Although not as visible as their male counterparts, female gangs are on
the streets, ready to fly their colors
by Sarah McNaught
Two older men sat on the front stoop of a big white Bowdoin Street Victorian,
enjoying the warm breeze that rippled through the willow tree in the yard,
sipping beer and playing checkers on a board so old and tattered that some of
the squares were rubbed off.
The men hesitated a moment as a gaggle of girls passed by, poking each other,
giggling, and exchanging mock insults. Each of the six girls inconspicuously
wore a white or blue bandanna -- wrapped around a hair bun, draped through a
belt loop on a pair of baggy jeans, or tied to a backpack strap. These weren't
fashion accessories; they advertised the teens' identification with the Crips,
an infamous LA-born street gang, a faction of which infiltrated Boston four
years ago. The color blue is for the Crips; white is for the Doves, the
nickname used by many of the females associated with the gang.
The girls ignored the men playing checkers. They were busy making plans.
Someone had dissed a member of their group, so the subject was retaliation. But
the setting wasn't some dark alley away from the probing eye of the cops. The
teens plotted revenge as they made their way down Bowdoin toward Geneva Avenue
-- to all appearances, they were nothing more than a group of students coming
home from school.
Somewhere on the other side of the city, the girl who had bumped shoulders,
perhaps accidentally, with one of the Doves was unaware of what would be
waiting for her at school the next day -- a group of angry young women prepared
to take turns assaulting her for the supposed slight. The target of the Doves'
wrath had apparently boasted membership in another gang, but the Doves knew she
had been cast out and was therefore easy prey.
"She's frontin'," declared one of the girls. "She don't roll with them no
more. She can't represent. We're gonna beat her down."
Street gangs, of course, are traditionally a male province. But now, many fear,
more young women are adopting the posturings and rituals of gang life. Cops and
social workers say that female gangs, an under-the-radar presence in Boston for
several years now, appear to be on the rise in neighborhoods such as Mattapan,
Roxbury, and Dorchester. Girl gangs tend to be smaller and more loosely
organized than their male counterparts, but they're no strangers to violence.
And, like male gangs, they can send their members' lives on a downward
"They are a definite presence out there," says Lieutenant Michael Hennessy,
head of the Boston School Police. "We are seeing a shift from groups of girls
fighting over boys to gangs of girls who have become much more volatile,
participating in crimes such as robberies, assaults, and drugs."
Police and street workers admit that lack of research makes it difficult to
gauge the magnitude of the girl-gang problem, locally or nationwide. The US
Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
estimates that male gang members in New York outnumber female gang members by
20 to one; in Chicago, of 12,502 gang-associated offenders identified in the
late '80s, only 250 were female. Still, the Justice Department cautions, "data
on the number and distribution of females in gangs are extremely sparse
. . . we know much less about the characteristics and performance of
gang females than gang males."
To date, police and educators have identified 30 female gangs in Boston --
some autonomous, some male-gang auxiliaries -- with membership totaling around
400. That number includes those girls who've been accepted as full-fledged
members of gangs that were once male-only. (In many cases, girls get
drawn into gang life when they date male gang members and begin witnessing
crimes.) In addition, says Hennessy, there are numerous loosely organized
groups of five to 50 girls. By contrast, Hennessy notes, there are more than
1200 male gang members in Boston -- representing about three percent of the
young males living in gang hot spots such as Mattapan, Roxbury, and
In and out of gangs, violence among the city's young women is on the
upswing. At the Boston Public School Counseling and Intervention Center, where
students are sent after breaking school codes of conduct, 122 of the 621 kids
referred for violent behavior this past school year -- almost 20 percent
-- were girls, a marked increase over earlier years' nine percent.
Law-enforcement officials, who have worked hard over the past decade to bring
male-gang activity under control, hope to head off this new crisis before it
gets any worse. Last month, four female officers, accompanied by members of the
city's probation department and the school police, began visiting schools and
talking to girls about the downside of gang membership. By next fall, a written
curriculum being compiled by the police may be available to all the city's
Girl-gang activity began attracting official notice four years ago, when
police, probation officers, and social workers were gathering information for
Operation Ceasefire, a much-lauded effort to reduce the gang violence that
exploded in the late 1980s and early '90s. Most of the research, and the
crackdown, focused on male gangs, but in the course of their studies, experts
identified some prominent female groups such as the Bad Mother Fuckers, the
Corbitt Street Girls, and the Champer Dames. These gangs were basically
autonomous, with loose ties to larger male groups for whom they carried weapons
or delivered drugs. And they were fairly violent, meting out punishment to any
member who betrayed the group or refused to participate in beatings, robberies,
or drug dealing.
Today, those hard-core girl gangs have virtually disappeared as their
members have had children, gone to jail, or simply outgrown gang life. But new
female groups have taken their place. Dana Nurge, an assistant professor at
Northeastern University's College of Criminal Justice, has interviewed school
administrators, street workers, law-enforcement officials, and female gang
members about the growth of girl gangs. Today's female gangs, Nurge reports,
may evolve from informal cliques -- whose criminal activity is limited to petty
theft and assault -- to more-structured organizations that adopt traditional
male-gang attributes such as colors, tattoos, hand signals, initiation rituals,
oaths, and regulations. Although girl gangs shy away from such male-gang
trademarks as graffiti and gunplay, police say, they do deal drugs, beat people
up, and carry weapons -- especially knives, razors, and bleach spray bottles,
which they use like mace.
"Make no mistake, these girls are not girl scouts," says Lieutenant
Gary French, commander of the Boston Police's Youth Violence Strike Force.
