.
The theme of fear and victimization is also cited by Madriz (1997). Madriz interviewed several groups of Hispanic teenage girls in New York. Madriz' in-depth (though anecdotal) interviews of these young women disclose numerous daily run-ins with other hostile male gangs, the women's fear and distrust of the police, and their perceptions that whites received better treatment from the law and society in general. It was "because of their need to feel safer (p. 49)" that the teenagers hung out in their own groups (a.k.a. gangs) or sought the protection of male gangs.
It is interesting to note that Hispanic female gang members, while seeking protection and the affiliation of a gang, normally have no rights in the gang. They belong only at the will of their male counterparts (Leet, Rush & Smith, 2000).
Another extreme example of women gang members being totally dominated by the men is the outlaw motorcycle gangs, who are "male dominated and highly chauvinistic" and "where women are treated as little more than possessions (Leet, Rush, & Smith, 2000, p. 186)."
The journalist and author Gini Sikes (1997) spent a year with violent female gangs in Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Milwaukee. 8-Ball Chicks is her firsthand account of individual women whose lifestyle was a cycle of poverty, gangs, crime, and prison. In one interview with a Los Angeles Gang deputy at the Sybil Brand Institute (the women's county jail), the deputy said, "These girls are likable, when you take them away from their neighborhoods, their drugs. But put them in a pack and they're evil."
Sikes' account includes meetings with white girls from middle-class homes "who packed 9-millimeter semiautomatics (p. xxiv)." She also went to San Antonio after hearing about girls playing Russian roulette with AIDS while undergoing a gang initiation that involved sleeping with a teenager infected with HIV. Sikes spent many hours with female gangs and got to know many of the individual girls. She makes a particularly poignant observation of their anti-social behavior when she says "It's precisely the gang girls' similarity to other teenagers that makes their cruel behavior so haunting (p. xxiv)."
In conclusion, there appears to be wide agreement among sociologists that women join gangs for protection and/or male companionship. Even feminists are hard pressed to provide an alternative explanation. Although feminists believe that female gangs should be studied in a manner "in which women's experiences and ways of knowing are brought to the fore, not suppressed (Curry, 1998 p. 101)," they accept the notion that females are oppressed and tend to react in ways to mitigate or minimize that oppression.
Additionally, the arguments concerning poverty, racism, and sexism (e.g., the urban underclass theory) appear valid when applied to inner-city girls who are poor. However, the urban underclass theory does not explain the membership of middle class and rural youths in gangs, nor why all children from similar backgrounds do not join gangs.
Finally, one "non-expert" view of gang violence comes from the actor Bruce Willis. Willis in an interview in U.S.A. Weekend (February 12, 2000) provided a commonsense, albeit outspoken, observation about violence and violent children. He believes that what causes violence in young adults and adults is "not having a good childhood, not having a father in the house, learning to become a sociopath instead of a good human being."
Perhaps there is yet another similarly simple explanation: Wherever there are young pubescent boys and men, the girls are not far behind (and vice versa). The dysfunctional sociopathy alluded to by Willis and discussed ad nauseam by sociologists and criminologists is, in my opinion and personal experience, the result of one part bad environment, one part economic deprivation (or boredom with materialism in the case of middle class girls) mixed with one volatile part of raging adolescent hormones.
That volatile mix, in my opinion, can be neutralized by the temporizing influence of dedicated parenting, quality education, and the sure and swift punishment provided by our criminal justice system. When those neutralizing influences fail, society has no choice but to move the gang problem from our streets to the confines of our prison system, where time has a way of settling raging hormones.
Campbell, A. (1989). Female Participation in Gangs. Huff, C. (1990). Gangs in America. Newburry Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Conly, C. (1993). Street Gangs: Current Knowledge and Strategies. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Justice.
Curry, G.D. (1998). Female Gang Involvement. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. 35.1
Gardner, S. (1992). Street Gangs in America. New York: Franklin Watts.
Harris, M. (1994). Cholas, Mexican-American Girls, and Gangs. Gangs And Gang Behavior. (1997), Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers
Jankowski, M. (1991). Islands in the Street, Gangs and American Society. Berkely, CA: University of California Press.
Leet, D. A., Rush, G. E., & Smith, A. M. (2000). Gangs, Graffiti, Violence. Incline Village, NV: Copperhouse Publishing Co.
Madriz, E. (1997). Latina Teenagers: Victimization, Identity, and Fear of Crime. Social Justice 24.4, p.39-56.
Miller, J. (1998). Gender and Victimization Risk Among Young Women in Gangs. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 35.4, pp.429-454.
Sikes, G. (1997). 8-Ball Chicks – A Year in the Violent World of Girl Gangsters. New York: Doubleday
Spergel, I.A. & Curry, G. D. (1992). Gang Involvement and Delinquency Among Hispanic and African-American Adolescent Males. Gangs And Gang Behavior. (1997), Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers