Being a ‘good woman’: Stigma, relationships and desistance

AuthorUna Barr,Natalie Rutter
Published date01 June 2021
Date01 June 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Being a ‘good
woman’: Stigma,
and desistance
Natalie Rutter
Leeds Trinity University, UK
Una Barr
Liverpool John Moores University, UK
This article critiques the focus on responsibilisation of criminalised women within desistance
research, policy and practice, through the neglect of the structural conditions surrounding
women’s criminalisation and victimisation. The concept of the ‘good woman’ within these
areas is grounded in patriarchal and neoliberal discourse. Drawing upon women’s nar-
ratives, we show this results in feelings of shame and stigmatisation, negatively affecting
relational networks and leading to a denial of victimhood. Research from two com-
plementing studies drawn together here suggest that positive relationships which challenge
feelings of shame and stigmatisation are essential to women’s desistance both from crime
and harm, and are therefore fundamental considerations for practice.
desistance, responsibilisation, criminalisation, victimisation, relationships, stigmatisa-
tion, shame
Female service users of the criminal justice system remain one of the most margin-
alised voices in society (Harding, 2017a), often ignored and unheard (Fitzgibbon
Corresponding Author:
Natalie Rutter, Criminology & Policing, Leeds Trinity University Horsforth, Leeds, West Yorkshire LS18 5HD,
The Journal of Community and Criminal Justice
Probation Journal
2021, Vol. 68(2) 166–185
ªThe Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/02645505211010336
and Stengel, 2018), and overlooked in policy, planning and services (Prison
Reform Trust, 2016). Although desistance theory has begun to include women’s
perspectives (Barr, 2019; Hart, 2017a; Leverentz, 2014; O
¨sterman, 2018;
Rodermond et al., 2016), studies continue to focus on the individual desister, at the
detriment of both relational and structural analysis (Ga
˚lnander, 2020; Hart,
2017b). We are also witnessing the domination of neoliberal ideals of responsi-
bilisation and individualisation within the criminal justice system. In 2007, Baroness
Corston proposed that women’s’ ‘vulnerabilities’ provide the backdrop to their
criminalisation, arguing this can be overcome ‘by helping women develop resi-
lience, life skills and emotional literacy’ (2007: 15). This review was prompted by
the deaths of six women in HMP Styal alongside the upward trend of the women’s
prison population and was commissioned by the Home Office to consider measures
could be taken to avoid imprisoning women with certain vulnerabilities. The focus
that on the responsibilised woman overcoming the hardships she faces, has been
continually present in policy documents that relate to women’s experience of the
criminal justice system. The Female Offender’s Strategy (Ministry of Justice, 2018)
was published after having been promised in the 2016 Prison Safety and Reform
White Paper. The Strategy set out two years of community supervision funding for
women, five ‘residential women’s centres, and a commitment to reducing the
number of women in prison. However, this has failed to address the need for
structural change in order to improve the life chances of ‘female offenders’ or what
we term criminalised women. ‘Female offenders’ individualises and responsibilises
women while ‘criminalised women’ locates the structural inequalities inherent in
criminalisation and desistance. Our research has shown that those who come into
contact with the criminal justice system are a particular group of marginalised and
subjugated women. Criminalised women are those who are materially deprived
and have come from contexts of abuse and neglect from the state. In addition, the
Farmer Report (2019) highlighted the importance of strengthening family and other
relationships for ‘female offenders’, recognising the centrality of victimisation in the
lives of criminalised women, and the importance of positive relationships to support
women’s desistance. However, it fails to critique patriarchal structures which pro-
vide the context for domestic abuse and regard mothers as main carers to children.
Our combined research suggests that promoting the responsibilised individual
woman to overcome personal problems leads to feelings of shame and the omni-
presence of stigmatisation when attempting to desist. Shame and stigma, this paper
argues, are located in the women’s experiences of both criminalisation and victi-
misation, and are evident in their interpersonal relationships with families, friends,
as well as with service providers, for example probation and partner agency staff.
Our research suggests that positive relationships which challenge feelings of shame
and stigmatisation are essential to women’s desistance both from crime and harm
(Barr, 2019; Barr and Christian, 2019), with conclusions considering some impli-
cations for practice.
Rutter and Barr 167

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