03/15/2012 03:33 pm ET Updated May 15, 2012

The Culture of Allegiance and Feminism in the Mafia

Yesterday Catherine Greig, girlfriend of notorious gangster James "Whitey" Bulger, admitted to helping her man elude capture for almost sixteen years in a U.S. District Court in Boston. The 60-year-old women was soft-spoken and tearful, but Steve Davis, the brother of one of the 19 victims Bulger allegedly murdered, insisted that she did not deserve any sympathy. Davis argued, "She's not what she appears to be. She's a monster." Greig ultimately plead guilty to charges of conspiracy to harbor a fugitive, conspiracy to commit identity fraud, and identity fraud.

While her precise prison term remains unknown, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz assured critics that Greig's sentence is going to be "significant." Following the hearing, she stated, "Catherine Greig is not a victim. She stands a convicted felony... There was no deal, certainly no sweetheart deal." While the actions of this particular mob wife are undoubtedly extreme (and illegal), I couldn't help but identify with the agony and despair of the "how did I get here" theme of her story. Truthfully, I too dated a not-so-law-abiding citizen briefly in my adolescence. In a matter of weeks, I found myself, an intelligent young woman growing up in the nation's safest city, in a great deal of trouble. While I was quickly able to break it off and move forward, many women are not so fortunate.

Some women stay loyal to their criminal significant others because of the social and cultural norms embedded in their families and inner-circles. The women on VH1's Mob Wives, for instance, take immense pride in remaining loyal to the men in their lives, even when the men perpetually hurt them. In mob culture, allegiance is of the utmost importance, yet no one seems to mention the lack of reciprocity on behalf of the boyfriends and husbands. While many mobsters believe taking on a mistress can be seen as a sign of a man's strength and independence, some old-school mafia participants felt otherwise. Johnny Torrio, for instance, ran the prostitution racket in Chicago, but was widely known not to partake himself. Additionally, Dion O'Banion fancied himself a one-woman man while running his bootlegging business throughout Prohibition. Many of the women on VH1's show have such a romanticized belief in the mob that even when their lives are completely falling apart, they still prioritize esteemed aspects of this culture, like toughness and loyalty.

As evident in Mob Wives, mafia culture has traditionally limited women to the household. In 1983, a Palermo court ruled that women did not have the mental capacity to get involved with the business aspect of the mob; however, the government indicted 89 women for mafia-related crimes just twelve years later. The reason for this, according to Ernesto Savona of the Catholic University of Milan, is that criminal organizations are changing. Although it wasn't exactly the objective of feminism, the evolution of women in crime is actually much more like the evolution of women in business than previously predicted. Savon's report on Italian organized crime, the first of its kind, found that the mafia has become less violent and less hierarchical. Pier Luigi Vigna, the head of Italy's national anti-mafia office, believes that relative to men, women are willing to kill for politically motivated crimes, but not for business. Vigna states, "They're mainly found in areas that require a certain finesse, like money laundering rather than murder."

Shattering the glass ceiling in the mafia seems to have occurred because a large number of powerful men were behind bars or dead, not necessarily because of an internal feminist movement. Situations arose for women to take control when there was a desire for a specific family to retain power; yet, all of the men are "unavailable." Maria Licciardi, who found herself in such a situation in the mid-1990s, took over for her family and was eventually named one of Italy's 30 most wanted criminals. The 50-year-old matriarch was arrested on June 15, 2001, near Naples. Erminia Giuliano, who operated a mob syndicated in Naples, was famous for refusing to follow the police out of her home until a beautician was summoned to perfect her look. As she was taken away in handcuffs, she told her daughter, "I'm counting on you now. I am relaxed. I have taught you all the true values in life."

Whether one inherits or marries crime, the culture of delinquency dictates that loyalty, secrecy, and allegiance are of the utmost importance. If one were to ask Catherine Greig why she never reported her gangster boyfriend throughout the sixteen-year period they were living together, she would likely mention loyalty (and perhaps love) in her response. In an interview, she acknowledged that she did participate in some criminal behavior, but never with the intent of defrauding anyone. Greig states, "I engaged in conduct that was intended to help Bulger avoid detection from law enforcement and to provide him with support and assistance during his flight from law enforcement." As the incarceration rate of women continues to increase, the culture of allegiance in criminal institutions and the glamorization thereof must be deconstructed and seriously questioned.