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Syndicate Women: Gender and Networks in Chicago Organized Crime


The best applications of social network analysis (SNA) offer new insight into complex behaviors, challenge previous assumptions, or explain apparently contradictory behavior by illuminating constraints that operate via social networks. In contrast, less successful applications tell us things we already knew using other methods (albeit with visually pleasing graphs) or leave readers with an understanding of the structure of social relations but little insight into their texture. Chris M. Smith's Syndicate Women: Gender and Networks in Chicago Organized Crime (2019) is clearly an example of the best form; the book successfully merges SNA with deep archival research to produce an engaging and rich description of ‘syndicate women’ in Chicago's criminal enterprises from the Progressive Era (1900–1919) through Prohibition (1920–1933). 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.

Smith brings an enormous set of primary and secondary sources together to produce a deep analysis of organized crime—and the place of women in it—in Chicago from 1900 to 1933. Physical and online archives documenting criminal cases throughout the period are paired with contemporary and historical narratives to better characterize Chicago organized crime networks as well as provide texture to the lives of some of the women involved in it. Notably most of the original sources are focused on the most visible of Chicago crime members—that of Al Capone—but Smith uses these records to render visible the role women played throughout the period. The result is a triumph, detailing “3,321 individuals and their 15,681 relationships” (p. 141) over the course of three decades of Chicago organized crime.

Syndicate Women begins with several observations and a puzzle. The first observation is the ubiquity of gender inequality in criminal involvement; men are more involved in crime relative to women, whether measured by arrest rates or self-reported o ending. The second observation relates to the nature of crime for women who become involved; they are often involved via their relationships with family members, most often romantic partners. The puzzle at the center of the book is this: syndicate women both conform to these observations (during the Prohibition Era) and shatter them (during the Progressive Era). The Progressive Era, defined by a diffuse and decentralized criminal network, was conducive to women's involvement in organized crime—often as owners and managers of brothels with no dependence on romantic partners. In contrast, the legal and cultural shifts associated with Prohibition created a more centralized network, reducing women's involvement in organized crime overall and rendering those who remained largely dependent on their relationships with male partners. Thus the Prohibition Era largely conforms to modern sociological understandings of gender and crime while the Progressive Era stands in stark contrast to contemporary findings.

Syndicate Women is beautifully written and engaging; a rare book that is equally appropriate for novices and experts. 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.

As Smith highlights, the challenges of studying women in archival research are steep as “archives are not neutral spaces” (p. 18). Women overall merit less mention throughout the Capone database and often go unnamed; careful sleuthing across multiple sources was required to make decisions about the nature and form of each actor's ties to the broader network and this was especially challenging with respect to women. SNA is, in Smith's words, deployed as a “logic of discovery for a particular set of events, group of people, and historical moment more than as a logic of proof” (p. 41). It is of course possible that the visibility of women in the Chicago crime syndicate simply declined because of Prohibition-era enforcement practices while involvement persisted at similar levels. This reviewer doubts it however, because Smith marshals a broad array of compelling evidence and clear prose to describe both her own theory of syndicate women as well as the most likely challenges to this narrative.

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.

Częstotliwość wydawania:
Volume Open
Dziedziny czasopisma:
Social Sciences, other