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Silvano Montaldo, Donne delinquenti: Il genere e la nascita della criminologia

Roma, Carocci editore, 2019, 339 p., ISBN: 978-88-430-9827-9
Franco Capozzi
p. 143-145
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Silvano Montaldo, Donne delinquenti: Il genere e la nascita della criminologia, Roma, Carocci editore, 2019, 339 p., ISBN: 978-88-430-9827-9

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1In 1847, in a speech before the House of Lords, the Bishop of Tasmania stated that the female convicts in the colonies were far worse than the men. “Female felons are so bad”, he explained, “because, before a woman can become a felon at all, she must have fallen much lower, have unlearnt more, have become much more lost and depraved than a man”. At the time, women convicts were considered to be more reprobate than male ones even by women themselves. In 1864 the English philanthropist and prison reformer Mary Carpenter wrote that female convicts were “as a class, even more morally degraded than men”. The way in which a variety of social scientists, legal experts, physicians and psychiatrists in Europe and the United States commented on and dealt with the issue of the female prison population and female delinquency from the early decades of the nineteenth century until the 1870s is the focus of the first part of Montaldo’s book, whereas the second focuses on the influential work of Cesare Lombroso and his disciples on female offenders. The book contributes to the history of positivist criminology by exploring how this new discipline tried to explain female crime from the 1820s to the end of the century. In so doing, it exposes the misogynistic view of women that informed most of the theories advanced in this respect.

2Chapter 1 is devoted to the emergence of the issue of female delinquency in the early nineteenth century, when the term “criminology” had not yet been coined. At the time, male and female convicts were not kept separated in prison. As a result, women prisoners were often sexually abused and attacked by male inmates and prison guards. The situation started to change in the 1820s, when an increasing number of commentators denounced the difficult living conditions of female convicts and asked for the creation of separate women’s prisons managed by female staff. As Montaldo shows, women made a major contribution to prison reform. In 1842, for example, the American feminist and phrenologist Eliza Farnham became (for four years) the head matron of the women’s division of Sing Sing state prison. Following the teachings of another influential feminist, Dorothea Dix, she committed herself to morally rehabilitating female prisoners through educational and recreational activities.

3These were also the decades in which female delinquency gained the attention of social scientists. The Belgian astronomer Adolphe Quetelet and the French lawyer André-Michel Guerry applied statistical methods to the study of criminality, discovering that women committed remarkably fewer and less serious crimes than men. Quetelet, who Montaldo sees as the true founding father of positivist criminology, explained this gender imbalance as the result of three factors: women’s moral superiority (the feelings of shame and modesty curbed their criminal tendencies), the fact they mostly lived in the seclusion of their families (which reduced temptations and opportunities to break the law), and their physical weakness (which prevented them from perpetrating certain crimes). Therefore, although Quetelet considered women to be the weaker sex, he did not see them as intellectually inferior to men. He was also well aware that women’s higher indulgency in abortion and infanticide was partially a product of patriarchal society.

4In the 1840s and the 1850s, however, the debate on the perils posed by the “dangerous classes”, the diffusion of the theories of degeneration and morbid heredity, together with the emergence of the social hygiene movement, changed the way in which public opinion perceived female deviance and challenged the idea of women’s moral superiority. This is the object of chapter 2. Prostitutes and women from the lower classes were now seen as a threat to public health and security, since they would spread venereal diseases among the population and give birth to children that would become future mentally ill or criminals. While the medical discourse of the time was pathologizing the female body and reiterating the idea of female inferiority by constructing hysteria as a typical feminine disease, authors like Henry Mayhew and Frederick William Robinson spread the view that criminal women were far more evil, perverse and cruel than men. The belief that prostitution was the female equivalent of male crime also began to emerge.

5Chapter 3 marks the beginning of the second part of the book, which is devoted to the figure of Lombroso. Unlike other scholars, Montaldo argues that rather than being the founding father of positivist criminology, Lombroso was the first to think of himself as a criminologist and to initiate a process of institutionalization of this new scientific discipline. Montaldo proves this by tracing Lombroso’s numerous intellectual debts, which were mostly owed to the French scientific world. In the first edition of Criminal Man, published in 1876, Lombroso already addressed the issue of female criminality. Refuting Quetelet’s conclusions, he maintained that women were as “criminals” as men, since prostitution was the female equivalent of male crime. Montaldo shows to what extent Lombroso’s research methodology was weak and unscientific, relying on second-hand data, misrepresenting other authors’ thought and selecting only the sources that confirmed his assumptions.

