A literature review of attitudes towards female killers and the reasons why they kill intimate family members
Female inequality is at the centre of much debate. The powerful stance of women’s equality following many prominent campaigns is exceptional. Feminists are finally being heard on a global stage. However, one group of women has failed to benefit from this movement and is continually demonised by not only male dominated media and law but also by feminists themselves. Killer women gain little from the work these women do. This dissertation will detail the attitudes towards these women and explore the reasons why these women kill. Attitudes towards killer women are entrenched into our everyday thinking, they are othered by the media and judiciary system. They are characterised solely upon the action of killing another being. Their life before the event deemed meaningless and unimportant. With the use of literature from the criminological field this dissertation first looks at the origins of the female being and how she was first depicted, alongside how this depiction has seen limited change. Secondly focusing on the effects of domestic violence upon women, many killer women have faced large amounts of abuse from the partners they kill. These women are “simultaneously victims and agents: they are abused but they also act to protect themselves” (Schneider, 2000:120). It is imperative that these abuses are highlighted and eradicated. Finally, a brief discussion surrounding other victims of killer women. In conclusion both the attitudes towards killer women and the reasons why they kill needs continual exploration within criminology. As well as radical change in the way in which these women are treated by the judiciary to ensure these women have a fair trial. One which concentrates on killer women as individuals and not one homogenous group.
Author: Hannah-Louise Gadsby, May 2019
Dissertation BA (Hons) Criminology with Psychology
- Literature Review
- Attitudes towards Women
- Domestic Violence and Females who Kill their Abusers
- Child Victims
- Discussion and Conclusion
I would firstly like to express my deepest thankfulness to Kay Brady, her reassuring words at the start of this process pushed aside all of the worries I had. Giving me the confidence and determination to create this body of work. I cannot thank you enough for the support that you have given me and the confidence I now have in my academic ability.
This dissertation is dedicated to my wonderful family, each and every one of you has played a part in the creation of this dissertation. In order to fully thank you all I would need another 10,00 words. Without you all I would never be where I am today, you are the ones responsible for creating this powerful, opinionated, intelligent young lady.
To the next generation of my family, I hope this dissertation shows you that dreams aren’t just wishful thinking they are meant to be realised. This is one of mine now it’s time for you to go out and chase yours.
This is just the beginning watch out world I’m coming for you.
The female killer evokes many diverging reactions. Many are rooted in anger and disgust, based on the belief system that women are incapable of carrying out such horrific acts. Other reactions take a liberal stance trying to apply reasoning to the killing of another. The female killer is not only rare but fantasised about in the media. Specific female killers are demonised by the media if they are perceived to have the ability to affect the running of society (Morrissey, 2003). Long tales are created surrounding their life before as well as the months post the incident. The sensationalised media coverage uses stock narratives including mad or bad depictions of women, placing focus on the sexual deviance of these female killers (Cruze et al, 2006) this creates a connection between the killer and the public. Bringing the horrific act of murder into their homes. Allowing them to have a front seat to the events that unfold. This in turn forms an uncommon connection between the killer and the general public. This connection is exploited as many readers take the media’s portrayal of these women as fact. Narrations link stereotypes with mythical characters or former killers as a result othering the female killer in relation to the current culture and behaviours that society accepts
(Morrissey, 2003). The public uses this narration to reaffirm their condemnation of killer women. The portrayal of the female killer is what stands years after the act has been committed and essentially what following generations use to judge her acts. The media impact seeps into everyday behaviour, re-establishing stereotypes that confine women to passive beings of which the feminist movement has tirelessly worked to remove. These women are human they have home lives, friends and family. They had a life before this event, the aftermath of which will continue to affect not only them but future female killers. The othering of these women will never change the status quo, it will never protect these women from the events that resulted in them taking another person’s life. The only way that prevention and modes of help will be created is by understanding this diverse, repressed group within society. This dissertation seeks to unravel the unfathomable nature of female killers and bring them to the forefront of criminological research to allow the process of understanding and demystification to happen.
In order to fully understand this group of offenders, research has to begin at the creation of femininity, family and stereotypes. Women as a whole are “socialised to suppress anger” (Adler, 2002:867) this is intrinsically linked to our belief system. Our belief systems stem from interactions with others impacting how we interpret personal events but also the events which we observe from afar. Communication with others allows for the dissemination of beliefs and thoughts. It happens through a number of channels the source of which is the fundamental teachings from the Bible. The foundations of society were built based upon bible teachings and stories. Those teachings have shaped the way we view individuals in society and how society as a whole should function. The impacts of these stories have been discounted and left out of discourse surrounding female killers. The very first behaviours that are linked intrinsically to Eve are of deceit and evil. Eve is extremely important as she is the very first female created by God and she is the first person to sin. This simple act predetermines the tone for the rest of women kind (Styler, 2007). In this pivotal action it renders the female being as untrustworthy and the creator of evil. The rule of law which governs society around the globe is built on foundations of religious belief systems, as well as the classification of acceptable and unacceptable behaviours. Eve’s flaws intertwine unacceptable behaviours with the female gender.
