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Manon van der Heijden to study female criminals

Criminals? They are always men. At least, that’s what we tend to think. Historian Manon van der Heijden wants to show, however, that between 1600 and 1900 in Europe, women were responsible for a substantial share of the criminal activity. She has been granted a VICI award for her research.


Dr Manon van der Heijden
Dr Manon van der Heijden

With her VICI grant, Dr Manon van der Heijden (Social History) will for the coming five years be investigating women’s share in criminal activity in Europe between 1600 and 1900. She wrote a proposal for NWO, suggesting a comparative study on England, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. ‘I am really happy that the grant was awarded,’ she laughs, ‘because I have been fantasizing about this topic ever since graduating. My master’s thesis dealt with the criminality of women in 18th century Rotterdam. Even then I noticed how high the percentage of women involved in criminal activity was.’

The fact that the topic has not so far made it to the historical research agenda is the result of modern frames of reference, writes Van der Heijden. ‘In the twentieth century only ten percent of crimes were committed by women, so we automatically assume that this was also the case before.’


Document about a converted maidservant who was condemned to death in 1763 for repeated theft.
Document about a converted maidservant who was condemned to death in 1763 for repeated theft.

With her research, she wishes to prove the opposite, and will in the process be consulting legal sources throughout Europe. In this context she will be investigating offences by both men and women. ‘Comparison is the only way in which you can investigate what the ratios are, whether men and women committed different types of crimes, and why that was the case,’ she explains. ‘Historians once assumed for instance that it was not so much that female criminality diminished in the 18th century, but that male criminality increased. The reason was supposed to be the prosecution policy: people thought that men were by nature more aggressive and violent, and they were therefore more readily suspected and prosecuted.’

‘At the same time, women were increasingly expected to stop working, and stay in the house to take care of the children and the household. As a result, women were thought to lead a less public life and engage in less criminal activity, so they were less often prosecuted. So it’s important to not only look at figures, but also at the motives of criminals in the past and the prosecution policy of governments.’


It will mean a lot of travelling because there are many good sources available. ‘Most countries in those days kept scrupulous records of the type of crime committed, and of the parties prosecuted. And that will be a lot of work, but it’s also really fun.’ Van der Heijden will not be carrying out the research by herself. The first step in the project is to find historians in England, Germany and Italy who are prepared to take over part of the source investigation.

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