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Kleptomania, How A "Women's Pathology" Was Built On Gender And Class Bias

Between 1880 and 1930, there was a significant rise in thefts in department stores, mostly committed by women from the middle and upper classes. This situation brought with it the establishment of a new pathology: kleptomania. A century later, feminist historians have given new meaning to the practice as a protest against the social structures and oppressions of capitalism and patriarchy.

Photo of a hand in a pocket

A hand in a pocket

Julia Amigo

Kleptomania is defined as the malicious and curious propensity for theft. The legal language tends to specify that the stolen objects are not items of necessity; medically, it is explained as an uncontrollable impulse.

What seems clear is that kleptomania is a highly enigmatic condition and one of the few mental disorders that comes from the pathologization of a crime, which makes it possible to use it as a legal defense. It differs from the sporadic theft of clothing, accessories, or makeup (shoplifting) as the kleptomaniac's impulse is irresistible.

Studies have shown that less than one percent of the population suffers from kleptomania, being much more common among women (although determining exact numbers is very difficult).

The psychiatric disorders manual, DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) has included kleptomania since 1962. Previously, it had already received attention from, among others, Sigmund Freud. Like nymphomania or hysteria, kleptomania became an almost exclusively female diagnosis linked to the biology of women's bodies and an “inability” to resist uncontrollable desire.

Another psychiatrist, the Austrian Wilhelm Stekel, determined in 1911 that kleptomania was the expression of a repressed sexual desire in women. He stated that the fight against this desire led them to steal, to succumb to the forbidden by touching something that did not belong to them.

When and why was this term coined? What relationship does its history have with gender and class differences that emerge from the application of the diagnosis?

The first kleptomaniacs

The first department stores began to open their doors in cities like London or Paris throughout the 19th century. Between 1880 and 1930, there was a significant increase in the number of thefts in these shops, mostly perpetrated by middle- and upper-class women, which led to the invention of this new pathology: kleptomania. Legally, it was created to protect bourgeois women who stole, as the definition of the disease made it explicit that there should not be an economic need linked to the theft.

The 'privilege of committing crimes calmly' is only reserved for a few.

In her article about the book Victorian Thieves, María Unanue uses the words of the author, Nacho Moreno, to denounce that "the 'privilege of committing crimes calmly' is only reserved for a few." Critics of the measure pointed out at the time how suspicious it was that the disease only affected non-working-class women.

Industrialization and capitalism promoted a highly consumerist culture that turned department stores into amusement parks for adults. Its very architecture seemed to encourage taking things without having to pay for them. Large stores enclosed a trap within their walls, since putting various objects within the reach of anyone generated a sweet tension between the power to buy them and the temptation to steal them.

As Ina Semimic points out in her research on the subject, by picking up ornately displayed items, women were acting in the way consumer culture had taught them. The unfortunate combination of stifling feminine ideals and a growing consumer culture led to more deliberate thefts. Accounts of the time deprived the women who stole (both rich and poor) of agency, but the case of the famous gang of English thieves, the "Forty Thieves," is an interesting demonstration that the women who stole were aware that they were breaking the law. The gang was made up of working-class women from the London suburbs who, posing as wealthy shoppers, infiltrated department stores to outwit the police and commit their robberies.

Theft by women becomes more complex as soon as you dig a little into its history. In the department stores, all social classes coexisted, the lady wrapped in fur, the thief posing as the distant cousin of the rich lady and the poor worker who walked amongst the colorful mannequins while deciding what she was going to spend her precarious salary on. All had the objects within the reach of their hands but purchasing them was reserved for a few.

The motivations and the way in which they were judged and punished in case of being caught stealing were different, yet they were all conditioned by a patriarchal and capitalist system that defined their expectations and desires.

Is kleptomania a real illness?

Nowadays, science continues to study the causes of kleptomania. Although some published studies ensure that the inability to control the impulse to steal may be caused by brain chemical disorders, it is still curious that the only treatment with satisfactory results is psychotherapy. This could be explained, since the pathology does not usually occur in isolation, but together with depressive tendencies or anxiety.

