Kerry Segrave, in “Shoplifting: A Social History”—a study frequently cited by Shteir, and which provides a more coherent and statistically richer overview subject than her own often scattered account—quotes Dr. David Reuben, writing in McCall ’s in 1970, to the effect that most amateur store thieves were married women between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-five. What they had in common, he said, was:
unhappy marriages, obesity, depression. Their sexual relationships with their husbands range from unsatisfactory to nonexistent. In effect, their lives have been drained of all emotional satisfaction… An afternoon roaming through a department store is a substitute for social relationships with other human beings.
In 1878, the Times quoted the superintendent of a department store saying, “Stealing seems to come natural to a great many women.”
These two views of women as thieves could be combined, with the assistance of time-honed free-floating misogyny, into a persistent faux-organic explanation for what was taken to be a quintessentially female crime. When Ella Castle, a wealthy American, was arrested in London on shoplifting charges, in 1896, she was examined by various physicians, with a view to a plea of kleptomania. She was released on their assessment of her condition. A Dr. Grigg testified:
She is intensely neurotic. The condition of things—a disease of the upper portion of the uterus—is a very common accompaniment of various forms of mania in women, such as melancholia, religious mania, nymphomania, and I have seen it in several cases of kleptomania. It is invariably coupled with much mental disturbance. The condition I discovered is quite sufficient to account for any form of mental vagaries which are as well known to affect a certain class of women (neurotic) with disordered menstruation.
When she got home, doctors at the Philadelphia Polyclinic agreed with the diagnosis.
The ancient belief that the womb wandered about the body causing mental distraction (thus “hysteria”) has transformed here into a mysterious “upper portion of the womb” disease. The main thing is that the wayward and inherently diseased female reproductive system is at the root of irrational and pathological behavior, which is only to be expected from women. Unstable female innards not only determine dangerous sexuality but also threaten to disrupt properly regulated commerce…
I come from the generation for whom, in the early nineteen-seventies, shoplifting became a positive virtue within the disaffected counterculture. Abbie Hoffman’s “Steal This Book” contained handy shoplifting hints and was chained down in bookstores. Jerry Rubin, channelling Proudhon’s dictum “Property is theft,” declared in his book “Do It,” “All money represents theft… Shoplifting gets you high. Don’t buy. Steal. If you act like it’s yours no one will ask you to pay for it.” I found this to be true. Running an alternative school with almost no money in the early seventies, I made trips to a large bookstore in London, and piled up reference books and textbooks until the tower nestled under my raised chin. Then I confidently walked out of the shop. Several times. No one ever stopped me. I had no qualms. read more
PHOTOGRAPH: Sasha Mademuaselle