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Meda Chesney-Lind


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POSTED: Friday, December 04, 2009

A criminologist who has spent decades studying the lives of girls and women who end up in prison has some simple advice for parents trying to raise happy, healthy daughters: Listen.

“;We need to listen to our daughters, not just talk to our daughters. That's what girls tell us,”; said University of Hawaii professor Meda Chesney-Lind. “;They want to be heard. Parents think they are talking with their daughters, when they're really talking at their daughters.”;

Chesney-Lind, 62, has co-authored numerous books, including the upcoming “;Fighting for Girls: Critical Perspectives on Gender and Violence,”; and 2008's “;Beyond Bad Girls: Gender, Violence and Hype,”; which cemented her international reputation as a research-driven advocate who disputes the popular notion that American female adolescents are spiraling out of control.

Based in the Women's Studies Program, she focuses on girls' delinquency and women's crime, studying both causes and possible solutions. Her groundbreaking research has been used to create and improve programs for female offenders, including the Honolulu girls' court.

Chesney-Lind, who moved to Oahu from Washington state about 40 years ago to continue her studies in sociology, has a master's degree and doctorate from UH-Manoa.

She lives in Kaaawa with her husband, Ian Lind, a news blogger, and their beloved cats. In her free time, the inveterate collector scours Oahu thrift shops, relishing both the “;treasure hunt”; and the dynamic sociological mix.

Besides her own research, writing and teaching, Chesney-Lind serves in the UH Faculty Senate and speaks out against deep state budget cuts to higher education.

“;For me, Hawaii has been a wonderful place to do research and a wonderful place to get an education, and I want it to continue to be that, for girls and women and boys and men. For everyone!”;

QUESTION: You've been described as “;the mother of feminist criminology.”; Do you think that's an apt description?

ANSWER: In the interest of modesty, I would say you should probably ask someone else that, but I am certainly flattered that others have recognized the worth of the work I've done over the years. … It just sort of worked out that way because I was interested in issues that had not attracted a lot of attention, that had been overlooked. For a long time I was in uncharted waters.

Q: What does “;feminist criminologist”; mean exactly?

A: Feminism, which is simply the desire for equal rights for girls and women, called attention to the situations of girls and women within the criminal justice system. … I looked at the area of girl and women offenders. I started that work decades ago, looking at the situation of girls who were running away from home, women who were in prison.

Q: What are some findings?

A: When I started on the research … (society's) main focus was on girls and delinquency — basically this issue of policing girls' sexuality. Nationally the whole conversation has shifted over the past two decades to girls and violence. Are girls really going wild? No. … I'm very much about the data and where the data takes us … It's clear that gender-specific programs (for offenders) are important. … In Honolulu, we've made some real headway with the girls' court, and that's the sort of approach we should expand.

Q: So the feeling that girls are becoming more violent, that's simply not true?

A: Correct. It's hype. Talking about that is what I've had to do nationally for the past 10 years. Telling everybody to calm down and look at the real data. It's the same thing I've had to do locally on the general crime rate. Crime is not out of control.

Q: What feeds the hype?

A: That free-floating anxiety about the post-feminist girl, defining who they are. Whether it's the stereotype that girls are mean, or girls are wild, or girls are violent. ...We're not seeing an actual increase in girls' violence, we're seeing more attention paid to the violence that was always there. And how do I know that? Because I have looked at self-report data and collected self-report data on violence for decades. And when we asked girls if they had hit anybody in the last six months they said yes.

Q: What are some solutions?

A: For the hype, simple: Don't believe it. To address the actual violence, we have to study the contexts that produce girls' aggression and then change that context. Start with schools, which are notoriously bad places for girls, especially once they leave elementary school. Empower girls and once girls have real power they are less likely to engage in what we call horizontal aggression, or picking on other girls. We also have to pay more attention to domestic violence. In Hawaii, we have a very serious problem with both dating violence and sexual assault, as early as middle school … Some people don't want to hear that.

Q: We've talked about offenders. What about the flip side: women in law enforcement?

A: The main areas of work within law enforcement are law, corrections and policing, and in each of those domains there is an interesting substory. … Women comprise half of all the law school admissions now, so there has been obvious progress there. As for corrections, we tend to have gender-segregated facilities, so you have women running those facilities, in positions of authority. The most difficult area is in the area of policing. Police departments still have not had a big increase in the number of women officers. Nationally it's only about 17 percent. A woman has to be truly extraordinary to survive in police work. We know, in general, that women have to be 2.9 times better on the job than their male counterparts simply to be considered as good. So when women feel like they are facing additional expectations at work, they are right, especially in these male-dominated professions.

Q: Switching gears, let's talk about UH. What's morale like among the faculty?

A: Terrible. Many of us have built this institution with a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and we feel powerless. The kinds of cuts the governor has imposed on UH-Manoa in particular are unsustainable. I watched my career really flourish here, but when you have to start sending out resumes, it's serious. Younger faculty clearly are looking for other work. And these are people we spent years recruiting. … Everyone knows what the budget crisis is doing to the Department of Education. Nobody's paying attention to what it's doing to UH, and in particular to Manoa. ...

... Q: I was surprised to see how much the departing UH-Hilo chancellor makes; about $300,000 at a school with fewer than 4,000 students. Can we talk about salaries?

A: Where the growth has happened at the UH is in administration. We've seen an incredible increase in the number of administrators, especially at the system level. It's insane to talk about laying off faculty in this environment, yet that's what they are talking about. We're losing whole areas of study, seriously affecting students. We've made no secret of the fact that we need to get our administrative salaries back in line. The Attorney General for the entire state of Hawaii makes less than the person who coordinates legal affairs for the University of Hawaii, and that on its face is absurd. What little security I still have as a tenured professor allows me to talk about this.