6Chapter 4 charts the debate that followed the publication of Criminal Man in Europe. One of the main criticisms directed at Lombroso revolved around the issue of female delinquency. Napoleone Colajanni, one of the worst enemies of the Lombrosian school, stressed the inconsistency of the theory of atavism. Since Lombroso had claimed that women were more primitive than men, why then was their participation in crime so low? Attacked from all sides, Lombroso decided to devote an entire book to the analysis of female offending, which was published in 1893 with the title Criminal Woman, the Prostitute and the Normal Woman. By the 1890s the Lombrosian school had lost most of its scientific credibility and the publication of Criminal Woman represented an opportunity to regain it.

7Chapter 5 reconstructs in depth the genesis of Criminal Woman, which was written jointly with the young disciple and future son-in-law Guglielmo Ferrero. Drawing on private correspondence and unpublished documents, such as Gina Lombroso’s autobiography, Montaldo offers a fascinating glimpse into Lombroso’s family life and relationship with his daughters Gina (his most precious scientific collaborator) and Paola, two well educated and relatively independent women. Paradoxically, Criminal Woman, a summa of the misogynistic thought of the time, would have never been written without the contribution of two women: the aforementioned Gina and the criminologist Pauline Tarnowsky, author of the first book ever written on female delinquency, who sent pictures and anthropometric measurements of Russian female criminals to Lombroso. Writing to a friend, Ferrero summarized the book’s main thesis with the following words: “[the woman] is more bad than good, and when she is good, it is often out of stupidity”. In order to solve the theoretical contradiction pointed out by Colajanni, the book stated that the intelligence and the insensitivity of both normal and criminal women were inferior to that of men and that the prostitute was the female equivalent of the born criminal. According to Gina, Criminal Woman sold in twelve months as many copies as Criminal Man had in ten years. Montaldo sheds light on Lombroso’s shrewd ability in using his contacts and the press to promote himself and build up expectations about his work in the general public, as demonstrated by the fact that most of Criminal Woman’s Italian reviews were written by acquaintances or members of his school. Not surprisingly, one of the harshest criticisms came from a woman, Anna Kuliscioff, a Russian feminist and good friend of Paola Lombroso, who pointed out that the Lombrosian school was “a male school imbued with male prejudice”.

8Chapter 6 analyzes the reception of Lombroso’s book outside Italy and gives an overview of its translations in several languages. Criminal woman was a best seller in the United States but was welcomed with hostility in France, England and Germany. By the end of century, Montaldo implicitly concludes, the star Lombroso star had reached the hour of dawn.

9Donne delinquenti is a major contribution to the history of nineteenth century criminology and perhaps the most important monograph devoted to Lombroso and his school of the last decade. The book draws on an impressive range of sources from several countries and considers the work of Lombroso against a transnational backdrop. Unfortunately, the author does not investigate the reception of Criminal Woman in Spain and Latin America, countries where the legacy of Lombroso was particularly significant and lasting. It would also have been interesting to know something about how Lombroso’s theories on female crime were translated into everyday practice by prison doctors, psychiatrists, forensic experts and criminal anthropologists. The book, however, is extremely rich in content. The information overload makes some parts of the volume less readable than others, which is especially true for the first two chapters. The reader might sometimes get lost into the detailed account of authors, publications and theories provided by Montaldo and lose sight of the aim of the book. The use of a more argumentative writing style might have helped in this respect. Overall, however, the text is clear and well written. If ever translated more widely, Donne delinquenti would certainly become a point of reference for anyone interested in women’s history and the history of criminology and would undoubtedly inspire future research on the topic.

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Franco Capozzi, « Silvano Montaldo, Donne delinquenti: Il genere e la nascita della criminologia »Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies, vol. 25, n°2 | -1, 143-145.

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Franco Capozzi, « Silvano Montaldo, Donne delinquenti: Il genere e la nascita della criminologia »Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies [En ligne], vol. 25, n°2 | 2021, mis en ligne le 21 mars 2022, consulté le 20 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Franco Capozzi

KU Leuven, History Department

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