Syndicate Women

 Syndicate Women is available with University of California Press.

Here is the separate page for Teaching Syndicate Women.

Syndicate Women uncovers a unique historical puzzle: women composed a substantial part of Chicago organized crime in the early 1900s before Prohibition, but during Prohibition, when criminal opportunities increased for men and women, women were mostly excluded from organized crime. Conventional theories of gender and crime are limited in explaining such a rapid shift in this particular criminal organization’s gender composition. Syndicate Women solves this puzzle by interrogating broader relational and market theories, historical data, and criminal networks. Women’s entrepreneurial spirit and economic need did not change in this 20-year period, but rather the structural barriers of access and prosperity developed in ways that were compounded by status, preferences, organizational restructuring, and, as a consequence, gender.

The structure of organized crime changed dramatically during Prohibition from a small, decentralized, and clustered network to a large and centralized network with a powerful core of crime bosses. The structural change in the organized crime network left women behind. Women’s erasure from organized crime history has created a blind spot to the organizational change around gender and power that occurred in the early 1900s—a blind spot that Syndicate Women proves to be insightful to understanding the social processes through which the powerful consolidate their power, the powerless fall further into the margins, and women lose their already precarious foothold in criminal economies.

This research began as Chris’s dissertation project, which received funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Justice, and the University of Massachusetts Graduate School. The University of California, Davis provided a Publication Assistance Grant.

Chris Book Release
Book release day on July 2, 2019.

Published reviews

Gundur, R. V. 2022. Review of Syndicate Women: Gender and Networks in Chicago Organized Crime by Chris M. Smith. Rutgers Criminal Justice Books.

“This well-presented and well-researched work puts faces to significant women of the era, and shows how the dynamics of the relationships between men and women influenced the roles that women could access in illicit vice in Chicago.”

“This chapter on method is a fantastic contribution in itself, as it demonstrates the kinds of inputs required to yield meaningful results in a way that is accessible to novices in both archival research and social network analysis.”

“Ultimately, Syndicate Women’s central mission is to illustrate how analyzing relationships can enhance our understanding of the formation and evolution of organized crime and co-offending. On this count, Chris Smith succeeds, and produces a book that will age well and continue to be useful to students of historical criminology and innovative methods for years to come.”

Wakefield, Sara. 2022. Review of Syndicate Women: Gender and Networks in Chicago Organized Crime by Chris M. Smith. Journal of Social Structure 23(1):1-3.

“It is beautifully written, appropriate for a broad audience of novices and experts, and challenges long-assumed relationships between gender, legal and social change, and crime.”

“For novices, Smith offers an introduction to network science, archival research, and an engaging study of the women who are often rendered invisible in historical research (indeed this reviewer can report that my non-social scientist mother read Syndicate Women while I was working on this review and was delighted to learn about Vic Shaw, Louise Rolfe, and others). For experts, Syndicate Women is an exemplar for how to mix SNA with other methods to produce a rich theoretical and empirical examination of a difficult to study population.”

“The result is a wonderful book, suitable for undergraduates and experts alike, and offering both theoretical insights that are core to the study of crime and gender and a successful example of mixed methods research. For all audiences, the network analysis does not dominate the prose in the book but rather fades into the background, forming the foundation for an analysis centering the people, laws, and social context at hand. The result is an accessible read with the potential to revive work on gender and crime with a new way of seeing the role of women in organized crime. In short, there is something for everyone here.”

Rubin, Ashley T. 2021. Review of Syndicate Women: Gender and Networks in Chicago Organized Crime by Chris M. Smith. Theoretical Criminology 25(2):355-7.

“More than unearthing women’s place in the world of crime, these studies, when done well, tell us a great deal about the world of crime more generally. Chris Smith’s Syndicate Women is one such study.”

“Using careful archival research to construct an extensive dataset analyzed with both qualitative and quantitative methods, and buttressed with a savvy use of network theory and social capital theory, Smith identifies the reason for this shift in women’s participation in organized crime”

“One of the book’s greatest contributions is to illustrate the utility of techniques that are unfamiliar or under-utilized in criminology, but which could help solve challenges in the discipline and beyond. Most notably, the book nicely illustrates what network analysis can do for historical analyses of crime. It also is a fantastic example of how history can inform contemporary debates about criminality.”

“More generally, the book’s combination of multiple methods and multiple theories simply shines: Smith mobilizes a unique combination of sophisticated computational techniques of network analysis, the insights of multiple theoretical toolkits, and rich archival and historical detail.”

“… Syndicate Women is a highly readable and entertaining study of a fascinating empirical puzzle with theoretical implications for its historical context as well as today. It showcases theories and techniques, as well as combinations of multiple theories and mixed methods in a way that is complementary rather than gratuitous, while contributing to important debates about the nature and study of criminality. Ultimately, the book offers lessons not only about female criminality, but about criminality in general.”

Degenshein, Anya. 2020. Review of Syndicate Women: Gender and Networks in Chicago Organized Crime by Chris M. Smith. American Journal of Sociology 126(3):752-4.

