OutlawsWomen Choosing a Life of Crime

Some women push the boundaries of acceptable behavior and defy the laws of their societies. These outlaws often face harsh consequences for their transgressions, including death. Female freedom fighters known as soldaderas played a vital role in the Mexican Revolution.Despite the danger—or perhaps because of it—women throughout history have found themselves on the wrong side of the law.

These fierce women fly in the face of convention for fun, profit or a larger social cause. Some outlaws go it alone. Others, such as Bonnie Parker and Phoolan Devi, organize or join gangs. Women denied participation in official armies sometimes form guerrilla armies that revolt against the status quo, e.g., the soldaderas in the 1910 Mexican Revolution or today’s female Zapatistas.

 Rebels with a Cause

Phoolan Devi, backed by armed guards and supporters, poses at a campaign stop in 1996.

When the law is unjust, it sometimes takes an outlaw to spark social change. In the mid-1800s, former slave Harriet Tubman worked as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, transporting slaves north to freedom. For this, she was regarded as a fugitive; today she is regarded as a brave and fearless freedom fighter. In the late 1960s, the Weather Underground Organization made a string of violent protests under the leadership of Bernardine Dohrn that included bombing the headquarters of the New York City Police Department. Around the same time, Valerie Solanas shocked feminists and New York art scenesters when she published her SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto (1968) and later shot artist Andy Warhol. Despite being on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, rampant FBI misconduct led to Dohrn’s acquittal. Solanas wasn’t so lucky: She served three years in prison for attempted murder.

Phoolan Devi, the Bandit Queen of India, was only 18 in 1981 when she became the leader of a band of outlaws in Uttar Pradesh. Avenging multiple rapes, she led a massacre of more than 20 upper-caste men. The act rallied support against the exploitation of women and the caste system. After 11 years in prison, Devi become a champion of women’s rights and even served in India’s parliament.

 Girls Gone Bad

Female outlaws are often pop-culture darlings. Woody Guthrie wrote a famous song about Belle Starr. The 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde was nominated for ten Oscars. Charlize Theron won an Oscar in 2003 for her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos.

Actress Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos, a serial killer who murdered seven men, in Monster (2003).

The public’s fascination with female outlaws is perhaps due to the fact that their violent lives counter the stereotype of women as nurturing, weak and/or physically incapable. Female pirates such as Mary Read and Anne Bonny brawled and looted with the best of them. Like all pirates, they struck fear into men’s hearts and made liberal use of their weapons. But when the authorities captured their ship and promptly marched their male cohorts to the gallows, Read and Bonny’s executions were delayed due to pregnancy.

Generally speaking, female outlaws tend to outlast their male counterparts, and due to gender bias, get off a little easier for their crimes. New England spinster Lizzie Borden was acquitted for the murder of her parents, but most people in 1892 Massachusetts believed she had hoisted the axe that summer day. In the mid-1970s, America became enthralled with the story of heiress Patty Hearst’s involvement with the Symbionese Liberation Army after the guerrilla group kidnapped her. Despite the violent and extreme nature of the SLA’s crimes, Hearst was convicted for bank robbery and served less than two years of her seven-year sentence. The photo of a lithe, young Hearst holding a rifle remains an icon of female lawlessness.

As long as there have been rules and laws, particular women have fearlessly rebelled against social order to live according to their own authority. These outlaws shocked civil society into rethinking a woman’s role and, occasionally, helped to change the course of history.

:: Zel McCarthy-Smith

Outlaws Selected Sources


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