Personal Injury

Investigating the Rights of Youths

Schooling and the Vexing Social Control of Girls
By Bernardine Dohrn

Animating the zeal of early reformers was the condition of girls. Transgressions by girls, in school and in the family, have historically been treated differently than male misbehavior. The combined double standard of paternalism/harshness against young females results in increasing loss of freedom for girls and inequitable responses in juvenile justice programming.

For a century, the impulse to protect children from vice, violence, and corruption has resulted in the disproportionate social control and incarceration of girls. By means of status offense categories, which included truants, runaways, incorrigibles, recalcitrants, immoral conduct, unruly children, and involvement in sexual acts or associations, the paternalistic and parental authority of the state moved to protect female children in ways which resulted in their lengthy confinement under brutal conditions—from the Industrial School for Girls to residential placements today. Girls were potentially infectious with venereal diseases as well as moral contamination. In addition, girls were subject to pregnancies, stillbirths, and abortions.

Girls, Schools, and the Early Reformers
Before the invention of the juvenile court, Lucy Flower and the Chicago Women's Club helped to establish the Protective Agency for Women and Children in Chicago in 1887, providing legal assistance, housing, and employment to women and girls who had been swindled, violently beaten by fathers or guardians, or sexually assaulted. This pioneering work of social justice, spearheaded by Charlotte Holt, was in contrast to the predominant notion of girls and women as carriers of disease, temptation, and immorality. Rape reform included efforts to raise the age of consent for statutory rape from ten to sixteen. This meant that intercourse with a girl under the age of sixteen constituted the crime of sexual assault and was an official acknowledgment of the sexual violence and abuse hidden by families, institutions, and male guardians (Odem 1995).

Similar social purity movements against prostitution and alcohol, spearheaded by the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Juvenile Protective Association (JPA), worked to monitor places of licentious behavior, such as movie theaters, dance halls, gambling dens, and steamboats, and to establish a morals court. For two decades, the JPA issued investigative pamphlets on the conditions of children, such as exposure of a girl raped by her family's boarder, or the large numbers of girls living in disreputable houses. In 1920, the JPA published Fighting to Make Chicago Safe for Children, arguing for supervised social centers, parks, and beaches. The JPA reports, however, which portrayed the black community as a place of debauchery, lewd and indecent dancing, vice, and "free intermingling of the races," were harshly denounced as racist and provocative by the Chicago Urban League. This exchange took place in the aftermath of the 1919 "Race Riot," in which tensions over residential segregation, joblessness, and racism exploded in lethal assaults by whites against African American residents.

The Industrial School for Girls in Evanston was established before the juvenile court for those girls, ages 10-16, who were begging on streets, wandering through streets or alleys, consorting with thieves, loitering in houses of ill fame, or living in poorhouses. The "School" removed girls from incarceration in the Bridewell jail and instead committed them to an institution where, it was hoped, they would be taught and uplifted. Delinquent girls were committed to the Geneva Reformatory for Girls (1895), but their situations were similar to those of girls in the Industrial School (and, indeed, to those of girls throughout the century) convicted of sexual activity (Schaffner 1998, 3-4). The exploitation of girls, confirmed by nineteen cases of venereal disease among the eighty-nine children in Geneva, did not lead to adequate funding or support, and the prevailing Victorian attitude toward "fallen" females penalized children. The Chicago Women's Club also hired a matron to watch over women and girls confined in police stations and jails.

By 1907, delinquent girls confined in the Detention Home were segregated on the third floor, to isolate the "moral contamination" (Knupfer 1999, 52-53). Girls were subject to mandatory pelvic examinations and vaginal cultures, not only to gather evidence about cases of venereal disease, pregnancy, rape, or incest, but also to know whether they had engaged in sexual activity. Parents brought their daughters to the Home to be committed because of immorality, to be disciplined, to alleviate family conflict or economic distress, or to receive medical attention. African American girls were held longer in detention and disproportionately represented.

In the first eight years of the court, 45 percent of girls on probation were returned to court, in contrast to 20 percent of boys. Even the female activists like Breckenridge and Abbott, who acknowledged that the girl herself should be held blameless, wrote, "Yet if she has had intimate knowledge of vice or vicious persons and of vicious conditions, she is not a safe companion for the child who is still ignorant and innocent." In 1910, 81 percent of the girls were brought to court "because their virtue was in peril if it has not already been lost." For girls already involved in prostitution, "there must be recognized the possibility of spiritual contagion and physical infection" (Gittens 1994, 117). Morals offenses committed in and around the school were viewed as particularly dire.

