The Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women's Liberation in Mass Incarceration

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by Aya Gruber

University of California Press

11/02/2021, paperback

SKU: 9780520385818


Many feminists grapple with the problem of hyper-incarceration in the United States, and yet commentators on gender crime continue to assert that criminal law is not tough enough. This punitive impulse, prominent legal scholar Aya Gruber argues, is dangerous and counterproductive. In their quest to secure women's protection from domestic violence and rape, American feminists have become soldiers in the war on crime by emphasizing white female victimhood, expanding the power of police and prosecutors, touting the problem-solving power of incarceration, and diverting resources toward law enforcement and away from marginalized communities.

Deploying vivid cases and unflinching analysis, The Feminist War on Crime documents the failure of the state to combat sexual and domestic violence through law and punishment. Zero-tolerance anti-violence law and policy tend to make women less safe and more fragile. Mandatory arrests, no-drop prosecutions, forced separation, and incarceration embroil poor women of color in a criminal justice system that is historically hostile to them. This carceral approach exacerbates social inequalities by diverting more power and resources toward a fundamentally flawed criminal justice system, further harming victims, perpetrators, and communities alike.

In order to reverse this troubling course, Gruber contends that we must abandon the conventional feminist wisdom, fight violence against women without reinforcing the American prison state, and use criminalization as a technique of last -- not first -- resort.


"A riveting exposition and devastating critique of the ways in which feminists became foot soldiers in the late twentieth-century war on crime. Aya Gruber provides a cultural and legal genealogy of carceral feminism that is powerfully argued and utterly convincing. At a time when a new generation of feminists must confront the political challenges posed by both sexual violence and mass incarceration, this is a bold, provocative, and necessary book." -- Elizabeth Bernstein, Professor of Sociology and of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College, Columbia University

"Gruber's depth of knowledge, suppleness of mind, and unparalleled vibrancy are on full display in this important and ambitious book, which spotlights the role of feminist debates in the complicated politics of mass incarceration. A trenchant and wide-ranging critique." -- Jeannie Suk Gersen, John H. Watson, Jr. Professor of Law at Harvard Law School

"The Feminist War on Crime is a brave and persuasive reckoning of what happened when sexual politics met mass incarceration. Gruber takes on both progressives and conservatives like the brilliant scholar she is and the street-smart public defender she used to be. This is the rare important book that is a joy to read. Highly opinionated and super provocative, this book will inspire some great arguments and a transformative approach to criminal justice." -- Paul Butler, author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men

"This deeply researched yet accessible book tells the story of American feminists as, time after time, they resist -- then settle for -- carceral answers to the problem of intimate violence. Gruber urges #MeToo millennials not to once again succumb to the pleasures of punishment, but rather to 'just say no' to the criminal justice state. Whip smart and passionate, expertly weaving together critical race feminism, media analysis, and her own experience as a public defender, Gruber gives us feminist criminal policy for an intersectional age." -- Angela Harris, Distinguished Professor of Law, University of California, Davis

"A deep analysis of the roots of the feminist commitment to the criminalization of violence against women. Gruber challenges the received wisdom that all feminists concur that criminalization is the best way to address intimate partner violence and sexual assault." -- Leigh Goodmark, author of Decriminalizing Domestic Violence: A Balanced Policy Approach to Intimate Partner Violence

About the Author:

Aya Gruber is the Ira C. Rothgerber Professor of Constitutional Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Colorado Law School. A former public defender, she is a frequent commentator on criminal justice issues. She has appeared on ABC, NBC, and PBS, and her work has been featured in the New York Times, Denver Post, and Associated Press.