Women & Organized Crime in Early 1900s Chicago

Lee 1938 Louisiana SaloonRaceland Louisiana Beer Drinkers” (1938) by Russell Lee is public domain. 

Women are underrepresented in crime and criminal economies compared to men. However, research on the gender gap in crime tends to not employ relational methods and theories, even though crime is often relational. In the predominantly male world of Chicago organized crime at the turn of the twentieth century existed a dynamic gender gap. Chris Smith’s project, “The Shifting Structure of Chicago’s Organized Crime Network and the Women It Left Behind,” combines social network analysis and historical research methods to examine the case of organized crime in Chicago. Chris uncovered a group of women who made up a substantial portion of the Chicago organized crime network from 1900 to 1919. Before Prohibition, women of organized crime operated brothels, trafficked other women, paid protection and graft fees, and attended political galas like the majority of their male counterparts. The 1920 US prohibition on the production, transportation, and sale of alcohol was an exogenous shock that centralized and expanded the organized crime network. This organizational restructuring mobilized hundreds of men and excluded women, even as women’s criminal activities around Chicago were on the rise. Before Prohibition, women connected to organized crime primarily through the locations of their brothels, but, during Prohibition, relationships to associates of organized crime trumped locations as the means of connection. Relationships to organized crime were much more accessible to men than to women, and consequently gender inequality increased in the network. The empirical foundation of this research is 5,001 pages of archival documents used to create a relational database with information on 3,321 individuals and their 15,861 social relationships. This research introduces a unique measure of inequality in social networks and a relational theory of gender dynamics applicable to future research on organizations, criminal or otherwise. This research has received funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Justice, and the University of Massachusetts Graduate School.