chapter  10
18 Pages

“Stories more terrifying than the truth itself”: narratives of female criminality in fin de siècle Paris

WithAnn-Louise Shapiro

In fin de siècle Paris, the female criminal had become an evocative marker of a crisis in modern urban society, generating considerable attention among social scientists, jurists, criminologists, psychiatrists and journalists. Building on a familiar model of nineteenthcentury social criticism that interpreted urban pathologies through the prism of sensationalized images of disorderly working-class women,1 various experts and popularizers focused on the criminal woman as the mirror through which society could recognize itself; the problem of female criminality served as an interpretive tool for assessing the viability of contemporary mores and institutions. This was a time, however, of low/stable or declining rates of female crime, and nothing in the criminal statistics of these decades can account for the burgeoning preoccupation with criminal women.2 It is my purpose here to explore the meaning of this attention to the figure of the criminal woman, to consider what was at stake for contemporaries in the discussion of female criminality, and to discover how the criminal woman came to be a powerfully resonant figure for expressing contemporary concerns.