Due to the intertwined nature of specific undesirable behaviours with Eve it has resulted in a negative stereotypical view of the female form. This is undeniably still present to this day. The evolution of society has begun to attempt to fracture the seemingly undetachable inherently negative characteristics from the female being. This liberation is far from complete and still continues to silence women. Portraying any deviation from the perfect subordinate being as other and villainous. Social oppression through forms such as stereotypes, social activities and instinctual responses to situations dehumanises many women across the world but is also allows males to use this as a reason behind their controlling behaviour (Smart & Smart, 1978). They control these women under the pretence that they are fulfilling their right and duty to ensure that standards imposed upon women are being met. It’s not only controlling manipulative men that are imposing these standards. The court of law may not be physically beating these women into submission but they are restricting their agency. The legal system specifically holds a stereotypical view of the family, this belief seeps into other institutions within the country (Eaton, 1986). They impose sanctions on the basis of conformity and expose and exploit any deviation from the submissive female model. These institutions homogenise the female eradicating any sense of diversity. Including killer women who have endured many different events and have been subject to unjust scrutiny from wider society’s expectations regarding appropriate behaviour.
The difficulties surrounding understanding killer women is exasperated due to small numbers. Between the years 2013 – 2016 there were only 40 domestic homicides that were perpetrated by females (Davidge & Magnusson, 2017). Whilst this is an outright positive it causes significant barriers when analysing their actions. Some killer women are advised to have a passive demeanour and to stay relatively quiet during trial. This is significantly different to male offenders who are advised to make their presence known and to answer all questions (Heidensohn, 1985). Playing into the stereotype of the passive female seeks to impact the verdict and sentence she may receive. As a consequence of inconsistencies with sentencing, research regarding convicted female killers results in only a small proportion of female killers being able to be used for research purposes. Some women who are fortunate enough for self-defence pleas to be recognised are not recorded within the imprisoned populations. Thus, research is limited to those who fail to adhere to stereotypical patterns of behaviour or where self-defence is not believed. Liberal feminists seek for all scientific research to correctly represent women and ensure that they are not underrepresented in any research that is undertaken (Walklate, 1995). Until these criteria are met statistics and prevalence rates have limitations in providing comment on the reasons behind these women’s acts
The female killer is not only the killer of her abuser or the femme fatale, the female killer is a diverse faction within the offender population. These women range from the likes of Myra Hindley to Wanda Jean Allen, no two are the same and no two offences have the same characteristics. It is imperative that unification or classification of types of killing does not guide our understanding of these crimes. To create an overarching explanation of female killing will result in a misrepresentation of many of these women. Women who kill their own children have very different experiences and driving factors to that of a woman who killed her abuser or killed out of love of the thrill. The two overarching factors that are apparent in most female killers’ motives are emotional and psychological reasons (Mann, 1992), it has to be accepted these are more prevalent in some cases in comparison to others. To conflate each of these will result in the creation of one homogenous group with expectations that their behaviour will be similar to one another. This helps no women; it gives them little faith that society really understands what they have been through. They lose belief and faith that people are willing to listen.
This dissertation will seek to explore the attitudes towards these killer women examining if these attitudes have changed or are on the verge of changing. As well as exploring the reasons why these women resort to killing intimate family members.
The specific subset of women which this dissertation focusses its gaze up is one of small numbers, many of these females are largely out of the public realm. Therefore, there are specific limitations when exploring this group of women. The women who are sentenced for their crime reside in prison and those exonerated no longer participate within an overly public domain. Therefore, secondary data gives the opportunity to examine data that is of a much higher standard (Bryman, 2016). The two sections within this work will be fully explored using a literature review method. Firstly, in order to ascertain the publics opinions, it is important to explore the historical beginnings of our understanding of the female being. Historical contexts were explored as these are the foundations of our beliefs. Starting with bible teachings progressing all the way to present day. The literature review spanned various forms of academic work. This included journals, books and statistics that centred around the whole of female offending and the cultural attitudes towards these killer women. Secondly the reasons why women kill their intimate partners was also explored using a literature review. This focused upon a number of studies of where the conclusions were drawn from an analysis of female killers. The limitations of the research are clear, the conclusions as to why these women take the life of a loved one can only be answered by the women who have committed the offence. It is fully accepted that in order to gain accurate reasonings behind these criminal acts the females involved need to be part of the discussion. Interviews with these women could not be achieved, this is due to inaccessibility to them and the inability to gain ethical approval. Therefore, previous researchers’ interactions must be relied upon to start the process of understanding and attempting to remove any stereotypical viewpoints that these women are subject to within the criminological field. The criminological field is not exempt from exasperating rigid societal norms. An evaluation using a literature review method will produce a detailed exploration of the female killer, however it will be subject to reliance on other research that had its own agenda and objective. The agenda needs to be accepted and accounted for when drawing conclusions from each source.
