DELINQUENT women are nothing new, a study of girls in the early years of this century has found.
Society was despairing of the "modern" girl in the 1860s and has continued to redefine what it means by problem women ever since.
Pam Cox, lecturer in history at the University of Essex, says the belief in a recent explosion in female crime has been distorted by concentrating on court figures.
In her forthcoming book Gender, Justice and Welfare, a study of delinquent and neglected girls between 1900 and 1940, she also takes into account figures for the number of people in care, examining charity records throughout England and Wales.
In addition, she has spoken to a number of women who went through the care system in those years, either as neglected or delinquent women.
She finds large numbers of delinquent women existed and were committing the same range of crimes as men - from theft to vandalism and assault.
But her study shows they were more likely than men to be dealt with in the private and voluntary sector rather than in court.
"Girls were more easily identified as being in need of care and protection," she said.
For example, if a girl was caught shoplifting, the shopkeeper was likely to contact the nearest rescue home rather than the police.
Thousands of girls were therefore diverted out of the statutory juvenile justice system into the private rescue sector, run by a network of religious charities.
Others were put into the mental health system, particularly those who were sexually active.
Dr Cox says this has largely excluded them from criminological theory.
Assumptions about rates of delinquency and methods of dealing with it have always been based on court figures, in which boys outnumber girls by about five to one.
As a result, state-funded projects to deal with these problems also tend to concentrate on male criminals.
The situation is self-perpetuating, she says. Because less money is spent on women in the criminal justice system, there are fewer places for them, which leads to greater reliance on the privatesector.