The DSM says that kleptomaniacs can afford to buy the items they steal but cannot resist the urge to steal them. Yet the curious question to ask is why the manual is not able to contemplate the possibility that the person has the financial capacity to buy them but simply decides not to spend their money on them.

If there is a need, you are a criminal, if you do it because you cannot control yourself, you are sick. This dichotomous consideration that differentiates kleptomania and theft or robbery does not fail to refer us to the origin of everything: that kleptomania arose as a way of pathologizing (and thus, paradoxically, saving) middle- and upper-class women while at the same time criminalizing poor ones who stole out of economic necessity.

Photo of someone shopping

Person shopping for clothes

Arturo Rey/Unsplash

The sadness and symbolism of Winona Ryder

In the early 2000s, actress Winona Ryder, who was at the peak of her artistic career, made headlines after her kleptomania was discovered. Some journalists interpreted the situation as a sign that the sadness that she managed to infuse in her characters was genuine and not staged. Others mocked and infantilized her by assuring that if what she wanted was to appear in the media, she could write a movie starring a kleptomaniac instead of dedicating herself to stealing makeup.

Ryder ultimately became an object of fascination for pop culture. A brand from which she stole handbags and dresses hired her for its advertising campaigns. There is another prominent case of another public person afflicted with kleptomania, the Spanish politician Cristina Cifuentes, serving as president of the Community of Madrid, who was caught stealing two 20-euro creams in a supermarket. She declared that it was a misunderstanding, although she ended up resigning from her position due to the scandal.

Victorian thieves used to steal silk, bows, gloves or combs, all objects closely linked to the care of the image of women. Contemporary celebrities steal handbags, expensive creams and dresses from luxury brands. Not such a difference. Meanwhile, reductionist analysis continue to be the order of the day when we consider that pressure, fatigue or addictions are the only possible explanation for the thefts of wealthy women.

But, what happens with the robberies committed by working-class women or women without money? Well, they are not measured under the same parameters. They are not symbolically forgiven for the robbery due to the pressure that fame puts them under. They are not excused because they are getting old and, no one calls them to act in Hollywood anymore. The law is applied to them without regard to class, reducing their actions to of criminal and inexcusable nature.

Shoplifting is possibly the most accessible form of civil disobedience.

Working-class women, when stealing useful objects, are simply thieves. The ladies when they steal useless things are branded as kleptomaniacs. But, if these "useless" goods are for sale, it is because many others buy them. Are goods worthless when stolen, but very useful and necessary when paid for? Could it be that little of what we are encouraged to consume is actually "necessary"? If the trap is uncovered, the system falters. Theft opens a gap in the solid capitalist machinery: a screw loosens up, and a lot of effort has to be put into replacing that tiny piece to put everything back in order.

A feminist reading

Is a feminist critical reading of kleptomania possible? On the one hand, the pathology is a fiction invented to save the privileged. On the other, a century after the boom in department store kleptomaniacs, feminist historians have interpreted the practice as a protest against the social structures and oppressions of capitalism and patriarchy. Without a critical reading in terms of gender and class of the motivations that lead someone to theft or robbery, we will continue to reproduce the same essentialist discourses of the scientists of the last century.

Shoplifting is possibly the most accessible form of civil disobedience

"Shoplifting is possibly the most accessible form of civil disobedience," reasons Beatrice Harvey in her report on the possibility of considering shoplifting as activism. And, as large stores are gaining ground on small and local businesses, "it is increasingly easier to steal items from big businesses," the same article says. Although it is not clear to the author whether this has real consequences on a social scale, it does open up a field of political action with great subversive potential.

What at the time was an active resistance by Victorian thieves to capitalist modernity, which encouraged them to consume while demanding brutal self-control in all aspects of their lives, is today a gesture that could very well destabilize the capitalist and patriarchal order. Metaphorically, the one who steals highlights the absurdity of a system that encourages us to work to generate money that we will spend on things we do not need.

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A pro-Israel rally in Sao Paulo, Brazil

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