Qualitative researchers have access to special cases that they can use. This could result in well chosen examples being used to prove a specific theory (Silverman,2013). Taking this into account is highly important as each researcher has an underline bias that may compromise their findings. To gain full understanding of why these women kill interviews would be exceptionally helpful. They not only would be able to express the circumstances surrounding the killings but also to give first hand information with regards to the attitudes and treatment towards them after the killing took place. The caveat is that these women will have their own interpretation of the events and attitudes are subject to large amounts of bias interpretation.
Literature surrounding killer women dates back to the earliest of teachings within the Bible. The story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:4-3:24 is the birth of the submissive female individual. She is depicted as the sinner, forever culpable for allowing evil to become part of humanity as a result of her inability to resist the forbidden fruit. As an attempt to remove this entrenched evil characteristic from the female being the second wave feminist movement created a change of approach towards the biblical characters. Rebecca Styler (2007) demonstrates this movement towards a reinterpretation of the Bible, this reinterpretation shifts the centre of the teachings around the female characters allowing an exploration of the book of Genesis from a feminist viewpoint. These writings arose around the 19th century and were for women by women and opened the space for debate about the female role without male interference. Whilst this approach actively attacks the patriarchy’s hold upon the female being “the patriarchal images of women from Greco-Roman mythology will continue to oppress” (Bowers, 1990:217). At present these feminist reinterpretations of the Bible teachings have yet to have major impacts upon the status quo. When tackling an ingrained idea that has been accepted as truth for centuries it takes much more than rewriting history. “The Bible has become part of the air we breathe without our even being aware of it’s presence or power” (Newson,2012:2). With society oblivious to the power the Bible has over humanity, adapting its teachings will have minimal effect as the original teachings will continue to affect people’s thoughts, actions and feelings. They will refer back to the original works without consideration of the feminist reinterpretation. Males fortunate to be within the highest rank of the hierarchical patriarchal society and those that support the patriarchy have the ability to reject nuanced approaches towards modifying original teachings. This is because they are the ones with power to change laws and societal expectations of each gender. As a result, legitimisation of this feminist approach will fail to happen. For change to occur challenges towards entrenched beliefs need to be directed towards the people who hold such stereotypical values. Creating a precise depiction of females that these males understand and don’t deem as a threat to themselves will aid in bringing them onside to fight for equality. The status quo at present is still one which labels female offenders as either mad or bad. Mad in reference to a females psychological assumed unstable state and bad depicting the female offender as evil and monstrous (Morrissey, 2003).
Lombroso and Ferrero (1895) cited in Heindensohn (1985) focused their pioneering works within criminology on the biological differences between the criminal and non-criminal, for example the size of the skull and other facial features were explored. Their theory only briefly expands to female criminals, it was believed reasons why females committed less crime was due to their lack of evolution in comparison to their male counterparts so therefore had less chance of evolving with degeneration within their genes. Within the positivist movement law breakers were deemed “atavists” a throwback to an earlier degenerate generation (Walklate, 1995). As a result, the depiction of female lawbreakers as inferior and evil became intrenched as the positivist theory portrayed women’s biological development as stopping much earlier than male’s, resulting in a much closer connection to their degenerate ancestors (Walklate,1995). Specifically, females who commit murder have extensive masculine traits attached to them (Smart, 1976) producing an unwavering link between these women and masculinity. This masculine discourse is used to influence the general public as well as jurors during trials. In cases such as Rose West this discourse was used to influence the verdict and punishment that she received (Seal, 2010). The positivist ideology still has its influence to this day. Many criminal women’s actions are explained in relation to biological factors such as the menstrual cycle (Shaw, 1995). However, the biological premise of crime has significant flaws, it fails to recognise the impact society has on its inhabitants, of which women sustain a greater amount of constraint. It is impossible for criminals and the acts they commit to be looked at in isolation, our biological self interacts with the environment in which we live. “Socialisation experiences of females who are expected to conform to the wishes of males and silence their own voices” (Katz,2004:26). This victimisation throughout society against women has a causational effect on criminal behaviour. They are left with little choice when trapped within abusive relationships than to eventually fight back to protect their life. Early works focused upon the biological and sexual aspect of the female, criminologists failed to consider other factors such as social and economic issues (Heindensohn, 1985).
