Annie Cossins, Female criminality: Infanticide, moral panics, and the female body

AuthorChelsea Neumann
Publication Date01 December 2015
Date01 December 2015
SubjectBook Reviews
Annie Cossins, Female criminality: Infanticide, moral panics, and the female body. Palgrave Macmillan:
Basingstoke, 2015; 302 pp. ISBN 978-1-137-29941-3, $100 USD (hbk)
Reviewed by: Chelsea Neumann, Duke University, USA; and Susan Hatters Friedman, University of
Auckland, New Zealand
Female Criminality examines the role of the female body in the creation and enforcement
of gendered criminal justice, particularly as it relates to infanticide and crimes against
children. In five chapters, the book describes moral panic, baby-farming, and infanticide
in 19th-century Victorian Britain, concluding with a discussion of unjust convictions of
alleged female murderers during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The book provides an in-
depth analysis of the historical legal and sociological implications for mothers who killed
their children in Great Britain as well as a group of female baby-farmers executed for
their misdeeds. This society simultaneously allowed and condemned the practice of
baby-farming (an alternative childcare arrangement in which mothers paid others to
care for and feed their children while away working for a living). The author describes
that this social phenomenon became an opportunity for a few doctors to ‘‘increase
the influence of the medical profession by attacking those women who were involved
in all aspects of birth control, childbirth and childcare’’ (p. 3). Sustained throughout the
book is the theme of the masculine medical profession’s demonization of the female
sexed body.
A strength of the book is the thorough description of the phenomenon of moral panic
in relation to baby-farming. Cossins characterizes baby-farming as a solution to the
problem of illegitimate children born to single working-class women, especially when
men were not legally compelled to provide support, and when reproductive control
through contraception or surgical abortions did not yet exist. Indeed, she suggests
that baby-farming and infanticide may have been accepted forms of reproductive control
then as evidenced by advertisement of baby-farming in newspapers and misattribution of
abuse-related deaths to natural causes. Yet, baby-farmers were the ‘‘folk devils’’ of their
time, demonized by a society that perceived them as a threat to the innocence of chil-
dren. Cossins describes the conviction and execution of three ‘‘wicked women’’ who
made their livings as baby farmers and who fatally neglected children. This version of
events, notes the author, failed to implicate the mothers who left their children with these
women, and made no mention of the absentee fathers.
This book highlights a dichotomy in beliefs about women who kill children. On the
one hand, they are viewed as acting against their innately protective nature; on the other
hand, they are seen as behaving in accordance with their evil nature. Cossins describes
the emergence of infanticide laws that remain in two dozen countries today, including
the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. Infanticide law is discussed as a means to protect
vulnerable women from execution, and Cossins describes England’s 1922 Infanticide Act
as creating the ‘‘myth that infanticide was caused by a disturbance of the mind’’ (p. 187),
noting that the ‘‘female condition, in and of itself, was considered to lead to mental
illness’’ (p. 187). She describes that psychiatry joins the law in labeling infanticide as
‘‘something to be cured by psychiatric treatment, thus obscuring the social conditions in
which women killed their offspring, as well as women’s agency in ridding themselves of
unwanted children.’’ (p. 182). However, in addition to social stressors elevating risk for
594 Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology 48(4)

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