“It was in 1816 that Swiss physician André Matthey identified and defined “klopemanie,” describing it as an impulse to steal things one didn’t need. Researchers who built on his work characterized it as a form of moral insanity, and many of them believed it was a condition that only affected women. For this reason, there were attempts to link its apparent prevalence among women to their biological nature. By the time [Mary] Ramsbotham appeared in court, tried for theft, her legal defense was able to successfully argue that she was suffering from a bout of menopause-induced kleptomania.

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.”