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Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910.

Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910. By Kalin Gross (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006. vii plus 280 pp. $21.95).

Colored Amazons examines an important, yet neglected, topic in the history of crime to illustrate broad issues concerning the ways Philadelphians, and by extension, American society, used the criminal justice system as a tool to define and reinforce the dominance of a racist middle- class ideology. Dr. Gross is, however, also interested in how African American female criminals interacted with that system and its supporting ideology in coping with its assumptions about them as individuals.

Black females fell afoul of the criminal justice system because Philadelphia's prevailing racism precluded them from the benefits of full citizenship. Racism constricted their economic opportunities, forcing them into occupations whose pay scales frustrated their aspirations. Not surprisingly, some women resolved that conflict by purloining their employers' property. Larceny became the most common crime committed by these women. A few black women also used the multi-racial character of prostitution to practice the badger game on unwary white customers, adding robbery to their list of crimes.

Some women, finding their dreams of respectability thwarted by male (black and white) assumptions of female subordination, assaulted and occasionally even murdered their tormentors. Indeed, one of the most interesting findings of this study is that 23% of black women incarcerated at the Eastern Penitentiary had been committed for violent behavior. That is a remarkably high percentage of violent crime for any ethnic or racial group and is an important indicator of how differently black females responded to the challenges they faced in comparison to other groups.

There is much of value in this analysis. African American females faced daunting obstacles in their search for occupational and social success, having to deal simultaneously with the practical consequences of racism and gender discrimination (which derived not just from white attitudes but from African American males as well). As with other ethnic and racial groups, criminality was not the path of choice for most women in dealing with those dual sources of oppression, but the particulars of individual black female crimes do serve to illuminate the intense pressures with which society surrounded the disadvantaged.

And yet, there are some problems with this analysis. Because Dr. Gross seeks to argue that black women faced a peculiarly oppressive environment, this study is inherently comparative. That claim requires close analysis of female criminals among ethnic whites in order to separate gender-related discrimination from race discrimination. Given the fact that female criminals constituted only a small minority of offenders in any social group, the evidence for the argument of a peculiarly intense oppression based on the combination of race and gender rests at times on a thin veneer of evidence. Dr. Gross acknowledges that difficulty, but elects to, in her words, to "push past the evidentiary limitations" to make her case.

That choice creates some problems when the evidence is particularly scant, as it is in the case of Alice Clifton, a slave accused of murder in 1787. Dr. Gross seeks to contrast the treatment that Clifton received from the criminal justice system with the ideals of a newly formed nation. The evidence is so fragmentary however, that Dr. Gross quickly segues into an analysis of antebellum Philadelphia's attitudes toward blacks based on secondary sources. Clifton's case becomes a tantalizing, but incomplete, cast study that leaves too many questions unanswered.

The discussion of the ways in which black females used the badger game to achieve presumably ideological goals suffers from the absence of comparison to white prostitutes. The world's oldest profession was certainly alive and well in mid-nineteenth century Philadelphia, but Dr. Gross neglects to comment on the interracial character of urban vice districts or on the fact that white women also practiced the badger game. Here the evidence would tend toward the possibility that this particularly crime reflected gender more than race issues, although it may also be true that black prostitutes were treated more harshly than whites when their male victims complained against them, and as they were arrested, prosecuted, and convicted (each step of that chain posing evidentiary problems in itself).

Problems such as these do not necessarily diminish the value of this book. Dr. Gross writes with passion and sensitivity about a particularly oppressed group of women in nineteenth century Philadelphia. She is to be congratulated for having the courage to apply her considerable talents to a very sensitive subject; hopefully, this work will inspire others to take up the challenge of conducting similar studies.

David R. Johnson

University of Texas at San Antonio
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Author:Johnson, David R.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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