This was explored by Thomas (1907) who examined the effects socialisation had upon children. Children are born without an understanding of the world. Society as a whole including home and school life is a vehicle in which socialisation happens. This liberalist movement stated deviance was a social pathology where unsocialised individuals committed deviant acts, it rejected the notion that deviance took root in biology (Smart, 1976). Socialisation of the female happens in two forms, the first of which is primary socialisation, occurring in the family. With secondary socialisation happening through friends, media and education (Smart & Smart, 1978). The socialisation of women outlines the acceptable manor in which a woman should act. Biological factors have been the determinants of the different social spheres. These spheres date back to the Victorian era, the male sphere being the public and work domain and the female sphere being the private, motherly sphere (Heindensohn, 1985). Due to the natural difference between men and women restrictions as well as expectations are placed upon these women. However, the socialisation theory Thomas (1907) composed only goes so far as to explain delinquency in the female population. Bingham (1923) in Cowie et al (1968) states that this delinquency is due to failed socialisation which has resulted in unacceptable behavioural standards. Research during this time was focused upon the delinquent and sexually promiscuous woman. The juvenile system in the 20th century focused upon the immorality of girls, they segregated girls from boys as they were worried about their promiscuity (Cheney-Lind & Pasko, 2004). Role theory expands on the issue of socialisation, stating that deviance is rooted in “differential socialization, differential illegitimate opportunity structures and differential social reaction” (Smart,1976: 66). Women become passive beings which results in less violent skills being acquired and a reduced opportunity to partake in criminal activity. However, role theory legitimises the entrapment of women within the private sphere of influence. Abused women have little to no power to escape their abusers, the women’s life becomes cemented in maternal and household domains. Treated as property socialised to feel this is the only place they belong (Thomas, 1907) leaving them powerless to the men that control them. Role theory does however encapsulate both biological differences as well as impacts societal expectation has upon criminality.
Sexuality has taken over the criminal justice system, the general public are exposed to this via the media. Female offenders are depicted by images of witches, evil temptresses or fallen women (Jewkes, 2011). This allows for the system and society to ignore the women who have faced such hardship consequently resorting to the only action which will result in freedom. This action is to kill their intimate partners. They are side-lined due to the fight against promiscuity. Generalised as monsters and evil they have no help in reclaiming their identity. To attack this portrayal of women the feminist movement make clear the issues within the criminological field. “Criminology presumes the criminal to be male but does not reflect on the impact this has on theorising crime” (Walklate, 1995:25). Both radical and liberal feminists advocate for change within the system of oppression with the intention of resurrecting the female from the depiction of evil. Worrall (1990) presents that in order for the female being to be seen as equal to that of the male, changes have to be made at the legal level. The law creates legitimacy to people’s actions. It states which acts are lawful and unlawful. By adopting a male point of view when creating law, it allows for male dominance to become invisible but ever present (Mackinnon,1989). To tackle this Morrissey (2003) emphasises the importance of the female legal discourse. They attempt to resurrect the female as a real person, one which has emotion. This push towards humanising the female being becomes a starting point of equality. Without humanisation females can never be seen as human entities and will continue to fall into the category of monstrous beings. Feminist movements are fractured and many have conflicting or radically different aims and objectives. Feminist themes surrounding criminology aim to make women visible, increase research on, by and for women, non-sexist methodologies and that research should have some form of positive impact upon the feminist movement (Heindensohn, 1985). The radical feminist movement focuses upon the oppression of females by males, which has resulted in the subordination of women. They have intrinsic distrust towards males and believe all males are intrinsically bad and all females intrinsically good (Walklate, 1995). In comparison liberal feminism explores the possibility of political change in society. Wollstonecraft (1792) in Tylor (2003) critiqued the impact of power relations on the female psyche. The male hierarchy exerts power and oppression onto women. The improvement of the political stance of women can only be possible when the sexes “have been restored to natural equality” (Taylor,2003:57). However, the feminist movement is fractured, each faction having different goals and approaches to achieve these goals. This lessens the political capital that can be achieved due to a uniformed approach. As a result, a lesser amount of change can be implemented. When movements are actively trying to gain equality or an increase in rights they are targeted as the cause of any problems relating to the possible results of allowing more freedom. Heindensohn (1985) shows that when moral panics surrounding girls and crime appear the feminist movement are blamed for this change in behaviour as they advocate for liberating these women. This stunts any progression they may make. Another issue with the feminist movement as a whole is that it is dominated by middle class women, the women on the outer edges are rarely represented (Mackinnon,1989). Whilst these women may have good intentions at heart, they are in a position of power in comparison to the groups of women they are representing such as women in abusive relationships and women who have a sever lack of political capital (Smart, 1990).