Syndicate Women “joins a growing and celebrated batch of scholarship that reinserts historically marginalized communities back into both the popular and sociological imagination”

The group at the center of Smith’s excellent empirical sleuth work is female organized crime members in early 20th-century Chicago.

“Seeing the structure of these criminal relationships and women’s place within them is a fascinating feat in and of itself, but Smith gains analytic leverage by combining her network analysis with historical and narrative methods. Doing so allows her to understand the nature of the criminal relationships she observes, rather than their mere presence.”

“Yet Smith’s approach to these questions does lead to new and useful insights, particularly for scholars who are interested in how exogenous forces affect relational ties and social inequality.”

“Graduate students and researchers will be drawn to Smith’s methodological blueprint, while the vivid stories about her research subjects, along with the clarity of her prose, will make Syndicate Women accessible to an undergraduate readership as well. Taken together, the book offers a much-welcomed corrective to our sociological imagination around organized crime at the turn of the 20th century, while also growing the analytic potential of core methods for our discipline.”

DellaPosta, Daniel. 2020. Review of Syndicate Women: Gender and Networks in Chicago Organized Crime by Chris M. Smith. Contemporary Sociology 49(6):534-5.

“In Smith’s case, network analysis reveals patterns that other modes of examination would leave hidden.”

“At the historiographical level, even being able to tell the story of these “syndicate women”—and especially with the level of detail Smith marshals—represents a notable accomplishment.”

“In short, Syndicate Women stands out for its rich and engaging blend of historiographical and network-analytic techniques applied to a topic of both scholarly and general interest. The book will especially be of interest to readers who wish to know more about the application of network techniques to historical data, Prohibition-era criminal historiography, and the gender dynamics of organized crime.”

Friedman, Lawrence M. 2020. Review of 
Syndicate Women: Gender and Networks in Chicago Organized Crime by Chris M. Smith. Law & Society Review 54(3):720-2.

Smith’s careful study is a welcome addition to the history of crime and criminal justice.

Bellotti, Elisa.
2019. Review of Syndicate Women: Gender and Networks in Chicago Organized Crime by Chris M. Smith. Global Crime 20(3-4):215-8.

“Chris M. Smith takes us on a journey to discover the parallel and hidden lives of criminal women. With extensive archival analysis, attention to details and richness of data, the book provides a picturesque, entertaining yet rigorous picture of the unique illicit society of under- ground Chicago in the first 30 years of the 20th Century.”

“The driving question of the book is quite simple and yet elegant and fascinating. Why and how women were pushed on the margin on Chicago illicit economy of the 20s and 30s? The answer, in Smith’s book, comes from the changes in the criminal opportunities that were brought by Prohibition in Chicago, and the effects that these changes had on the social network of illicit enterprises. These answers are of interest not only for criminologists, but also for historians, social network analysts and sociologists.”

“Overall, I highly recommend this book, which opens many historical, sociological, criminological, and organisational questions on gender inequalities and their structural contexts.”

Editorial reviews

“Syndicate Women is a masterful piece of sociological detective work that brings to life the all-but-forgotten lives of the women entrepreneurs of Chicago’s gangster era. Smith builds an innovative theoretical argument supported by an unprecedented array of historical and network data. Move over, Al Capone—scholars will no longer be able to ignore the women who help create and sustain organized crime.”
-Andrew V. Papachristos, Professor of Sociology, Northwestern University

“Rich in historical detail, Syndicate Women brings to life the criminal activity of women—and men—of the Chicago underworld. Crime bosses have a part in this narrative, but it is the less prestigious positions—saloonkeeper and barmaid, brothel operator and worker—that Smith vividly captures. Using state-of-the-art network analysis, Smith shows how women offenders became increasingly marginalized as the Chicago syndicate prospered. A must-read for anyone theorizing or studying gender and crime.”
-Bill McCarthy, coauthor of Mean Streets: Youth Homelessness and Crime

“Smith provides rich description to set the scenes and eras and also draws from rigorous empirical analyses to make her analytic points.”
-Vanessa Panfil, author of The Gang’s All Queer: The Lives of Gay Gang Members

“Smith’s research offers a framework that can be smoothly transposed beyond the Chicago crime scene to multiple other settings that are shaped by similar gender-related and power-struggle dynamics.”
-Carlo Morselli, author of Crime and Networks

Reviewers said

“Smith’s manuscript is a needed contribution in the sociology of crime. Using the Chicago organized crime scene as a backdrop, this study demonstrates how women were excluded from dominant groups and positions of power, with some succeeding to find some leverage via their unique social capital resources.”

“Social network analysis is a cutting-edge tool that can measure precisely the concepts at issue here (structures or organizations of interpersonal networks), and Dr. Smith is a pioneer in this field. In short, the topic and methods are innovative, and the writing and scholarship are top notch.”

“… overall, I find Dr. Smith’s descriptive writing … to be absolutely delightful: captivating, evocative, and at times playful and cheeky. … This book will be capable of holding anyone’s attention and the relatively short length and clear scope helps a lot with that – I was able to read this entire book in basically one sitting.”