Girls in Gangs is probably one of the most misrepresented or ignored areas of gang prevention and intervention. There are limited studies on the overall involvement of girls in gangs, much of it is characterized by a gender bias. When researchers do study the issue, their sources for information are frequently male gang members.

During early research conducted by Thrasher and other experts erroneously believed that female gang members were nothing more than “sexual objects” to be controlled by male gang members. In Thrashers study in 1936, which is considered the first comprehensive study of gangs and gang violence, even Thrasher dismissed girl gang participation within the gang subculture as auxiliary in nature. What Thrasher was implying is that female gang member involvement was strictly for social or sexual activities.

Thrasher’s study is most often the model for which many other studies are based on in the area of gang research. However, recent research has shown that female gang involvement is on the rise and their overall involvement in gang-related criminal activities is on the rise out pacing their male counterparts.

The explosion of females may be a by product of cultural, socio-economic issues that plague society as a whole. Many females frustrated by the absence of equal rights, the inability to voice their influence, has forced a moved to from their own groups. Female gang members today have little concern over the impression they have on the opposite sex, the majority of their problems are often gender related, sexual abuse, male violence and pregnancy.

Girls join gangs for a variety of reasons as do their male counterparts. But in the female gang subculture they are laying claim to an area in exerting power and control over their area of control in order to achieve status.

According to research conducted by Joan Moore’s research female gang-affiliated members come from the same dysfunctional environment and harmful types of homes as the male members, but the girls were much more expressive about this. They stated that joining a gang was like a path to liberation from the stereotypical roles they would be forced into in traditional society. However, many female gang members experience severe problems in the gang including sexual exploitations and violence.

Joining a gang provides a female with promises of financial reward, identity and status. Female gang members are also more likely to hold down a respectable job at the same time that they are involved in gang activity. If girls are part of a male gang, they are often asked to commit crimes at the gang leader’s bidding because many law-enforcement officers may be more inclined to let girls get away with more criminal activity, simply because of their gender.

Girls who do not wish to be subjected to abuse amongst the male gangs turn to all girl gangs as their liberation to exert control over their lives. They also join out of frustration because they are the ones committing crimes, running drugs and putting themselves in danger and they reap none of the rewards and their male counterparts maintain control.

Part of the liberation for a female gang member in joining an all girl gang is that they avoid a catch 22 that is common in the gang culture. That Catch-22 called the “lover girl”, “ho” or “down” girl, “gang hoppers”, these are the girls who seek status by dating male gang members and who attempt to participate in gang life without a formal initiation. In the gang subculture in which power, control and machismo is a driving force, the girls who are “play things” for male gang members are looked down upon both by male gang members and full fledged female gang members.

According to Campbell and Moore most females join gangs for friendship and self-affirmation, but recent research shows that economic and family pressures motivate many young women to join gangs.

Due to recent economic shifts and changes in the welfare system, the total number of persons on welfare has been reduced. This reduction or eliminated welfare payment has forced many economically deprived women into positions in which they have to make money in order to survive or provide for family. Some have turned to prostitution, while others have turned to gangs as a means of “earning money.”

Family pressures seem to be a constant where female gang membership flourishes. According to Moore, high proportions of female gang members have experienced sexual abuse at home. In Los Angeles, 29 percent of a large representative sample of Mexican American female gang members had been abused at home and there homes were more likely than male gang members to include drug users and persons arrested for crimes. Miller cites that a majority noted family problems as a contributing factor,” citing drug addiction and abuse as the most common problems.

Laidler and Hung found that in San Francisco, CA, a large multi ethnic study of female gang members describes them as “resisting normative forms of femininity” but also “devising alternative forms for femininity.”

Drugs and Girls
In a study conducted by Moore and Hagedorn of African American and Latina female gang members in Milwaukee showed that many more females were dealing drugs, but they were less likely to do so than were males. According to their study about one-half of the female gang members and three quarters of male gang members had sold cocaine in their lives. A higher percentage of Latina females, 72 percent and 81 percent for Latino males. Compared to African American females 31 percent and male 69 percent.

A 1993 study conducted by Taylor which looked at Detroit’s “corporate gangs” that is gangs organized for “financial gang by criminal action.” The study revealed that both autonomous (all female) and gender-integrated selling crews were involved in drug street economy. The position of females in the drug dealing business has changed, which was accelerated by the collapse of job opportunities in the inner city and the collapse of neighborhood social structure. As drug dealing became more common among gang members, autonomous female dealers occasionally emerged.

Ethnicity and Gender Roles in the Gang
Most female gangs are either African America or Latina, although there are small numbers of Asian and white female gangs, there numbers are still small in comparison to the later two.

Autonomy, African American and white female gang members would be more autonomous and Latinas more subordinate to their male counterparts. Factors that played into autonomy included the Male unemployment and the incarceration of the many males who are convicted of illegal economic activities removes males from both Latino and African America households. As a result, women must rely on their own resources to support themselves and their children.

In Taylor’s Detroit study he found that “the female is an intrinsic part of the gangs group identity who participate in gang activities.” Former female gang members reported that even though police ignored then, they were just as involved in gang warfare, drinking, and sex as the male members of their gang.

African American females were more likely than Latinas to be employed, less likely to be on welfare, and more likely to have moved away from their old gang neighborhoods (Hagedorn and Devitt, 1999) The comparison conducted in this study showed that Latina who had gang membership tended to have significant influence on their later lives, but for African America females the gang tended to be an episode.

Latina female gang members were more likely to fight side by side of their male counterparts and they were more likely to use hard drugs. Latina female gang members also felt that the gang played an important part in their lives

Long-term Consequences of Gang life
For many young girls joining the gang subculture can be an adolescent episode, for others it is a gateway to a lifestyle to behaviors that are socially and morally unacceptable. Long term effects of the gang subculture have different effects based on ethnicity and race. For example where as African American females gang membership is Milwaukee was considered an adolescent episode, Mexican America females had long lasting effects. For example, Mexican America females who joined a gang in Los Angeles were likely from families that were already stigmatized by conventional community residents. Many had joined the gang to escape abusive families but their membership actually restrained their futures. Most female gang members married male gang members whose careers often involved repeated incarceration. In contrast less that one-fifth of the male gang members married females from the gang. Of additional constraint on a female gang members life is children. Most male gang members also have children but the consequences are more restrictive for females.

Harris, MN. 1988. Cholas: Latino Girls and Gangs, New York, NY: AMS Press

Girls in Gangs,

Mydans, Seth, “Life in Girls’ Gang: Colors and Bloody Noses”, New York Times, January 29, 1999

Miller, Jody, “One of the Guys: Girls, Gangs and Gender”, Oxford Press, New York, NY

Moore, Joan & Hagedorn, John, “Female Gangs: A focus on Research”, OJJDP, Juvenile Justice Bulletin, March 2001