KLEPTOMANIA – STATUS & BLING
Ramsbotham symbolized an emerging anxiety among the middle class in England and France over female deviance exemplifed by thievery. Images of this archetypal woman began to proliferate shortly after the establishment of the first department stores in early 19th-century London. In a 1989 journal article titled “The Invention of Kleptomania,” Elaine Abelson, an assistant professor of history at The New School for Social Research, writes that women in the 19th century experienced a freedom of mobility within department stores that they had not experienced elsewhere in the public sphere. Shopping was women’s work; therefore, the majority of shoplifters were women. And not just any women—middle- and upper-class women who stuffed silk ribbons and gloves into their pockets without paying for them. These were respectable women, and to label them criminals would undo a social order the elite establishment held precious to its survival. So they were labeled “sick” instead.
Psychologists and physicians at the time misunderstood why women shoplifted because they misunderstood women’s experiences, according to historian Tammy Whitlock. In an article published in a 1999 edition of Albion, Whitlock conveys the details of the Ramsbotham case and explains that survival in class-obsessed societies necessitated the acquisition of social symbols like ribbons and gloves. “Such ‘fripperies’ had real significance in day-to-day life in maintaining or increasing status,” she writes. “Indirectly these women were stealing status.”