When females kill 80% of their victims are relatives or lovers (Adler,2002). These women are seen to be violating what is deemed to be normal behaviour for a woman (Schneider,2000). However, what is rarely expressed is the life they have been living behind closed doors. They are depicted without real consideration of their circumstances. Many males feel it is their right to rule over their women, using physical and emotional abuse if needed. These women become socialised to this control and fail to question it (Walker,1979). The stark reality is that society “through its definition of the women’s role, has socialised her into believing she had no choice but to be such a victim” (Walker,1979:14). Many onlookers pose the questions as to why these women stayed and endured the violence for so long which eventually resulted in killing to end their suffering. One such explanation is learned helplessness, once these women have tried to escape their abuser a number of times and failed to do so they lose faith that they have the ability to change their situation, passivity becomes the adopted response (Motz,2001). This theory should be seen as the inability to predict the outcome of a particular action (Walker,2009). These women attempt to modify their behaviour with the intention of stopping or reducing the attack they face. When this modification of behaviour does not work then they are left wondering if they have and power to change the world in which they live. However, learned helplessness implies that skills can be learnt that can stop the battering instead of ending the relationship (Walker, 2017). This implies the onus is on the woman to adopt specific skills as a result of the situation they are in.
Society fails to focus its gaze upon the condemnation of these manipulative, abusive men. The behaviour that they exhibit is unacceptable. However, this behaviour takes place within the home which restricts the woman further. The rhetoric surrounding males has to change in order to create an environment which promotes exposing this unacceptable behaviour.
Smart (1976:2) revealed the “overwhelming neglect of female criminality is directly related to the low status of female offenders as a pressing social problem”. Their numbers are significantly lower to that of males so governmental bodies as well as researchers deem it unnecessary to spend time understanding a perceived small social problem. There is a direct “link between men’s power and the ability to control the viewing point of criminology” (Naffine, 1997:67). It ensures focus is upon male criminality, creating theories in which females fail to feature in. However, this norm should be changed along with many others and this body of work will seek to throw light upon this lost group of women. To fully understand killer women the criminological field has to accept that they are a unique set of individuals and that they are substantially different to male killers. The act of killing is linked to gender, masculine males and feminine females. When the public are alerted to a female killer, they find it difficult to understand the reasons for this violence. When abuse towards the female is present it is not seen as the most significant action. The violent killing always becomes the dominant action (Motz, 2001). This dissertation will aim to highlight the importance of these women and the abuse they may have suffered. Many studies decide to look into social control or murderous women as two separate entities. This body of work will seek to bring the two concepts together in order to gain a full understanding of female intimate killers and define them as a unique subset of killers.
Attitudes towards Women
Prejudice towards the female being has been fixed since the beginning of time. The values placed upon these women and the power imbalance have failed to change dramatically. However female offenders can threaten the maintenance of the power relationship between man and woman (Worrall, 1990). The ability to threaten this power imbalance is the rationale behind the characterisation of the demonic female killer. Controlling attitudes towards women links back to the dominance of the Greek goddess Medusa. Medusa held the ability to turn males into stone when they looked directly at her or her serpents which replaced her hair (Bowers, 1990). This ability to physically and mentally disarm males shows ultimate power. All other female beings fail to have this omnipresent power. Medusa has this power and is instantly deemed a monster, this encapsulates the othering of the female being. Whilst Medusa was branded an evil creature lacking any form of remorse she was also depicted as a victim. Bowers (1990) explores the romantic periods depiction of Medusa, the depiction had altered to a person with victim status. They used this victim status as reasoning for the evil that she imposed upon those who looked at her. This victimisation “domesticates her and her terrible power dissipates” (Bowers,1990:224). Her agency has been removed in a comparable way to those women who commit murder and are depicted as mentally ill individuals. The depictions of males rarely use evil or victim as the narrative base. They are seen as powerful individuals who have a firm grasp over society and their own actions. The feminist bible critique focuses upon females within the Bible who carried out good acts and those who did evil were dismissed (Styler,2007). To highlight female power and dispel stereotypes it would have only been a hinderance to continue to include females who did not adhere to the innocent, motherly character. However, by females attempting to eradicate this entrenched view of women it does little to push for change. Lundgren (1998) explicitly define the Norwegian state church as a Christian denomination that legitimises violence toward women, women are depicted as descending from Satan. Thus, they must be controlled and subordination must occur as a power reduction technique.
As previously stated, those with power are the only ones that have the ability to free the oppressed female. However, these same people thrive on the power and money that they gain as a result of continued oppression. Creating a homogenous idea of the female declines women the power to fully explore who they are. Eaton (1986) explores the influence prescribed gender roles have upon sentencing criminal women. Married women have been seen to receive lesser sentences, this could have been due to the tradition of female control. It would have been seen as excessive to give custodial sentences because control of these women would already be happening in the home environment. Therefore, lengthy sentences may have seemed excessive and unnecessary.
