Do Women Commit As Many Crimes As Men? (1858)


Fashion Illustration (1847) from Godey's

Lea Wait, here. A few days ago I was doing a “Lea Wait thing,” as my husband would say .. I was paging through some old issues (well, technically they’re all old) of Godey’s Lady’s Book, and the headline above stopped me. It’s the title of an editorial written by Sarah Josepha Hale.

Sarah Josepha Hale was a fascinating person. Born in New Hampshire in 1788, the daughter of two staunch revolutionaries, she was taught at home first by her mother, and then by her brother, who went to Dartmouth and then tutored Sarah in all his courses when he was home on breaks and summer vacations. Beginning when she was 18 she in turn passed on what she’d learned by teaching at a private school for boys and girls – unusual for a woman at a time when almost all teachers were male. When she was 25 she married David Hale, a lawyer who taught her French and botany and encouraged her to write. She was pregnant with their 5th child when he died of pneumonia.

Desperate to support her family, she began submitting her writing to magazines and newspapers. In 1827 her Northwood, A Tale of New England became the first published novel by an American woman. After reading it, a Boston minister who was starting a magazine for women offered her a job as his editor. Sarah moved to Boston, where she shared a boarding house with Oliver Wendell Holmes. He introduced her to the Peabody sisters, Emerson, Hawthorne, and other members of the Boston literary community, many of whose work she published in her magazine. The magazine, billed as “the first magazine edited by a woman for women” was first published in 1828. Sarah used her column to push the cause of “female improvement.”

In 1837 Louis Godey purchased the magazine, and in 1841 Sarah moved to Philadelphia, and the magazine was re-named Godey’s Lady’s Book. She remained its editor until 1877, when its circulation was over 150,000 issues a month. She published fiction by most of the major American (and some English) writers of her time, and was a strong advocate of women’s education. Athough she stayed away from politics, she was an advocate for jobs for women, including those in the medical field, and felt women had a strong moral responsibility to be positive influences on society. She convinced President Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, and, in a different arena, she wrote the poem, “Mary Had a little Lamb.”

So – what was her “Do Women Commit As Many Crime as Men?” editorial about? She was clear about her concerns in her first paragraph. “If women are as sinful or as prone to sin as men, then there is no hope of improving society by educating women and elevating her influence.”  Read further, and it’s clear she’s responding to an article in a “popular New York journal” (no doubt Harper’s Weekly) which has written “it is an undoubted fact that there are as many bad women in the world as bad men … statistics tell us that as many females are lodged in State prisons and penitentiaries as males. Fewer women fall to wickedness than men, but many men reform, women hardly ever; so the balance between the sexes is maintained. And although there are crimes which are exclusively the province of males, it is an unquestionable fact that two of the heaviest crimes in the calendar – murder and arson – are as often committed by one sex as the other.”

Mrs. Hale was furious. She begins by questioning that women could possibly have “an equal firmness and strength of selfish passion” as men, and added that “men have temptations and opportunities which never come to women.” (Some she lists are power, wealth, exemption from disgrace, training as soldiers, access to tools and weapons, and political jealousies and strife.)

Then she gets down to arguing the facts of the original article. “In the three New York State Prisons in 1858 there were 2022 men and 104 women .. the Eastern District of Pennsylvania holds as prisoners, 172 white males and 3 white females.”

All for fairness, she adds, “The deliberate, cruel murderess should be consigned to the death punishment as surely as the murderer. When she casts aside the feminine virtues, she loses the right of feminine privileges.”

In her last paragraph, she does admit that women are guilty of some crimes — but that even then, their motives are critical, and men may be at the root of it all. I give you … Mrs. Hale:

“Feminine thieves are to be found in the haunts of infamy and among the poor, ignorant serving class, but among men of place, name, and rank, bank directors, great merchants, managers of places of trust, well-paid officers of State, and even those professedly serving in the cause of charity and religion, do we not find culprits far, far deeper plunged in dishonesty than the poor, ignorant, houseless woman who has committed the theft or been an accomplice in the forgery, that sent her to the State prison to serve her villainous husband, or save her profligate son?”

Mrs. Hale was never known for keeping her thoughts to herself.


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4 Responses to Do Women Commit As Many Crimes As Men? (1858)

  1. Deanna says:

    She was wonderful! Dee

  2. MCWriTers says:

    Marvelous post, Lea. Thanks for sharing this. I love the way she refused absurd assertions with facts.

    I sometimes regret throwing out my early copies of a more recent women’s magazine: Ms. I have the feeling that many of the articles leading up to abortion rights, employment rights, and women’s empowerment could be reprinted today with no editing.

    Hooray for Sarah Josepha Hale.


  3. Olivia Dalessandro says:

    Good for her! She didn’t let the author of the article get away with posting his falsehoods. That’s how history gets warped.

  4. John Clark says:

    Mom would have applauded this. Not much bias against women back in those days was there.

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