Journal Article: Battered Women “Compelled to Crime”

Gender Entrapment Theory

Melanie – The lesson Melanie learned was that “Black men live a life that is more difficult than Black women, and that part of their family’s commitment to the community was to understand the pressures on the Black man and to forgive him for not making it in the world.” The women in her immediate and extended household decried the men they were involved with as “thorns in their sides,” but with a sense of humor, tolerance, and protectiveness. – Beth Richie, PhD.

While their early childhoods were characterized by a sense of being competent and desirable African American girls, when they entered the public sphere they felt the limitations of their gender, race/ethnicity, and class status. They felt unable to actualize their dreams for social success when educational and occupational opportunities were unavailable or withheld, and they felt the stigma of discrimination based on hierarchical institutional arrangements. The gender entrapment process began here, where the African American battered women’s identities developed in their households of origin were contradicted by their experiences and treatment in the pubic sphere.




African-American women are also marginalized within their own community. The expectation for black women to be ALL things—the ever-present nurturer, family backbone, spiritual guide, teacher, financier, motivator—essentially relegates them into a certain genderized space from which escape is difficult. The same woman that raises daughters caught by the gender-entrapment theory also raises her daughters’ children. 

Professor Richie highlights the fact that the buildup of a prison nation has resulted in the punishment of women, disadvantages for norm violations such as teenage pregnancy, the rejection of the hetero-normative family, and the destabilization of African-American families by being less safe.

The irony remains that the reality for African-Americans, both male and female, is still centered on outdated gender roles that have never quite fit the formation of black families. By failing to redefine gender roles or to change the manner in which African-American children are socialized, African-American families are positioned at the bottom of the politically acceptable family structure in the United States.


Billie Holiday – A woman with a traumatic childhood, an unloving family and was forced into prostitution. She used her talent and sang her way to fame. Loved for her individual style and phrasing she became the queen of blues recognized for her signature melancholic ballads. Her life was cut short after several abusive husbands and an addiction to drugs.



Black battered women tended to feel sorry for the men in their lives, tolerating and excusing negative behavior such as violence and involvement in criminal activities because of racial discrimination and inequalities in the public sphere, while holding themselves and other women to a higher standard. Though their identities and loyalties were valued within their families and communities, the public sphere offered them limited social success educationally and economically. As their sense of self was threatened publicly, the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse in their private lives led to isolation, and eventually they fell prey to breaking the law in order to survive and make their intimate relationships “work.” Professor Richie’s gender-entrapment theory illustrates how the marginalized treatment of these women in the public sphere set the stage for violence in their intimate relationships, which in turn, compelled them to commit crimes.

The role that African-American grandmothers play when an adult female child is incarcerated reinforces the elevated status within the community that black grandmothers have always had. When a man is incarcerated, his children usually remain with their mother because they were likely residing with her prior to the father’s incarceration. However, when a mother is incarcerated, the father is not typically the primary caretaker of the children. In many instances, the maternal grandmother takes on the full-time responsibility of raising her imprisoned daughter’s children. African-American families have typically been governed by the matriarch, or in more familiar terms, “big mama”—the person who was the most stable, economically reliable, and self-sufficient member of the family. Often one of the most respected members of her community, she also was the person that took on the responsibility of keeping the family together at all costs. The extended family network in the African-American community dates back to slavery, and grandmothers were relied upon to take in both biological as well as non-biological children who were abandoned by their parents or guardians and other wayward members of the family.

  • African-American mothers were not always the primary caregivers of their own children—historically they spent more time working or raising white children than their own.
  • The West African culture and tradition of care-giving across generations through the extended family carried over into America, and most African American grandmothers pride themselves on being the glue that holds their families together.
  • Women recognize that older men are more likely to become infirm, require care, and become physically dependent on them. Psychologically, they prefer a life of independence, finally free from the demands of others – something they had been denied in the past in every aspect of their lives.
  • Richie argues that “some women are forced or coerced into crime by their culturally expected gender roles, the violence in their intimate relationships, and their social position in the broader society.
  • Older, poor African-American women who provide shelter and care for various family members are generally single. They choose to remain that way; oftentimes because they have experienced a series of romantic relationships and understand that the level of independence that they have acquired in life could be affected by living with or marrying a man. People whose means are limited strive to reduce risk in their lives.
  • African-American women were socially raised to seek the ideological normative family and to remain loyal to their race in seeking to marry African-American men.
  • Professor Richie highlights the fact that the buildup of a prison nation has resulted in the punishment of women, disadvantages for norm violations such as teenage pregnancy, the rejection of the hetero-normative family, and the destabilization of African-American families by being less safe.
  • Because they have always been viewed as pillars of strength, grandmothers (and their families) have ignored the physical and emotional toll that raising several generations takes on the body and mind. Research shows that African-American custodial grandmothers are often single, living on limited income, and suffer disproportionately from serious illnesses such as hypertension and heart problems.
  • On the one hand, the public claimed that poor black women were at fault because they were unemployed, and on the other hand, they were blamed for not marrying and having babies anyway. Another “accusation against black women claimed that they had jobs while African American men did not, in effect depriving black men not only of jobs but of status.”
  • After slavery,  Black women were hesitant to report their husbands to white authorities because this information could be used against black men to justify violence against them, including lynching.
  • In general, over 60 percent of custodial grandparents have hypertension. Over 27 percent have heart problems, and approximately 55 percent suffer from arthritis or rheumatism. African-American grandparents reported that they felt stressed by the experience of raising their grandchildren.
  • One of the major recurring issues in impoverished minority communities is the cycle of teenage pregnancy, violence, incarceration. In order to break the chains of gender entrapment theory, incarcerated women, their mothers, and their daughters need an open space to share life experiences and lessons learned.
  • Intergenerational care-giving within the prison nation context is often coupled with intergenerational disconnection between grandmother, mother, and children.
  • Considering that the build-up of a prison nation has been marketed as making our streets safer, she notes that African American women are actually less safe in their communities than before mass incarceration ensued.
  • The reality that the poor, young African-American girls of today become the single grandmothers raising grandchildren tomorrow means that it is important for women to define their own family networks while still acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of the matriarchal and patriarchal family structures.




Weaver, Jessica Dixon, (2011) African-American Grandmothers: Does the Gender-Entrapment Theory Apply? Essay Response to Professor Beth Richie, Washington University Journal of Law & Policy, Volume 37 Access to Justice: Mass Incarceration and Masculinity Through a Black Feminist Lens

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