With violence all around them, is it any wonder teenage girls are getting more murderous?
May 1994
Photo Director Alison Morley


It's a tricky thing, tucking a single‑edged razor blade flat against the inside of your cheek. I know because I tried it. Go to a party or a club or to school with it in there? Sip drinks, carry on a casual conversation, dance? You have to be kidding‑I was scared even to close my mouth.

But I'm a thirty‑six‑year‑old woman, and the girls, they aren't afraid. They carry blades in their cheeks, knives in their ponytails, guns in their bras, and they use them. The girls, they got hard. And nobody knows how it happened.

How do you explain four middle‑class girls, aged fifteen to seventeen, from Madison, Indiana, who threw a twelve‑year‑old girl in the trunk of their car for ten hours and made stops, not just to beat and sodomize her with a tire iron, but also to buy soft drinks and make phone calls? They threw her out on a back road, doused her with gasoline, lit a match, and took off‑returning to douse her with more gas because she wasn't burning fast enough.

You hear more than you need to about Amy Fisher, Lorena Bobbitt, and Tonya Harding, but about the really hard cases you hear little or nothing, "maybe because they're too threatening to the male power structure," offers Leslie Wolfe, president of the Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

In Los Angeles three teenage sisters stab a librarian to death for no apparent reason.

In Houston, a fifteen‑year‑old "hit girl" serves a twenty-two‑year sentence after being recruited by a thirteen‑year‑old boy to kill his grandmother.

In Mississippi, two teenage sisters choke their mother while one of their boyfriends stabs her‑because she threatened to send them to camp.

Hard cases, hard for anybody to stomach; especially hard for men, who are accustomed to seeing women and girls as victims, not perpetrators. Little girls violating a littler one with a tire iron? Get real ‑men still aren't over the female‑perpetrated violence in Thelma & Louise, and that was fiction.

Wolfe is usually on top of cutting‑edge issues ‑in the '70s, before anyone was talking domestic violence, she was screaming about it; in the '80s, she put the Feds on notice that women also get AIDS‑but this one escaped her, until two years ago.

GIRL STABS BOY IN SCHOOL­ -this headline was buried deep in The Washington Post, but something resonated, so Wolfe clipped it. "An affluent neighborhood -and she didn't use a Swiss Army knife, nothing adorable or cutesy‑poo, but a kitchen knife, coming very close to paralyzing the boy," says Wolfe.

Wolfe is a fifty‑year‑old feminist ‑of a generation that, faced with the prospect of personal violence, considers carrying car keys between fisted fingers a proactive response. Knives, guns, razor blades? Wolfe couldn't identify. "I knew these girls were living lives I had never lived." She clipped more news briefs. Talked to people in juvenile justice. Made trips to the library, to discover how little data there was.

Since 1988, the number of violent crimes committed by girls has increased 63 percent, according to the FBI ‑yet no surveys have been conducted, no books written, no studies done, says Wolfe.

Wolfe is only beginning to gather data from focus groups of girls from all income ranges all over the country, but she's already seeing signs that even girls who end up getting in fights just for the thrill of it started carrying weapons to protect themselves.

"Upper‑middle‑class girls taking self‑defense classes in areas surrounding Washington are saying, 'Well, you don't really need a gun, but it is something you like to have, just in case,"' says Wolfe.

Let's face it: Rapes, robberies, and murders are part of their world. As radio talk show host and self‑defense expert Lisa Sliwa puts it, "If you can get raped in a school stairwell at age eighteen, what kind of confidence do you have that the system can protect you?"

Consider the case of Gladys Pena, who, last Christmas, after years of watching her mother being battered ‑seeing bite marks on her breasts and holes in the plaster where her head had been slammed into the wall- killed her mother's boyfriend with a .380 semiautomatic.

"He was beating on my mom," Gladys said. "I came downstairs to call the cops when I heard my mother scream." But Gladys did not call the cops. She walked into a nearby playground in her Williamsburg, Brooklyn, neighborhood, put her hand into a drug dealer's street stash, got the gun, and ended Mom's man troubles for good. Hard case? Gladys was a B student with no prior record, perfect school attendance, and dreams of being a lawyer ‑until her mother's fights with her boyfriend began keeping her up half the night. She turned herself in to the police. When a grand jury refused to indict her on anything but third‑degree weapons possession, I thought, Go, Gladys! getting the same kind of buzz I get when Clint Eastwood says, "Make my day."

I can recall going to a graduation ceremony at Phoenix House, a drug rehab center in Manhattan, maybe five years ago, meeting two girls, both bright, both pretty‑both recovering from the wreck and ruination they suffered at the hands of their drug dealer boyfriends: carrying their drugs, hiding their weapons because the police were less likely to search girls. Why be a flunky for those fools, when you could have grabbed their guns and their drugs and their cash and got on a plane for Miami? I wondered. Their reply: "It never occurred to us."

That was then, this is now. "The girls are saying if this is the Ladies Auxiliary, keep it‑we got our own thing going on," says Sliwa. "If I have a choice between breaking up a fight between guys or girls when I'm on patrol with the Guardian Angels, I pick the guys, no contest," says Sliwa, who bears a scar from a female dealer's broken beer bottle on one of her arms. "Guys, you can talk to. Girls won't stop till they draw blood."

Charles Patrick Ewing, author of Kids Who Kill, claims there is a greater tendency among girls to "overkill," to use more force than needed. "There's an internal rage that explodes, and once the genie's out of the bottle, there's no putting it back."

And, prosecutors and social workers say, girls are less likely than boys to at least give the appearance of understanding the consequences of their actions as they are explained, or even to "follow the rules" laid before them while they are under supervision ‑but, as Wolfe points out, they're rules created for boys, who still commit 85 to 90 percent of juvenile homicides, and virtually all rapes.

"Maybe what the girls are telling them is, 'These ain't my rules, honey; I live in a different world than the boys do," says Wolfe. "Maybe the question isn't, 'What's wrong with the girls?'‑it's 'What's wrong with the rules?"

Girls have a bad attitude? They're nihilistic? Why shouldn't they be? The maturity that distinguishes them from same-aged boys could be the reason. They can see down the road. They can look at their grandmothers and see that Betty Crocker's a crock. Find a man and make babies? So he can leave you when your butt drops?

They look at Mom and see a career outside the home is no piece of cake, either, not when you're going to be professionally blocked and possibly sexually harassed by men making 30 percent more money than you are. That's if you finish school, actually manage to get a job.

The girls most at risk look down the road, and they don't see anything. As Sliwa says, "If your only alternative is to have a baby and get your own [welfare] check or go out and rob people, you're going to say, Hey, give me the gun."

In the words of H. Rap Brown: "You cannot legislate an attitude."

In the words of female gangsta rapper Boss:
"I don't give a fuck/ I don't give a fuck/ Not a single solitary fuck/ I don't give a fuck."

The hard girls we don't listen to?
They understand Boss.

A different language, for a different age.