The Underworld Never Seemed So Fair: Women as Pirates, G’hals, Mafiosas and Gangsteristas

By Fred W. Viehe.

Published by The Humanities Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Women have been involved, and at times, very involved in organized criminal activities. In some instances, they were at center stage, and at others, they provided ancillary services to their male counterparts. In the American context, women were in leading positions during the golden age of piracy and shared equal status with their male counterparts. Some served as officers aboard ship, and at least one woman captained a pirate ship. In the mid-nineteenth century, women known as G’hals continued to play significant roles in Anglo-American and Irish organized crime. At least two women, Hell-Cat Maggie and Sadie the Goat, were leaders of Irish street gangs. As Irish gangs commercialized prostitution, though, women’s position in the underworld declined, and they no longer appeared in leadership positions nor shared equal status. Their nadir was reached with the appearance of Italian and Jewish organized crime, where women officially were banished from the underworld. Not being allowed to become members of the Mafia, their role was limited to that of wife and mother. One theme that clearly appeared among Mafiosas was control—or their lack of it. In this context, women fared as best they could, often becoming helpmates in their men’s criminal activities. Only a few approximated equal status. Most became the equivalent of worker bees in an organized crime hive, while a few rejected the underworld completely and divorced and/or testified against their men. Not until the appearance of Asian, Hispanic and African American organized crime groups did women reassert themselves, and again, assume leading positions in the underworld. Some of these Gangsteristas organized independent women gangs. Fighting female gangs appeared in major urban areas. Other Asian, African-American and Hispanic women continued to serve male gangs as their associates. A similar pattern appears in the revived Anglo-American organized crime, where women connected to outlaw motorcycle gangs operate in a secondary if not servile position.

Keywords: Women, American, Organized Crime

International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 9, Issue 3, pp.65-94. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 2.521MB).

Prof. Fred W. Viehe

Professor, Department of History, Youngstown State University, Youngstown, Ohio, USA

As an urban historian who focuses on the cultural, socio-economic development of cities, my renown work is “Black Gold Suburbs,” published in the Journal of Urban History (1981). In more recent years, my interests have turned to the history of popular culture in an urban setting, and most recently, the relationship of atavistic culture and cultural hedonism and their opposition to democratic culture.


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