Criminology Freda Adler
Callie Marie Rennison, Hailey Powers
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0313


Dr. Freda Adler, described as the most distinguished criminologist in the field, currently serves as professor emeritus at Rutgers University, a visiting professor and director of the Master of Science Program in Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, and as a Permanent Representative to the United Nations of the Centro Nazionale di Prevenzione e Difesa Sociale. Born in 1934 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she made her mark on feminism and criminology during her long professional career. She is known for her work with the United Nations, developing theories on women and crime, and serving as the third woman president of the American Society of Criminology in 1994–1995. Throughout her education and career, she was a pioneer for feminist criminology by bringing widespread attention to offending and deviance by girls and women and their relationship to social, political, and economic structures. Adler’s foundational work commenced with her publication of Sisters in Crime: The Rise of the New Female Criminal, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1976. Adler’s considerable research and consulting contributions make her one of the most influential scholars in criminology. Her contributions are so vast that writing a book describing her career would be easy. Given space limitations, this entry offers highlights on her education, career, scholarly contributions, awards, and legacy. This review does not offer a comprehensive list of Adler’s work. Some works are out of print, others unavailable, and still others published in languages other than English. While not comprehensive, this entry does provide a broad overview of the contributions of one of the greatest criminologists in the field—Dr. Freda Adler.


Dr. Adler earned a bachelor of arts in sociology, a master of arts in criminology, and a PhD in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. As an undergraduate she attended courses taught by Marvin Wolfgang, Otto Pollak, and Thorsten Sellin, completing her bachelor’s degree in 1956. After having three children, Adler returned to the University of Pennsylvania for graduate studies as the only woman in the program. There she focused on bias, including status bias, economic bias, and racial and gender bias in the criminal justice system. Her 1968 master’s thesis examined socioeconomic disparities and bias in sentencing. In addition, Adler developed an interest in female criminals during her PhD years when she took a course with Professor Otto Pollak, who had recently published a book on female criminality in which he argued that menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause made women more secretive and deceitful, which manifested in criminal behavior. As Hartman and Sundt 2010 describes, Adler strongly disagreed with Pollak’s assessment and instead argued that men and women have no essential differences and that criminological theories should explain criminality regardless of the perpetrator’s sex. Adler’s work rejected such biological determinism and was more consistent with the notion of “essential sameness” between women and men. Adler’s lens focused on the impact of legal rights, individual choice, and access to economic opportunities on individual behaviors. During her PhD studies, Adler found that women in criminal justice were treated as irrelevant, ignored, and anonymous, noting that her dissertation preparation identified fewer than twenty publications focused on women. Adler 1971, her dissertation chaired by Wolfgang and titled “The Female Offender in Philadelphia,” focused on 1,500 women offenders in Philadelphia. Her research sought to identify many issues related to women offenders caught up in the criminal justice system. These issues included identifying the crimes the women committed, the influence on an offender’s race on bail and sentencing decisions, and a comparison of sentences given to women and men. According to Adler 2002 and Adler 1971, without Wolfgang’s support and guidance, her work would not have been possible. In addition, Adler was interested in understanding what happened to women and their children when the women were sentenced to prison. Her research on female criminality highlighted her views that there are no fundamental differences between men and women, and that criminal theories should be able to explain crime and the sex differences in criminal levels. Contrary to much of the work at the time, Adler’s work was consistent with liberal feminism, and her basic premise is that men and women have the same basic motivations, which means that when given similar access to opportunities, they are likely to behave in similar ways. Adler was awarded her doctorate in sociology in 1971.

  • Adler, F. 1971. The female offender in Philadelphia. PhD diss., Univ. of Pennsylvania.

    Adler’s dissertation had three purposes: to present analyses of adult female criminality, to assess racial differences in criminality, and to compare black and white female treatment as they go through the judicial process. A goal of the work is to begin to remedy the paucity of information about females in the judicial system. Prior to her work, four pieces of research made up the knowledge of female criminality, those by Lombroso, Glueck, Pollak, and Wolfgang.

  • Adler, F. 2002. Reflections on a scholarly career: An interview with Marvin E. Wolfgang. In Crime and justice at the millennium: Essays by and in Honor of Marvin E. Wolfgang. Edited by Robert A. Silverman, Terence P. Thornberry, Bernard Cohen, and Barry Krisberg, 1–13. Boston, MA: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4757-4883-3_1

    This transcribed and published interview was conducted as a part of the Oral History Project sponsored by the American Society of Criminology and the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. In this interview, Freda Adler interviews her mentor and dissertation chair Marvin Wolfgang at the University of Pennsylvania. The interview covers a broad range of topics, including how Wolfgang became interested in criminology, the Sellin Center for Studies in Criminology and Criminal Law (now the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology), the origination of his book Patterns in Criminal Homicide, and his works he considered most important.

  • Hartman, J. L., and J. L. Sundt. 2010. “Adler, Freda: Sisters in Crime.” In Encyclopedia of criminological theory. Edited by F. T. Cullen and P. Wilcox, 4–6. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781412959193.n2

    This encyclopedia entry focused on Adler’s (Adler 1975b, cited under Women in Crime and Justice), one of Adler’s most influential publications. It begins by outlining the personal and professional experiences that led to Alder’s liberation hypothesis. In addition, it outlines Alder’s work and how it provided the foundation of feminist criminology. The authors describe the backlash from many feminists regarding the liberation hypothesis, and note that, ironically, it inspired the development of feminist criminology and forced the field to move beyond simple explanations of female criminality.

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