Original teachings “seems to bless the harm and abuse with which women live and sometimes die” (Newson et al, 2012:3). Entrenched into a religion whose followers are vast these bias and horrific attitudes will continue to effect women long after this paper is written. Women “exists in the white man’s world of practical and scientific activity, but is excluded from full participation in it” (Thomas, 1907:457). The only change that can happen is from those men with power yet they continue to hold the power failing to free women from the wrath of patriarchal society. In the 1800’s women by law were the property of their husbands. Therefore, divorce and escape were inaccessible to many women. Those at the edges of society facing constant control had no means of escape without resorting to murder. Many women who were oppressed by the law took it onto their own hands and poisoned their husbands (Knelman,1998). These women much like the women of today who murder their intimate partners are then vilified by the media and sensationalised. Jewkes (2011) endeavours to explore how the media represents and distributes attitudes that other socio-political institutions hold. The media and the public are fascinated with violent female offenders because they are so rare, due to this they are seen as a novelty cases. People forget that these offenders are humans, they have lived a life before this event, the details of such events are unavailable to the public. Chesney-Lind & Pasko (2004) encapsulates the effect these events have, women who have had traumatic incidents in their lives carry the effects into adulthood. It creates vulnerable women who have the potential to be deficient an adaptability to survive when in oppressive environments.
Media outlets as well as prosecution lawyers use narratives to explain and contextualise the event. These narratives are repeatedly used, changing only slightly for each female case (Seal,2010). Each narrative that is used never portrays female crime as a rational response to social pressure in the same way that male crime is (Morrisey, 2003). This narration fails to ever depict the facts of the case. The lawyers adapt the case to fit the basic media narrations instead of forcing the media to adapt to the facts of the case. Media outlets are left unregulated to create a character who will gain the attention of its audience. The press has the ability to transform a complex case into an article accessible to all, alleviating any need for further reading or personal opinion (Naylor, 1995). As a result, societies opinion of the female killer is based solely upon what they have been exposed to via the media. This bias narrative primarily focuses upon the vilification of the female offender it removes the offender from society and labels them other “thereby avoiding the knowledge that she is produced by that society” (Morrissey, 2003). The fixation of othering the female killer aids in removing the idea that killers are normal people and can kill due to the abuse that they have previously faced and the fear of being killed themselves. 92% of the battered women that Walker et al (2009) interviewed believed that their batterer could or would kill them. Mann (1992) exposes a change in the media representation of the rationale behind the killings by females. Changing from self-defence to revenge motives after 1958. This drastic change impacts these female murders both those who have already killed and those that will kill in years to come. They now may re-evaluate the power they really have. However, the reality of the situation for these women is a sense of an absence of choice, leaving them with nothing but self-help in these abusive situations because the law offers little to no way of protecting them from the perpetrator (Peterson, 2004). These socially isolated women remain on the fringes of society, creating a barrier between themselves and support organisations.
Killer women such as Myra Hindley and Rose West dominated main stream media soon after they were exposed as killers, these killer women are still being written about and sensationalised by newspapers, films, television programmes and books. They are the examples used when describing killer women, imposing theoretical models based upon their crimes onto subsequent women who have killed. Myra Hindley is the embodiment of the attack upon the female stereotype, becoming a symbol for deviant women who commit the most horrendous crimes (Birch, 1993). Her mug shot was likened by many as similar to depictions of Medusa. Linking the female being to mythical monstrous creatures. She has her femininity removed in order to further remove her from society. These women are portrayed in the most horrific light to scare the masses (Hart, 1994). Alongside this, women who have murdered their same sex partners face even more damming media representation. Wanda Jean Allen who killed two female lovers was described as the man in the relationship due to the fact that at the time lesbian relationships were condemned. Therefore, the media felt the need to portray her as a masculine killer to align with the depiction of criminals being masculine (Seal, 2010). Depictions like this are seen as early as 1892 when Alice Mitchell killed her female lover, at the time the widespread fear of sexual deviance resulted in the media shifting the reasons behind the killing and placing emphasis on the many men she had been in correspondence with (Lindquist, 1995). It is a continual oppression of females through media which holt the ability for equality within society. False representations feed into stereotypical views and fuel hateful ideas surrounding these women.
The narrative of vilification is in some instances removed and switched to a narrative based upon the unsound mind of the female killer. The female law breaker is given an option to enter a contract that allows her life to be represented in terms of domestic, sexual and pathological dimensions to lessen her sentence (Worrall,1990). They chose this way out as they are given very few options, they are tricked into thinking that the classification of mad is much better than that of bad. However, once these women have pled a psychiatric defence it allows for a diagnosis or treatment being offered which is accepted by the courts and a psychiatric disposal is used and a prison sentence rejected (Allen, 1987). Psychological reports written for male and female offenders have different focuses. Males are given agency making a “rational decision or choice” (Walklate, 1995: 139) women on the other hand are stripped of their agency giving them the inability to have control. In many cases psychiatric disposals are much longer than a custodial sentence as well as acquiring a label which results in unwavering stigmatisation (Jewkes,2011). Agency being removed from these women dehumanises them and females in society as a whole.
