Criminality, Class, and the Historical Framing of Kleptomania as a “Women Only” Mental Illness
Most criminology students are familiar with the strange early explanations of criminal behaviour. From Cesare Lombroso’s concept of atavism, to Herbert Sheldon’s categorization of the human physique into somatotypes, it is clear and quite frankly not surprising that the bulk of early theories were rooted in race science or harmful stereotypes that othered and demonized marginalized populations.
A potentially lesser known historical tidbit regarding criminality that I would like to discuss involves the intersection of many different areas of study including topics of gender, class, and mental illness. The crime being focused on is the act of shoplifting, and while this offence can date back to ancient history, the main time period of interest in this case pertains to the Victorian era.
During this time frame, there was a growing concern in the number of middle and upper-middle class women being caught for shoplifting. Reporting and news of this occurrence had many people perplexed as this phenomena went against the commonly held view that petty theft was a ‘poor person crime’ and that it was only people who were experiencing poverty that would shoplift. In this case however, the women being caught in this act were from financially stable families and would be able to afford to pay for the items that they were stealing - yet stole them anyways.
Unlike those experiencing poverty, it is interesting to note that the middle class women who were caught shoplifting during this time were never deemed to be a criminal by newspapers and magazines reporting on these incidents, they were instead labelled as ‘unfortunate women’ who were ‘sick’ or ‘mentally ill.’
This aligns with historical accounts of numerous middle class women pleading that their irresistible impulse to shoplift was due to their condition of kleptomania and therefore outside of their control. With the condition of kleptomania seemingly becoming a euphemism for shoplifting by the wealthy, many were also quick to denounce the term as a way for the rich to mitigate the social and institutional reactions to their crime. In his 1888 essay, “A New Crime”, Mark Twain writes, “In these days, if a person of a good family and high social standing steals anything, they call it kleptomania, and send him to the lunatic asylum.”
On the other hand, those who were in poorer economic circumstances did not get the benefit of this label and would be fined and punished accordingly. In 1896, anarchist Emma Goldman gave a speech relating to this double standard in Pittsburgh:
“Moses, when he came down from Mt. Sinai, brought us ten laws one of which was “Thou Shalt not Steal.” This law has come to be applied only to a certain class. For example, a poor starving wretch, dying from hunger and cold, steals bread or clothing or money. Brought before a judge […] he is given a so-called trial and imprisoned. If a rich woman is caught shoplifting the wealthy court has a new word for her and says is afflicted with “kleptomania” and pities her”.
It was also common for department stores to turn a blind eye if a woman was caught and arrested. They would oftentimes not press charges due to the perpetrator being wealthy and usually a returning or frequent customer. Rachel Shteir puts it best in her book “A Cultural History of Shoplifting” when she stated that “today’s kleptomaniac is tomorrow’s big spender.”
While acknowledging the double standards that the term kleptomania brought up between handling the crimes of the poor vs the crimes of the rich, it is also important to not forget the problematic and misogynistic nature of how kleptomania would be determined at the time. During the Victorian era, some of the common factors believed to be the causes of kleptomania included pregnancy, pre and post pregnancy, menstruation, and menopause. With a symptom list like this, it seemed like merely having a uterus made you somehow prone to insanity.
While it is evident that the condition of kleptomania was heavily gendered, there were some psychiatrists at the time such as Isaac Ray, who believed that everyone - regardless of gender, was susceptible to kleptomania. Ray stated that men could get it from suffering a head injury, similar to amnesia. However, despite this take, it is important to note the framing of how the condition was caused in the first place: men would get kleptomania if they suffered from a physical injury, such as head trauma, whereas women were deemed to be somehow naturally prone to the condition.
Cesare Lombroso supported and popularized this idea in his 1893 work “The Female Offender” where he posited that women had an “organic inability to resist stealing.” He wrote: “shoplifting, which has become so fashionable since the establishment of huge department stores, is a form of occasional crime in which women specialize”.
Things get even weirder in the early 20th century, where disciples of Freud used his psychoanalytic theory of the Oedipus complex to determine that kleptomania arises out of female sexual repression. Or even after Freud with Karl Abraham, who proposed that kleptomaniacs shoplifted to take revenge on their parents due to not receiving adequate care and love.
Needless to say, the history of kleptomania received varying inputs throughout the past two centuries and it is interesting to see the term’s use not only having been utilized by wealthy shoplifters of the 19th and early 20th century, oftentimes to their own benefit, but also how much the early explanations of the condition was almost exclusively applicable to women due to their so-called ‘innate inability’ to resist stealing.