The clash of femininity and criminality in Daniel Defoe's "Moll Flanders"

Term Paper, 2013

14 Pages, Grade: 3,0

Anonym (Author)


Table of Contents


I. 1 Main statements of John Ritz on femininity and criminality
2. The clash of Femininity and criminality in Moll Flanders

II. Does Smith portray Moll Cutpurse as female or criminal? & What do Moll Cutpurse and Moll Flanders have in common?





In our modern world of the 21st century, women and men are equal and sometimes the typical roles of men and women have swapped. Taking a look at some families of today, the woman earns the money and the man cares for the children plus household. But in earlier times the society was built up differently.

The people of the 18th century had a different picture of women. Among others a woman had to be passive and submissive. But in literature we find two women, who were rebellious and not the typical woman. Moll Flanders and Moll Cutpurse.

The novel Moll Flanders written by Daniel Defoe and first published in 1722 deals with the life of Moll Flanders and her criminal career. In the Northon Critical Edition of Moll Flanders, Alexander Smith talks about Moll Cutpurse (published in London, 1719) and John Ritz (1991) about the clash of femininity and criminality. These two texts and their protagonists give us a good example for this. The stories take place in Great Britain and its colonies roughly during the time of the English Civil War (1642-1651). But from these two stories just the one of Moll Cutpurse touches on the subject. Moll Cutpurse otherwise called Mary Frith led an eventful life. Including robberies, she also dressed up as man, was not interested in the other sex, or her own for that matter, and before her death she gave her fortune she amassed with her in course of her criminal career to a drinking comrade.

The term paper will show the meaning of femininity and criminality in the 18th century and the clash of the two of them in the first part. The second part will take a closer look at Moll Cutpurse´s gender. An interpretation and conclusion which will discuss if Moll Flanders is female, criminal or maybe a female criminal will be the last part.

The aspects of feminism and gender will not be discussed in the paper due to the fact that during the Defoe’s times the distinction between gender and sex was not jet present. In his time the attributes we connect with genders like female or male were assigned directly to the sex and believed to be present since birth. In so far it is not practical to analyze if Moll is female by modern standards but I want to have a closer look at how people saw things back then.

I. 1 Main statements of John Ritz on femininity and criminality

In his essay Criminal Ms-Representation: Moll Flanders and Female Criminal Biography Ritz says that the earlier view of femininity and criminality was different from today. “Defoe is not thinking of femininity and criminality in quite the same way we do.”[1] He refers to some examples like The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled, Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith and Moll Flanders. When taking a closer look at the text, it will be recognized that the “role of woman and criminal were perceives as mutually exclusive.”[2] In other words the idea of being a woman and being a criminal in Defoe’s times weren’t compatible with each other and therefore you couldn’t be the one if you were the other. Nowadays of course this isn’t so as you can see by the thousands and thousands of female inmates all over the world.

The following paragraph will refer to what makes a person female or criminal.

A criminal, in Ritz eyes, has to be independent and predatory.[3] These are two important features for criminals otherwise a criminal career wouldn’t work. For example Moll Flanders steals from children remorselessly. This proves her predatory instinct and therefore her criminal aptitude.

Furthermore a criminal is aggressive. The criminal has to have a bad character trait which leads to aggressive acts or behavior.

Another feature is that female criminals are outside of the social order: “Female criminals, then, are figured as being outside the social order”[4] The people did not know how to handle such rule breakers, who straddle categories and so they fall out of the society. Moll Cutpurse and Moll Flanders give rise to confusion and were placed outside the larger social order.

Another aspect of criminals is that they are self serving.[5] They need to be self serving to optimize their business and ensure their prosperity.

Criminals are arbitrary and go their own way. They did what they wanted to do and did not care for others.

As already mentioned above females were portrayed in a different way in Defoe’s time. They were supposed to be passive. “Her femininity urges her portrayal as a passive creature.”[6] Back then men made all the decisions of importance and were placed above the women in social standings and other things.

In earlier days women were attributed to be maternal and solicitous especially in their conduct with children.[7] In other words the main part of the woman’s social place was at home taking care of the children and family including all the household chores.

The other part was defined by a relationship to men: “defines women by their relationships to men.”[8] For women the only respected often possible way to get love, standing or wealth respect was to get it from or through a man. Besides that the man guided the woman which means the woman is submissive.

In addition wit, passivity and beauty were traits of traditional womanhood. In fact women had to be good looking, obedient and be “motherly” to their children.