Domestic Violence and Females who Kill their Abusers
The office for national statistics (2018) declared that two million adults aged 16-59 experienced domestic abuse in the past year. These startling figures only beginning to unravel the impact this form of abuse has upon society. Domestic abuse is defined by the CPS (2017:1) “as any incident of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse”. Violence towards women is a response which has been created from social agencies and beliefs regarding relationships (Dobash & Dobash, 1998a). The psychological abuse as a result of controlling behaviour results in a loss of selfesteem and a slow acceptance of the violent behaviour as punishment for something these women have done wrong (Gillespie, 1989). To contextualise this form of abuse the everyday lives of these women must be explored. Placing focus upon the ordinary and not the extra ordinary (Dobash & Dobash, 1998b). For these women their normality is continual abuse continual restrictions placed upon them by their own partner, a partner who is supposed to love them. These women are not only killers they are victims within their own right. They become to know no other way of life. They begin to lose hope of ever regaining control, until they carry out the act of killing their abuser. Ewing (1990) believes that battered women who kill seem to have endured the most horrific acts for lengthy periods of time, many are the most isolated within society. The act of killing is one that should never be diminished, however the context in which the murder of the abuser took place must be explored and its impact fully understood.
Oppressive and violent relationships are rife throughout society, each woman adopting individual techniques to cope. For some these techniques never had the potential to protect them and eventually result to executing their abuser in order to free themselves. How each woman interprets the situation and the experiences of humiliation and degrading behaviour from their partner (Motz, 2001) impacts their decisions and behaviour. When the context of the relationship is scrutinised with abuse being present it automatically results in the labelling of these women as battered women, this places stereotypical ideals onto these women. They are seen as small, passive with little to no job skills. This is simply not a true reflection of women who are battered (Walker, 1979). These women are found in all age groups, spanning every race, education level and socioeconomic group (Walker, 1979). Whilst a label its self is instrumental as it signifies that society recognises the trauma that these women have been through. It also reaffirms that the abuse they face is real and that there is a large community of women who have also experienced similar abuse. Battered woman’s syndrome attempts to explain simultaneously why women stay in these relationships but also why they killed their abuser. However, it continues the portrayal of women as victims (Cruze et al, 2006). After such extensive abuse and dehumanisation these women are in dire need of a sense of belonging and empowerment and this label fails to give them that. Killing for these women is seen as escape, finally a chance to regain control as they had previously been reduced to doubting all roles they had and were told they were inadequate (Walker, 1979).
The effects this abuse has on these women underpins the rest of their lives even in the event that they have the ability and internal strength to escape their abuser. This is also under the assumption that they are not brutally killed by their abusers. For men and women who have not been controlled by another human its exceptionally difficult to fully understand just how all-encompassing dictatorial relationships are. The psychological torture of impending violence controls even the most mundane tasks. Things such as burning dinner and wearing an inappropriate outfit can spark many serious incidents of abuse (Gillespie, 1989). The crime statistics of England and Wales (2018) states that there had been an increase of 111,500 offences of domestic abuse from the year ending march 2017. These statistics draw attention to the rising abuse rates, this is not a phenomenon that is declining with the rise of female empowerment. Cazenave (1992) defends this stance with the belief that wife beating will continue to happen for as long as there is an unequal power relationship between men and women. The dark figure of crime is vast in this area due to women’s reluctance to disclose their abuse to anybody including law enforcement due to fear of not being believed (Davidge & Magnusson, 2018). As previously stated, the female who endures these relationships are constantly questioned as to why they stayed and this becomes the focal point of all forms of help.
The outcomes for women in abusive relationships are 4-fold. The first is they remove themselves from the abusive relationship with no use from services simply walking away from a relationship they are unhappy in. Secondly, they stay and continue to face abuse, thirdly, they seek help and fourthly they resort to murder. For many of these women seeking help produces its own barriers due to the amount of spaces in refuges being reduced and community support still in its infancy, with 60% of referral’s being declined due to a short fall in resources (Davidge & Magnusson, 2018). This inability to access services to aid separation from the abusive relationship reduces the choices that these women have. It also perpetuates the reoccurring belief of entrapment. In reality some women who are in abusive relationships have the power and courage to walk away. Others feel they lack this power and autonomy, so they stay. Form this subset of women a few women turn to murder when the abuse becomes too much to handle. This cannot be defined in reality as a choice but taking the action of killing as a necessity to survive (Ewing, 1990). It is an action that these women take to ensure their basic survival. At this point many have lost sense of normality but they kill in despair and hope that they can return to a life they once had.