"They are not as organized as established male gangs, but they are getting
The "Green and Goldies" of Dorchester Avenue, near Ronan Park, prove his
point. Since it formed last summer, the 10-member gang, headed up by
15-year-old twins, has gained a certain notoriety in Field's Corner for
verbally challenging groups of males the same age. The twins boast about
everything from slashing the tires of rival groups' parents' cars to mugging
commuters exiting the Field's Corner MBTA station. They wear their colors in
the form of hair clips or rubber wristbands, and they've developed an
extended-thumb-and-pinkie hand signal similar to the gestures seen at hard-rock
"We've made girls snatch purses, beat other girls down, and even steal other
girls' boyfriends in order to join," says "Squeaky," one of the twins.
(Although the thin blonde claims that her name is derived from the nickname of
the "coolest chick in the Manson family," Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, her sister
says she got her moniker as a toddler with an unusually high-pitched squeal.)
Billy Stewart, a juvenile probation officer at Dorchester District Courthouse,
says that girls join gangs for many of the same reasons boys do -- "the
camaraderie, the prestige, and ample access to drugs and cash." Squeaky agrees
with that last point: "If you drive around Dorchester, the people with the phat
cars, phat clothes, and wads of cash are all gang-bangers," she explains. "It's
the easiest way to get what you want."
But there are deeper motivations. A closer look at some gang girls' family
histories uncovers serious troubles. According to the US Department of Justice,
most contemporary female gangs are located in poor inner-city communities, and
most girls who join them have family members who were or are gang members
themselves. Many come from homes plagued by drugs, abuse, and violence, and
many have only one parent involved in their lives.
"They take that type of upbringing to the street," explains Stewart. "They
find girls like themselves and collectively take out their frustrations on
rival groups of girls, strangers, or anyone they think poses a threat.
"Economic background is not the only common denominator, though," he says.
"Like the guys, girls join for a sense of family they don't have in their real
Sixteen-year-old "Tanya," for example, has been second in command of the FC
Posse, a female gang in Dorchester, for the past two years. During that time
she has been in and out of the court system three times. Her offenses have been
minor -- trespassing, disturbing the peace, and shoplifting -- but she knows
it's not likely to stop there.
"I met my father once, right before he went to jail, when he came to the house
to get money from my mother," says Tanya, kicking the tip of her red-and-white
Adidas sneaker into the base of a fire hydrant at the side entrance of Town
Field, in Field's Corner. "My mother sells weed and sometimes she lets me run
for her so I can make some cash." She says her gang, which street workers say
is all but unknown outside the small Dorchester neighborhood, is 15 members
strong and spends most of its time protecting its name and reputation against
rival female gangs.
Protection also seemed to be the main concern of four teens hanging out
outside the Payless shoe store in Uphams Corner on a recent afternoon.
Each wore a large silver hoop earring in her left ear -- the only visual
evidence linking the group. The oldest was 14, a tall Latina girl with long,
curly black hair and black nail polish. She calls herself "Kiss," which, in
gang parlance, means slashing someone with a straight-edge razor -- something
Kiss claims she's done many times.
After a few questions, though, a less threatening picture emerges. During the
past school year, Kiss and her friends have become targets of larger groups of
girls in their neighborhood. Mainly in the hope of intimidating these girls,
they began calling themselves a gang.
"We don't got a name yet, but we don't need a name to fuck you up," Kiss says,
but her words are sheer bravado. She glances around at her friends for support,
seemingly uneasy in her role as leader. "We got our boys, we got weapons, and
we got cash. We don't need a name."
No, they don't need a name, agrees Mike Hennessy. "They need guidance, someone
to listen to them, and someone to explain to them that gang life is something
that, once they get involved, can only destroy their lives."
There's a price just to getting involved -- initiation rituals involving
beatings, stealing sprees, muggings, or mental tests administered by members of
male gangs associated with the female group. "Sexing in" -- forcing potential
gang members to have sex with male gang members -- is sometimes part of the
initiation as well.
And leaving the gang life can be equally perilous. A few weeks ago, the Youth
Violence Strike Force was called to Downtown Crossing. When they arrived, a
group of Asian girls, known as the Oriental Street Girls (OSG) -- an offshoot
of the Oriental Street Boys (OSB) -- were "beating out" several members who had
requested permission to quit.
"It's not uncommon for female gangs to carry out rituals established by male
gangs," explains Gary French. "Beating out, or taking turns beating up each
girl who wants out, is one of the ways gangs cast out disloyal members. But
we've heard of cases in the past where members have had to kill those who
wanted out. We've even heard of members being ordered to kill a family member
in order to get out of a gang."
But eventually, most female gang members do get out before they fall headlong
into a life of criminal behavior.
"There is a tendency for girls to grow up and grow out of it," says Billy
Stewart, who has 20 years' experience in the juvenile system in Dorchester.
"They are drawn to the power, the drugs, and the cash that male gangs have but
learn much more quickly than the guys that the hassle of obtaining and
maintaining that financial and social power isn't worth it."
Some aren't so smart or lucky, though, especially those girls who were drawn
into gang life through sexual relationships and became pregnant as a result.
Every day, streams of young women, babies in their arms, enter the Nashua
Street prison to visit men imprisoned for gang-related crimes. They leave their
bandannas in the car and cover their tattoos before they enter the jail, but
these young mothers suffer the daily consequences of the gang life they chose,
even if only for a brief part of their lives. Their children's fathers are
behind bars and can't provide for them. Their fellow gang members -- the only
friends or "family" many of them know -- may turn their backs on them,
impatient that they've been tied down by maternal responsibilities. And they
lack the skills or education that might catapult them out of this dismal
"These are the girls the little ones need to look at," says Hennessy. "These
are the girls we talk about when we go into schools and address groups of
wide-eyed preteens who have no idea what they are getting themselves into when
they don the colors and adopt the codes that dictate the gang lifestyle."
Sarah McNaught can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.