In 1979 I came to New York City to study the role of girls in New York street gangs. The slim quantity of work on female delinquency generally and on gang girls especially fell into two categories, each of which conspired to keep the real nature of such girls’ lives effectively hidden. Many were one-off studies relating some index of social or psychological pathology such as measures of family disruption or degree of deviation from sex-role stereotypes with gang involvement. The other available data was from social workers whose clear intention was to solve the gang problem rather than account for its form and its impact on female members. I wanted to observe and interact with girl gang members and to represent their own views of the situation. The literature abounds with rich accounts of the lives of street corner men and street corner gangs, but women appear at second hand and only through the reports of male speakers. I wanted to redress the balance and to hear girls speak for themselves.
In order to represent female members as whole people with their own biographies and attitudes and relationships to the community I selected three gangs. I spent six months with each gang and in each focused on an individual girl.... I let the girls talk for themselves in Chapters three, four, and five. It is, after all, their story and it seems fitting that it should be told in their words. The girls may not agree with my interpretation of their position and the final chapter must be my responsibility, not theirs....
Girls have been part of gang life for over a hundred years, from social clubs through years of prohibition and corruption to the ‘bopping’ gangs of the 1950s and through the civil disorders and the women’s movement of the 1970s. Social scientists are now more sensitive to relationships of girls with other girls, and the small amount of available research reflects a growing concern with girls beyond their sexual relationships. As they assume a more three-dimensional representation, girls appear increasingly as sisters in the gang instead of molls. But it cannot be said that their roles have altered substantially. They exist as an annex to the male gang, and the range of possibilities open to them is dictated and controlled by the boys. Within the gang, there are still ‘good girls’ and ‘bad girls’, tomboys and fallen women. Girls are told how to dress, are allowed to fight, and are encouraged to be good mothers and faithful wives. Their principal source of suffering and joy is their men. And though the girls may occasionally defy them, often argue with them, and sometimes patronise them, the men remain indisputably in control.
Many social commentators might wish to find that this state of affairs has been washed away since the 1970s. Some criminologists believe that the increase in female crime is the direct result of the liberation of women. Some radical criminologists hoped to see a new revolutionary awareness springing from oppressed women and where better to look than at women in urban ghettos? Social control theorists maintain that crime results from the failure of individual ties to mainstream values, and who would be a better candidate for such alienation than urban minority women who have so little to gain by commitment to conformity?
These expectations were unrealistic. The gang is not a counter-culture but a microcosm of American society, a distorted mirror image in which power, possessions, rank, and role remain major issues but are found within a subcultural life of poverty and crime. Gangs do not represent a revolutionary vanguard rejecting the norms and values of a capitalist society that has exploited them. When gang members talk of politics they talk of the American Dream, of pride in their country, of High School Equivalency Diplomas. They want better welfare and health benefits, they want more jobs, but they don’t want revolution. Gangs exist not in an anomic vacuum where sex roles are forgotten and anything goes, but in a subculture deeply embedded within the value system of Western capitalism. Girl members as women want to be American, to be free, to be beautiful, to be loved. These girls subscribe to the new woman’s dream, the new agenda: No more suffering or poverty. No more lonely, forced ‘independence’, living alone on welfare in a shabby apartment. First, a good husband; strong but not violent, faithful but manly. Second, well-dressed children. Third, a beautiful suburban apartment. Later for the revolution.
“In [secret] participant observation, the researcher becomes part of the group by concealing her true purpose, which places her in the position of acting as a human recorder, dispassionate and removed.... Worse still, the researcher often overidentifies with the group; she assumes that her interpretation of events is the same as that of the members, and this can be a dangerous assumption when entering a subculture whose members do not share the same ethnic, educational and political background. I never attempted to disguise my identity or purpose and so was able to ask openly for explanations of ambiguous events and to query inconsistencies in accounts. Practically, I also could use a tape recorder rather than having to rely on field notes alone.
The most obvious danger with this approach, however, is that members can lie to you. In remaining with a group for a period of time it is quite difficult for either researcher or subject to sustain false impressions: it is hard to maintain a systematic deceit or an alien persona for six months and members of the gang or community are apt to give the game away. But there were, I do not doubt, facts that were hidden from me. Often accounts of criminal activities were oddly inconsistent over time: I suspect that on occasion members feared they had said too much and made attempt to cover themselves.”