Wanted Women

An American Obsession in the Reign of J. Edgar Hoover

Mary Elizabeth Strunk

The iconic photo of Bonnie Parker—cigar clenched in jaw, pistol in hand—says it all: America loves its bad girls. Now Mary Elizabeth Strunk tells us why.

Wanted Women is a startling look at the lives—and legends—of ten female outlaws who gained notoriety during the tumultuous decades that bracketed the tenure of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Strunk looks at real-life events and fictional portrayals to decipher what our obsession with these women says about shifting gender roles, evolving law-enforcement practices, and American cultural attitudes in general.

“A lively and engaging interdisciplinary study of ten high-profile female lawbreakers in the United States during the 1930s and 1970s. . . . Should appeal to a wide audience, including historians of gender, violence, law enforcement, and memory.

—Journal of American History

“Strunk’s ... book remains an invaluable reminder that popular culture is a slippery slope. Powerful individuals may believe themselves adept at shaping and controlling narratives. As Hoover’s experiences illustrate, however, once they enter the public realm, the most riveting and often socially significant narratives careen away from their creators and take on a life of their own. In the end, the audience controls the story.

—H-Net Reviews
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These women's stories reveal what it takes—and what it has meant—to be a high-profile female lawbreaker in America. Strunk introduces us to Kathryn "Mrs. Machine Gun" Kelly, Ma Barker, and Bonnie Parker from the 1930s, and, from the 1970s, we meet heiress-turned-revolutionary Patty Hearst, five other women of the Symbionese Liberation Army, and Black Panther Assata Shakur. All saw themselves as struggling against an oppressive legal system. All became "wanted" criminals and would play a part in shaping Hoover's legacy. And all spent enormous amounts of energy attempting to manipulate public opinion in their favor.

Strunk argues that each woman's public persona was to some degree invented by Hoover, who saw outlaw women as an alarming threat to public morality. He went after them with a vengeance, but in many ways his obsession only added to their reputations. Strunk shows how Hoover's repeated use of popular culture to publicize the threat of violent women initially succeeded in strengthening his FBI, but his approach became a liability by the time law enforcement was pitted against the women outlaws of the 1970s.

The book chronicles the careers of these infamous outlaws both in the real world and in popular culture—film, ads, true-crime stories, autobiographies—as well as Hoover's own forays into filmmaking. It boasts 27 compelling images of movie stills, wanted posters, and other ephemera that have been assembled nowhere else, including rarely reproduced SLA artifacts.

Strunk's book is the first study to define the narrow "formula" necessary for a woman to cross over from criminal to outlaw. Hitting on key notes of American culture from Black and gender studies to cinematic and legal history, Wanted Women sets a new benchmark for how we view women and crime as it contributes fresh insights into twentieth-century social history.

About the Author

Mary Elizabeth Strunk is an associate of Five Colleges, Incorporated. She writes and teaches in Western Massachusetts.

Additional Titles in the CultureAmerica Series