2. The clash of Femininity and criminality in Moll Flanders

When we take into account what John Rietz has given us on “the nature of women” or how their were perceived back then we can now compare the two notions of what it means to be feminine and criminal. A woman should be passive, but a criminal has to be aggressive. Women were attributed to be maternal and solicitous especially in their conduct with children, but a criminal has to be self serving and predatory. Women at that time were submissive, but a criminal was not. If a woman was a criminal she was outside of accepted categories and outside of the social order. Moll Flanders becomes an outsider when she started cross dressing. In other words she was wearing men’s cloth then instead of the accepted women’s clothing. The society could not put her in the category of man or woman. A further problem as John Rietz pointed out is that: “She cannot even be comfortably classified as a social outsider since her criminality is ambiguous.”[9] Moll Flanders never hole heartily committed to the life of a criminal but always had passages were she was a more or less law-abiding citizens and never committed any “serious” or heinous crimes and therefore never crossed the threshold into real criminality like armed robbery or the occupancy of a highwayman.

“Women are thieves, not robbers.”[10] Women are not rude, but more cunning and crafty than men are. Furthermore female criminals are waiting for opportunities. They do not create them. “The situations happen to her as much as they happen to her victims.”[11] Moll called her doings a skill and a kind of “art”. It was a way of life for her.

Moreover “crimes of women are portrayed as a perversion of their sexuality. They resist categorization and female criminals are placed outside the larger social order.”[12] Female criminals are using sex for crimes. The classical female crime is prostitution. They used “men for financial support, gifts, or an opportunity to steal.”[13] But when the beauty of the woman fades there is no more attraction for men. Moll turns to outright thievery but as already said not outright robbery.

Women adopt male persona for doing criminal activities. Ritz said a female criminal is paradox.[14] Female criminals take on masculine behavior or traits. For example Mary Frith and Moll Flanders both crossdressed.

On top of that when one of Mall Flanders’s accomplices was arrested and was offered a pardon if she could produce Moll, Moll said that it “took off all my tenderness”[15] due to that as John Rietz pointed out: “Moll Flanders was psychologically defeminized prior to her outward defiminization.“[16] In other words her feelings were defiminized in the sense that she had feelings like no other women should have. As she was robbed of her tenderness she was also robbed of an important part of what made her “female” from the inside even before she changed her outer appearance. Furthermore there is a lack of maternal feelings in female criminals. An example is stealing from children. Moll does that and also gave her child away. Furthermore female criminals have a lack of moral compunction. To sum it up, criminality and femininity can’t coexist with each other without clashing. The two concepts just aren’t compatible with each other in the long run. Rietz comes to the conclusion that Moll Flanders is a realistic portrait of a female criminal because she has both in her - features of criminality and also femininity.

II. Does Smith portray Moll Cutpurse as female or criminal? & What do Moll Cutpurse and Moll Flanders have in common?

As already established femininity and criminality clash at some point and can’t really coexist with each other. To cross the line for becoming a criminal there are decisively more masculine attributes needed then feminine. This is the case for Moll Cutpurse. Then unlike Moll Flanders, Moll Cutpures alias Mary Frith is portrayed as ugly and dressed as a man. She crossdressed and was seen as a woman who wasn’t attractive for men “she was not made for the Pleasure or Delight of Man.”[17] And on top of that she had a masculine spirit. Moll Cutpurse lends to the theory that female criminals disrupt the patriarchal system. Moll was the leader of a group of men “and placed herself in a position of authority over group of men.”[18] Moll Flanders on the other hand never did that. She always tried to work within the system or use the system to the best of her abilities. Even so she always stayed in the prober social place of a woman while committing her crimes.

Moll Cutpurse’s masculine behavior started when she was a child. Even then she always preferred to do the things boys did. Later she was punished for wearing men’s apparel.

“[…] in man’s apparel, and in her boots and with a sword by her side, she told the company there present that she thought many of them were of opinion that she was a man, but if any of them would come to her lodging, they should find that she is a woman […]”[19]

It is important to know that, at that time, a woman who cross-dressed was seen as uncontrolled and sexually riotous. Moll Cutpurse was different. She claimed to be not interested in sex and didn’t need a man by her side. “She had the Power and Strength (if not the Will) to command her own Pleasure of any Person of reasonable Ability of Body”[20] Her self-assurance can also be recognized in another way. Moll Cutpurse was the first woman who smoked “no Woman ever smoak’d before he”[21] Normally at that time only men smoked. These two characteristics are decidedly masculine traits and even more evidence for her criminal lifestyle offsetting her femininity. These are further disparities between Moll Cutpurse and Moll Flanders as Moll Flanders’s female characteristics always had the upper hand over her criminal or masculine attributes.

According to Smith Moll Cutpurse had a good family which was very tender to her but she was an unruly child. She fought with boys and bet them. Moll Cutpurse as a child did not like girl activities. They were tedious to her.

