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What crime reporting can teach us about women’s history

How can you learn about women’s history if they are under-represented in historical sources? Look at news coverage of crime, says Clare Wilkinson, PhD candidate in gender and history. ‘Historical crime reporting offers a glimpse into forgotten groups.’ The doctoral defence will take place on 23 April.

Drama in the Dailies

‘Traditional history tends to focus on the top layer of society,’ says Wilkinson, ‘the “important people”’. So if you want to learn more about people from other walks of life, it’s of little use to you. But if you read crime reports in old newspapers, all layers of society are represented.’ Wilkinson, a historian, will be awarded a PhD for her research into ‘Drama in the Dailies: Violence and Gender in Dutch Newspapers, 1880 – 1930’, in which she investigated how crime reporting changed during the rise of mass media in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Changing structures

‘I think research like this is particularly important because it sheds light on the relationships between men and women and the way in which these relationships have changed throughout history,’ says Wilkinson. A broader debate among historians is currently unfolding regarding changing attitudes towards violence. ‘One of the main reasons I started doing this research was that I wanted to respond to that debate. One of the assertions made is that from the 19th century onwards there was less and less tolerance for violence against women and children by men, and that men were being sentenced more and more severely for it.’

Crime and mass media

The period Wilkinson investigated for her PhD research, from the end of the 19th century until just before the Second World War, was a period of great change in Dutch society. With the rise of mass media, newspapers were no longer read only by a small group of businessmen; workers and women started to read them as well. Gradually, women were also seen as important consumers, and this is reflected in the reporting, including reporting on crime. Wilkinson: ‘In this period you can see that more attention is gradually being paid to crimes that specifically affect women: domestic violence and sexual crimes.’

Incidents and 'love drama's'

Yet there is a fundamental difference between news coverage of crimes against women now and then, Wilkinson explains: ‘Today, if a girl is murdered by her boyfriend, journalists immediately ask questions like: “Did the authorities offer enough protection? Could this have been prevented?” This wasn’t the case before.’

‘The social discussions we’re seeing today as part of the #Metoo movement, for example, which explores what society can do to curb the abuse of power, were unthinkable in those days. Crimes were portrayed as incidents, and sometimes even as entertainment. The abuse of women was also often romanticised; reporters used to refer to it as a “love drama”: the man was so in love, he just couldn’t control himself.’

A nuanced picture

The broader debate about changing attitudes towards violence in society merits more nuance, Wilkinson concludes after completing her research. ‘I found that certain forms of violence did in fact start to receive more coverage in the media, and that sympathy in those reports gradually shifted towards women. But this didn’t result in harsher sentences  for men because it was often portrayed as a crime passionnel, a crime based on love And in cases of domestic violence, especially when the perpetrator was a middle-class male, there was still a lot of sympathy for the man.’

About Clare Wilkinson

Clare Wilkinson, from England, studied Economics at the University of Cambridge and Statistics at the University of Kent in the early 1980s. After a long career in the field of economics, including some time spent in the Netherlands, she completed a Master’s degree in History in 2011, which is where she encountered the history of crime. For her PhD research, she decided to combine two of her main interests: gender and the history of crime. She is being supervised by Manon van der Heijden and Ariadne Schmidt.

Images: Clare Wilkinson

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