Girls get violent

Girls are beating boys in exams. Young women have moved into former male preserves like the professions. Feminism has brought greater equality. But is it also leading more women to resort to physical violence? Rebecca Fowler reports

Rebecca Fowler
Wednesday 01 May 1996 23:02 BST

There is something uniquely shocking in the image of young women using physical violence against their own sex. We have come to expect violence from boys. We had better get used to more of it from girls.

Scant details have emerged of the events that led up to Louise Allen 13, lifeless, being rushed to hospital, reportedly after she was set upon by a group of girls "like a pack of animals" after she left a funfair close to her home in Corby, Northamptonshire, on Monday evening. Even in a violent age the news of her death was met with disbelief.

For the community who knew Louise, her death is being treated as a terrible and isolated tragedy that has shaken the Roman Catholic school where she was a popular pupil. But it is bound to fuel concern over the increasing evidence that young girls are more violent, often to one another, than women of older generations. Of course, it is a myth that girls are little angels. Traditionally, they controlled their patch of the playground with manipulation and verbal abuse, including spreading rumours and excluding members of a group. But, until recently, they had not resorted widely to physical violence.

The rise in violent female crime and the increase in reports of female bullying suggest that girls are using violence with almost as much enthusiasm as boys. Women's lives have been transformed by a growing sense of equality with men, yet it is as if the next generation of women are taking up some of the darkest aspects of male behaviour and making it part of their own response to their frustrations and fears.

In the past five years female violent crime has risen by 12 per cent, four times the rate among men, and offences involving women carrying out assault, robbery, murder and drug-related crimes has increased by 250 per cent since 1973. Although the numbers remain small, with 9,500 women found guilty of violence against another person in 1994 compared to 5,300 in 1984, a clear pattern is emerging: women are becoming more violent.

Most disturbing are the signs of increased violence among younger women who, at the most extreme level, are forming menacing American-style gangs on some inner-city housing estates. (Elizabeth Hurley, the actress and model was famously mugged by such a gang in London last year.) In a survey by Demos , the independent think-tank, it emerges that in the 15 to 17 age group, girls are more likely to take pleasure in violence than boys, suggesting that we may have a new generation of female aggressors in the making.

Among the most disturbing recent cases were two 17-year-old girls who carried out a vicious attack in 1992 on their 70-year-old neighbour, in which they strangled her with a dog chain; two women who tortured and burned a 16-year-old girl to death in Manchester; and a host of recent crimes in America, from where the trend of female gangs has already to started to catch on.

Kidscape, a child protection charity, has seen an increase in the number of calls from girls who are the victims of violent attacks by other girls. The charity received 80 reports of violence in 1993, which rose to 97 in 1994 and to 119 in 1995, varying from kicking and pushing to one group attack in which a girl was pinned down in the showers by classmates who pushed a bar of soap into her anus.

Michel Elliott, director of Kidscape, says young women are getting a confusing message: "A lot of girls think that to be emancipated one acts like a boy. There is a whole genre of films in which the heroine is violent," she says. "Combined with that, we don't explain the consequences of violence to girls in the same way that we do to boys, because we don't think we need to. They see someone get kicked in a film and get up. They don't understand the consequences, and that one kick may lead to death."

The cultural backdrop in which women are portrayed as more assertive, and more aggressive, began to change most notably in the early Nineties. The film Thelma and Louise, in which two friends reap a trail of revenge against violent and oppressive men, appealed to an older generation of women who have fought for a hard-won sense of equality. Ms Elliott is among those who believe it conveys ambiguous messages to younger girls: "There is a tremendous role confusion for girls, but look at the role models we are giving them. We've gone from Doris Day to Drew Barrymore with a gun in Bad Girls. This is women trying to be more like men, but instead of taking the best traits, like assertiveness, they've gone for the worst: violence."

Women have always been portrayed as talented practitioners of evil, but it is as if Lady Macbeth has finally taken up the dagger herself. Thelma and Louise was followed by a host of films with subversive, violent heroines including Basic Instinct, The Last Seduction and Single White Female. More recently, Heavenly Creatures and Tank Girl both portrayed younger women who seized their independence through violence.

The 2,000-strong Demos survey of 18 to 34-year-olds made it clear that women had become more assertive. They are just as likely to travel, rock- climb and bungee-jump as men. There are now more female solicitors under 30 than male, and gradually women are ascending to the top positions in their professions. Women have also won the basic right to equal opportunities in work and education, something that was unheard of half a century ago.

But for a generation of women who have inherited the fruits of feminism there is a risk of also taking on the most negative aspects of a society once controlled exclusively by men. Heart disease and alcoholism are rising in women, female harassment against men is also on the increase, and the early evidence suggests the connection between violence and poverty is as strong in women as it is in men.

Nick Winkfield, a partner in MORI, the opinion polling organisation, which conducted the research for Demos, says: "Women in the lower social groups are much more tolerant of violence and more willing to use force to get what they want, compared to well-off women.''

Women who have committed atrocious and notorious crimes, from Myra Hindley to Rosemary West, have been dismissed as so far beyond the pale that it is impossible to draw conclusions from their actions. But the steady increase in violent crimes among women, especially those in their teens, is forcing a reassessment of the relationship between women, violence and power.

Those who work with children believe that the most significant factor in the rise in female crime is the exposure of all young people to violence. Peter Wilson, director of Young Minds, which campaigns for children's mental well-being explained: "Women may have become more assertive, but across the genders violence is often the response to a violent upbringing, combined with the fact that children are now exposed to a host of violent images on television."

Despite the increase in female violence, it is significant that girls are still reluctant to be known to be violent. Research at Sheffield University into bullying among 7,000 children suggests that girls are just as likely to use physical violence when they are bullied as boys, but they are ashamed to admit to it. Although women are becoming more violent, there is not yet the equivalent of the macho culture of violence which thrives among boys. That reluctance to boast about violence may offer some hope of containing the rise in female aggression. But the statistics suggest that female violence may well be here to stay - in which case the playground is set to become an even more frightening place than it already is.

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