Later, as a grown up Moll never desired men and children. Besides her cross- dressing she wasn’t interested in men. In that aspect she was not like Moll Flanders who was constantly searching for husbands or relationships even when she was in them. Only in the dislike for children they had something in common. Moll Cutpurse “ had a natural Abhorrence to the tending of Children.“[22] Not even that she did not like children, she never wanted to be a mother. Moll Flanders had a very similar attitude toward children in that she shouldn’t be bothered to care for her own. Only in the end did Moll care about her son Humphrey. For example she had two children with her first husband but they were raised by the parents of her husband.

Cross-dressing was a crime both Moll Flanders and Moll Cutpurse committed at one point or another but in Moll Cutpurse´s case it was the least severe. Stealing and robberies amongst other things were part of her repertoire. Moll Cutpurse did not like the Rump–Parliament and so she committed robberies “on roundheads, or Rebels, that fomented the Civil war against King Charles the First”[23] Also in this aspect her more masculine traits can be seen as most of those crimes were inspired by her political view. Having a political view at that time was reserved for men. Moll Flanders never showed an interest in politics even though they life during the turbulent times. Moll Cutpurse’s other crimes also were a lot more brutal than Moll Flanders´s ever were. She killed two horses, imitated people hands and shot trough the arm of General Fairfex. (“Leading Parliamentarian general of the First and Second Civil Wars and Lord-General of the New Model Army”)[24]. As said Moll Cutpurse was a thief. She was in a society of pick pockets which steal together from other people. In this she is similar to Moll Flanders. Moll was also a thief. Moll Flanders governess defines a thief as follows: “a Thief being a Creature that Watches the Advantages of other Peoples mistakes.”[25] This shows how Moll did her thieving activities. One example is, when she stole a packet of lace while the shop-keeper was gapping after the Queen.[26]

Another criminal activity of Moll Cutpurse was being a broker of stolen goods. “to recover their Goods again, and the Pyrates were sure to have a good Ransom“[27] Here is another parallel between Moll Cutpurse and Moll Flanders as both of them made money by selling goods. In Moll Flanders’s case some of them were stolen but in Moll Cutpurse’s all of them were. She made a real business career out of it, and so operated on a whole different level.

Smith says that Moll Cutpurse neighbor thought she was a hermaphrodite. But at her death it was found out that her sex was female. It was hard to identify if she was male or female. This is due to the fact of her outward appearance and behavior. Which just helps to make the point that she was more criminal then female. Even so there are hints for Moll Cutpurses left over femininity. One hint is that she showed fear after she was carried to Newgate because of her crimes on General Fairfex. After that, she stopped waylaying people on the highway. The next hint is her house. It is very clean and neat like a typical woman household. The last hint for Moll Cutpurses femininity is her behavior before her death. She gave money to her three maids and to her kinsman Frith. She cared about the people around her, which is a female character trait.


[1] Daniel Defoe. “Norton Critical Edition: Moll Flanders“. John Rietz. Criminal Ms-Representation: Moll Flanders and female Criminal Biography. Ed. Albert J. Rivero. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2011.472

[2] Rietz, John. 472

[3] Rietz, John. 482

[4] Rietz, John. 479

[5] Rietz, John. 482

[6] Rietz, John. 482

[7] Rietz, John. 482

[8] Rietz, John. 483

[9] Rietz, John. 482

[10] Rietz, John. 474

[11] Rietz, John. 475

[12] Rietz, John. 473

[13] Rietz, John. 475

[14] Rietz, John. 481

[15] Daniel Defoe. “Norton Critical Edition : Moll Flanders “. Daniel Defoe. Moll Flanders. Ed. Albert J. Rivero. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2011. 176

[16] Rietz, John. 483

[17] Daniel Defoe. “Norton Critical Edition: Moll Flanders”. Alexander Smith. Cutpurse, a Pick-Pocket and Highwaywoman. Ed. Albert J. Rivero. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2011. 322

[18] Smith, Alexander. 477

[19] Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker. “Norton Critical Edition: The Roaring Girl. Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker : The Life of Mary Frith: Records and Document, Ed. Jennifer Panek. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2011. 147

[20] Smith, Alexander. 322

[21] Smith, Alexander. 324

[22] Smith, Alexander. 322

[23] Smith, Alexander. 323

[24] (access date 21th March 2013)

[25] Defoe, Daniel. 211

[26] Defoe, Daniel. 202

[27] Smith, Alexander 324

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The clash of femininity and criminality in Daniel Defoe's "Moll Flanders"
University of Rostock  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders - Text, Context & Criticism
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Anonym (Author), 2013, The clash of femininity and criminality in Daniel Defoe's "Moll Flanders", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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