Reflections on Juvenile Delinquents

Mary Odem, Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920 (1995)

Odem analyzes reform and control over young women’s sexuality between 1885 and 1920 through an in-depth study of age-of-consent law reform and the institutions put into place to enforce these new laws at the local level. Through her study of court records of two counties in California, personal and organizational papers, and other printed material, Odem argues three main points: moral campaigns to control teen sex were fueled by gender, class and racial tensions; sexual regulation by the state had consequences the reformers could not predict or control (namely the double standard of male sexual privilege); and the social and sexual autonomy of daughters was a major source of conflict in working class families, and as such, families often used the juvenile court system to reign control over misbehaving daughters. She divides her study into two main chronological periods. From the mid 1880s to 1900, white middle-class purity reformers campaigned to make sex with teenage girls a crime by raising the age of consent. Sexually active teen girls were seen as victims of male lust and exploitation. Beginning in 1900, the narrative and focus shifted; teenage victims of male lust became delinquents as reformers acknowledged the potential of sexual agency in teenage girls. Family and social environments explained delinquent behavior, which became increasingly regulated through institutions designed for this purpose.

Anne Meis Knupfer, Reform and Resistance: Gender, Delinquency and America’s First Juvenile Court (2001)

Knupfer, a professor of education, analyzes the creation of the Cook County Juvenile Court (America’s first juvenile court, opened in 1899) and its complex relationship to the professionalization of sociology and social work (as represented by the Chicago School of sociology and the various famous local female reform organizations such as the Chicago Women’s Club and Hull House, respectively.) Using discourse theory and a Foucauldian analysis of sexuality, she reads the narratives created by reformers, institutions, medical professionals, families, and adolescents themselves and argues that the juvenile court was a product of “maternalist state building” and professionalization from many different angles–sociology, social work, medicine, psychiatry, legal professions, etc. In her study, the  juvenile court mixed both coercive and progressive features by forcing middle-class ideals about female behavior on working-class girls, but at the same time it provided them with much-needed maternity care, treatment for venereal disease, and other related domestic and health education. In this way, the court itself is more complex than just an institution of social control.



  • By arguing that families themselves used these institutions for their own purposes, Odem complicates the power/control narrative that dominates scholarship on Progressive reform. She argues we need a reassessment of the view of the courts as just institutions of social control. (5) This is an important step to understanding working class families, not just as objects of the reform movement, but as active players in how reform may have effected their lived experiences.
  • Even though she recycles many arguments from other authors on the subject of juvenile justice and delinquency, Knupfer does offer a nice analysis of the various narratives created by the various court stake holders and how these altered how delinquent girls were viewed and treated in Chicago. She argues that that each field crafted narratives to fit their professionalization goals and offers a lucid analysis of their path to creating those narratives.
  • She carefully delineates the differences between the narratives used by sociology, social work and reform with those of the medical profession. However, how these different narratives combined or competed in the juvenile court itself is less clear. She gets at it by evaluating the female probation officers, and simply argues that these women adopted all the narratives–female medicine (head vs womb debates), sexuality, and morality. (See chapter 3) This may be true, but it seems too simplistic.
  • Despite the title of the book, Knupfer is actually reading the institutions around the court to get at the court itself. One chapter (19 pages) discuss the court specifically and does so through the records of female reformers who created the court and Mary Bartelme, the first female probation officer. Sadly, she was denied access to the case files of the court and thus has to read the negative space around the court to understand it.  As such, the voices of the girls themselves–how they used and abused popular tropes to help them navigate–are all but missing. (She states this in her introduction as a key contribution to and differentiator from Odem). We’re left with a story about institutions told by the people who built and justified them, not by the people who experienced it.