When organized crime took over the structure of Western society from the mid-19th century through the mid-20th century, the role women had in it varied. While the association with a notorious gang offered anyone immediate protection and respect, there were many roles in these communities. The role of women could range from prostitute to boss, and female bosses were powerful women during their time. The average person would go about their day working more than likely, simply trying to support their family.
Mobsters also worked to support their families in a much more dramatic and calculated way. Female mobsters are an interesting case because of the uncharacteristic qualities compared to other women during this period. The role of female gangsters broke a specific barrier in gender equality, and I think that many of these female figures played a part in the acknowledgment of women as more than just wives and mothers.
The Role of Women in Crime
In the general scope of organized crime, a woman’s role can be just as important as a man’s, whether it is working as a drug mule or keeping track of logistics for an operation (COOC). However, high power roles are not as common for women to hold, so women are often used for dirty work because they are more easily overlooked than men. It is no surprise that women can often simply just be trophy wives or mistresses for male gang members. Often, in media, women in mobs are depicted as sex symbols that use their bodies and looks to distract or sway the enemy, and the truth is not far off.
Some dangerous work that gangster women take on drug mules, a concept pioneered by “The Godmother of Cocaine,” Griselda Blanco. Women who are desperate for money for various reasons, including supporting their family, drug addiction, or being dragged into the gangster life by a family member or spouse, volunteer to transport drugs across borders for crime bosses. Additionally, women might also be told to be a falcon, or lookout, to gather information about rival gangs or police operations because women are more likely to be overlooked as being part of a gang.
Women Known for their Criminal Work
One woman who is an infamous symbol of female gangsters is Bonnie Parker. Although Parker was not part of a larger mob family, she and her partner, Clyde Barrow, are notorious for their massive crime spree (Blumberg). Although their spree lasted only a couple of years, they caused an incredible amount of damage and panic. Their end started when Parker helped break Barrow out of jail. From there, the duo committed several burglaries and murders, meeting their end when a friend turned them over to the police.
A more modern example of female gang activity is connected to the Italian mafia. According to TransCrime, while women represent only 2.5% of mafia-related convicts, they own one-third of mafia assets (Bodrero). Maria “Penelope” Campagna served as the Capello clan’s head while her husband, Salvatore Cappello, served time in prison. It is important to note that Maria Campagna did not just carry out the wishes of Cappello as a proxy; she was the boss. Impressing both clan members and anyone who witnessed her rule, Campagna proved to be a greatly independent woman and incredibly effective boss. Beyond the context of crime, Campagna proved the women were just as capable as men, shocking the surrounding men with her success as the boss.
Women Have the Right to Be Independent
Any story of a female gangster will prove that women can do anything they want. Although crime is an unorthodox context in which to consider gender equality, it is certainly interesting because of the cutthroat and calculated, organized crime culture. A relevant message to be found in the history of female gangsters is that people should not underestimate the ability of women. These women did not let society or the law confine them and altering that motive for not letting society control your life is utterly applicable to today. You do not have to be a ruthless crime boss to be a strong, independent woman, but I think that there is some inspiration in the history of women’s roles in organized crime worth looking into.