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Five facts about women’s involvement in organized crime

Women are involved in many organized illegal activities, albeit in small numbers. Editors Rosemary Gartner and Bill McCarthy of The Oxford Handbook on Gender, Sex, and Crime have compiled important information about women’s involvement in organized crime. Here they’ve adapted some information from “Organized Crime: The Gender Constraints of Illegal Markets” by Valeria Pizzini-Gambetta (Chapter 23).

(1) Most organized crime falls into one of two distinct types — illegal industries and mafias — both of which are dominated by males. Illegal industries supply illegal commodities through networks that vary in shape and size according to the circumstances of the trade. Mafias are club-like groups defined by ritual entry, a territorially-based hierarchical structure, and the supply of extra-legal governance to illegal markets. Both types of activity have been dominated by men, but there are many historical examples where women also participated, particularly in illegal industries.

(2) There is historical evidence of mixed-gender groups of criminals. Several mixed-gender groups of criminals roamed the Netherlands and the German territories in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some pirate groups in the Far East were also mixed-gender marauding communi­ties. In the early nineteenth century, Chinese pirates were ruled by the widow of their late general for several years. They formed a nation at sea, in which junks were gender-mixed, with female captives and family members on board. Buccaneer and pirate communi­ties in the Caribbean golden age were essentially gender-exclusive; nevertheless, a handful of women entered the world of sea piracy through love relationships, cross-dressing, and kinship.

(3) Female entrepreneurs have been involved in running illegal businesses in the modern period. Marcellina Cardena, Marie Debrizzi, and Stephanie St. Clair were part of the gender and racial blend that animated gambling in Harlem until the 1930s. These so-called “bankers” needed only cash and a network of policy vendors to conduct illegal gambling. They hired other women to go door to door to take dime bets in exchange for a small percentage of the win from both bankers and winners. Women have also played important roles in the drug trade. In Latin America, Eva Silverstein (arrested in 1917), Sadie Stock (arrested in 1920), and Maria Wendt (arrested in 1936) were part of international rings of traffickers that imported opium and its derivatives from China and Mexico for export to the United States and Europe. More recently, Mahalaxmi Papamani and her network of Tamil female neighbors managed an important share of the drug retailing market in Mumbai in the 1980s.

(4) Although less common, women have also formed gender-exclusive crime groups. The “Forty Elephants” was an all-female group that flourished in the shadow of The Elephant and Castle male gang in London throughout the nineteenth century and well into the 1950s. The young women of this group specialized in shoplifting in the West End. Their sorority was hierarchical and a “queen” was in charge of distributing targets among the group members.

(5) Women often play “traditional” female roles in organized crime. Women have been relatively less involved as active offenders in mafias; instead, traditional female roles remain the most important resource for this type of organized crime. Intelligence gathering, turf monitoring, and hiding illegal commodities or weapons are tasks that can be accom­plished as part of women’s ordinary daily routines. In most groups, women are trusted auxiliaries in a number of capacities at times that are critical for the functioning of the group’s operations.

Headline image: Person in the Shadows with handgun, on natural wooden background. © Alexei Novikov via iStockphoto.

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