By 1913, the first woman assistant judge, Mary Bartelme, convened a Girls' Court to hear cases of dependent and delinquent girls brought to juvenile court. The closed court was held in a separate room where all personnel—clerk, bailiff, and probation officers—were female. Bartelme recruited the women's clubs to provide suitcases containing clothing, undergarments, and toiletries for each girl appearing before the court. She established Mary Clubs for those girls unable to return to their parents' homes as a way of resisting commitment to a state institution. The first two Mary Clubs, opened in 1914 and 1916, accepted white girls only. By 1921, the board of the Mary Clubs joined with the Friendly Big Sister's League, an organization of African American women reformers, to open a third Mary Club for girls of color. In ten years, more than 2,600 girls passed through the group homes (Gittens 1994, 65-67).

Throughout the 1920s, Bartelme asserted that the social neglect of girls was dramatic, that poverty was the principal cause of delinquency, and that parents must speak frankly with their daughters about sex and spend time understanding their children. Based on her rehabilitative approach, Mary Bartelme ran for elected judge in 1920, after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which recognized the citizenship of women; with the support of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, the juvenile court judge, and women's clubs, she served for another decade as a Chicago, a national, and an international champion for children, who relied on probation and volunteer services to keep most children from institutional incarceration.

Contemporary Girls, Truancy, and Gender-Related Offenses
Girls, historically and still today, constitute an invisible but substantial proportion of less-serious delinquent behavior, such as larceny (shoplifting) and status offenses (behavior which would not be criminal for adults). Girls constitute 47 percent of truants, 63 percent of runaways, 44 percent of incorrigibles, 35 percent of alcohol violators, and 28 percent of those arrested for curfew violations (Snyder and Sickmund 1999, 198-200). Girls' offenses commonly involve sexually related and gender-specific behavior such as school truancy related to pregnancy or family problems, having an older boyfriend, running away to escape sexual abuse, or participation in prostitution. Evidence of delinquent girls' extreme victimization in the form of sexual and physical abuse is well documented (Chesney-Lind and Shelden 1998; Schaffner 1998).

In 1995, 23.4 percent of girls' arrests involved status offenses (compared to less than 10 percent for boys); another 25 percent of girls who are arrested are charged with larceny theft (shoplifting). Girls in foster care or group home placements who run away can be classified as delinquent and incarcerated, for example, rather than identified as foster children who could be supported with special programming, or status offenders who cannot be incarcerated. Girls are perceived as defiant and oppositional by courts and police; curfew arrests of girls mushroomed 155.2 percent between 1987 and 1996 (Chesney-Lind 1999).

Constitutional challenges to status offense statutes, such as "danger of leading an idle, dissolute, lewd or immoral life" ( Gonzalez v. Maillard, Civil No. 50424, N.C. Cal [1972]) or "danger of becoming morally depraved" ( Gesicki v. Oswald, 336 F. Supp. 371, S.D.N.Y [1971]), have sometimes led to court rulings that they are impermissibly vague. Concurrently, statues which disproportionately affect girls by permitting "voluntary" commitment to a mental institution of youths by their parents have been sustained ( Parham v. J. R., 442 U.S. 584 [1979]). The constitutional protection of the right to counsel for children in trouble with the law does not extend to status offenders.

Females constituted 47 percent of the youthful status offenders confined in residential placement in 1997, although they were only 11 percent of youths confined in residential placement as delinquents (Snyder and Sickmund 1999, 109). Girls were increasingly incarcerated in private facilities (62 percent) for violations of court orders or status offenses (85 percent of those in private institutions), while the population in public detention facilities remained steady. The contemporary two-track system of juvenile justice, based on race and economic status, results in white girls being referred for "treatment," while African American and Latina girls are detained; more than half the population in private facilities for girls are white females. The juvenile court, for a century, has received referrals from schools for both truancy and gender-related offenses, which disproportionately affect young females.


Chesney-Lind, Meda. "Challenging Girls' Invisibility in Juvenile Court." Annals of the American Academy 564 (July 1999).

Chesney-Lind, Meda, and Randall G. Shelden. Girls, Delinquency, and Juvenile Justice. 2d ed. Belmont, Calif.: West/Wadsworth, 1998.

Gittens, Joan. Poor Relations: The Children of the State of Illinois, 1818-1990. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1994.

Knupfer, Anne Meis. "The Chicago Detention Home." In A Nobel Social Experiment? The First Hundred Years of the Cook County Juvenile Court, 1899-1999. Ed. Gwen Hoerr McNamee. Chicago: Chicago Bar Association, 1999.

Odem, Mary E. Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920. Chapel Hill, Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Schaffner, Laurie. "Female Juvenile Delinquency: Sexual Solutions, Gender Bias, and Juvenile Justice." Hastings Women's Law Journal 9 (1998).

Snyder, Howard N., and Melissa Sickmund. Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1999 National Report. Washington, D.C.: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, National Center for Juvenile Justice, 1999.

Reprinted from A Century of Juvenile Justice edited by Margaret K. Rosenheim, Franklin B. Zimring, David S. Tanenhaus, and Bernardine Dohrn published by The University of Chicago Press. © 2002 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

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