Femme Fatale – The female criminal

Wicked women, seductive sinners, vicious vixens – the female criminal is portrayed in many guises in popular culture, myth, film, literature and history.

A new exhibition at the National Wool Museum, Geelong, looks at female criminals as they are portrayed by theorists and within popular culture, contrasting them with the fascinating true stories of some of Australia’s most infamous female criminals.

Femme Fatale: The female criminal reveals the stories of many of Australia’s wildest women including Kate Leigh, Iris Webber and Eugenia Falleni and depicts real female criminals at Long Bay between 1915 and 1930. The exhibition includes: magazines; audio-visual excerpts; film posters and lobby cards featuring the ‘femme fatale’; forensic evidence; glass plate negatives of female criminals; criminal record sheets and images and medals belonging to Australia’s first police woman.

The mug shots component for this touring exhibition were uncovered and researched at Sydney’s Justice & Police Museum which houses a vast collection of more than 130,000 forensic negatives, originally created by police between 1912 and 1964.

The exhibition’s curator Nerida Campbell says “the photographs offer a rare insight into female criminality and provide a stark contrast to the glamourised femme fatales we see in films and other popular culture.

“Women who commit crimes have always intrigued society. The seductress we see in films has luscious red lips, big eyes, revealing clothing and often holds a smoking gun. She’s attractive, independent and intelligent and uses her sexuality against men who are unable to resist her.

“The reality for most female criminals turns out to be a hard, dysfunctional and violent life — brutalised and degraded further by stints in prison.  Their lives were punctuated by extreme violence and many of them were cold blooded killers.  All of these women have done hard time, reinforcing that true criminals’ lives are far from glamorous.

“Surrounded by male gangsters, the women of Sydney’s Razor Gang era were as tough as any of the men they mixed with. Women like Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine were career criminals who used intimidation, bribery and violence to maintain their influence.”

The exhibition Femme Fatale: The female criminal explores criminology, the justice system, religion and myth, popular culture and case studies of some of Australia’s most notorious female criminals.

Femme Fatale: The female criminal, 4 April 2011 to 13 June 2011, National Wool Museum, 26 Moorabool Street, Geelong. Open 9.30am–5pm on weekdays and 1–5pm on weekends. Phone (03) 5272 4701.

Also available: Femme Fatale book RRP $19.95. Published by the Historic Houses Trust and distributed nationally by Thames & Hudson.

Media release from National Wool Museum. Images courtesy City of Greater Geelong.

Image from Deadly Wanton, E Hamilton Clay (author), 1950s, Cleveland Publishing, Sydney. National Library of Australia. © Cleveland Publishing Co Pty Ltd

Kate Leigh, 1930 – of Sydney’s Razor Gang era.

Eugenia Falleni, 1920 – convicted murderer and notorious ‘man-woman’.
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