Learnt helplessness explores the females who stay and succumb to this violence. The theory states that actions are based upon previous responses, if the response to the action/behaviour is interpreted as successful then this behaviour is continued (Walker, 1979). However, if this behaviour yields a response which is unexpected it is assumed that there is an inability to control the responses to specific behaviour. Abuse victims hold the belief that “they cannot do anything to help themselves” (Walker, 1979:49). When controlled behaviour does not result in a positive reaction then a perception of uncontrollability is formed. The unpredictability of response leads to helpless behaviour and a lack of determination to partake in specific behaviour in order to escape the relationship. Walker (2009) shows that whilst this theory can be used to help prevent and intervene in abusive relationships it fails to explain why some women are able to escape and others are not.
Many women within these situations have become very successful in ensuring the survival of themselves and minimising the damage the batterer inflicts (Walker, 2017). The cycle of violence is a tool that can be used to explain the different stages of violence with in abusive relationships. The three phases are tension-building with minor physical and verbal abuse, explosion or acute battering and calm respite where the batterer becomes remorseful (Ewing, 1990). Walker (1979) emphasises the continual loop of behaviour, once the first phase of abuse has passed there is an “uncontrollable discharge of the tensions that have built up during phase one” (Walker, 1979:59). This second phase is the most dangerous and it is at this point that significant changes occur within the relationship.
This second phase is where the female is most vulnerable, her perception of the situation is crucial. During these periods it is reflected on by Mann (1992) that these arguments and fights are the primary environment in which killings by females occur. When in the middle of these battering attacks the mental state becomes one of be killed or kill. Once a woman has killed for freedom the control only shifts from husband to judiciary, they never escape control or oppression.
After enduring unfathomable abuse these women kill. With guns and knives being the main two weapons of choice (Mann, 1992) knives being household objects which inconsequently have connotations with the stereotypical female role. The origin of these objects being easily at hand evokes images of defensive acts of violence. When these trials finally go to court defence solicitors use either diminished responsibility or self-defence as their main defence strategy. Diminished responsibility pertains to the mental state of the defendant at the time of the offence, they place blame upon the unsound mind of the female killer, placing the burden upon them to prove they were in an abnormal state when committing murder (Morrissey, 2003). This again is a removal of agency for these women, focusing upon the perceived lack of mental capability of women. Reaffirming the belief that women are unaware and unable to control their own actions. Alongside diminished responsibility self-defence is the second defence strategy employed for killer women. Wolfgang’s findings during his field work showed that 50.6% of women in 1958 gave self defence as their motive of killing (quoted in Mann, 1992). However, the concept of self defence has been developed through cases that have had male defendants. They set clear precedents but also give a clear map of which circumstances produce each outcome (McColgan, 1993). The repercussions of this are that many women struggle to meet the requirements to have the ability to plea self-defence, for reasons relating to proximity of danger, equal force and time delay of attack (Schneider, 2000). Self-defence is only acceptable when the person using the force in this case the female was in imminent danger that could resort in their death (Ewing, 1990). For these women during abusive attacks they act in pure defence, withdrawing into themselves and disassociating from the attack. Therefore, it is not until after the attack has happened and the woman has time to reflect that they then choose to kill. During trials facts are presented in a specific manner to ensure a precise reaction from the panel of jurors. During many of these trials a women’s battering experience is underexplained, with no link being made between her action of killing and the long term abuse she endured (Nicolson, 1995). Due to this lack of association being made it is left to the judge or jury to interpret the case. McColgan (1993) details the consequence of this, jury members will form an idealised framework in regards to what is and is not deemed reasonable. As the number of female killers is limited the framework, they create is heavily bias. With the jury’s inability to know the exact relationship the couple had before the killing they are unable to make an objective decision with regards to the plea of self-defence. With prosecution lawyers continued focus upon stereotypical and appropriate female behaviour. It is left to the defence lawyers to utilise expert testimony to unravel the relationship the two parties had and also to explain that the defendant’s behaviour is reasonable within this situation (Gillespie, 1989). The resistance from the jury can occur, with the inevitability of widespread media reporting on these cases due to their uniqueness. The impacts of the media pathologizing the female killer as well as this reflection in court cements the concept of evil within the jury’s mind (Cruze et al, 2006). Jury’s should base their decision upon the evidence produced throughout the trial and limit personal opinion. However instinctual responses and the labelling of the female killer impede on the interpretation of the trial as a whole.
This chapter details the lives of many of these killer women, their domestic sphere is extensively controlled and their lives are “much like a prisoner of war who everyday faces the same sadistic enemy” (Cottle, 1994:4). It is imperative that when evaluating and prosecuting those women who do take extreme action instead of seeking professional help that there physical and emotional state be taken into account. The criminal justice system should also take a proactive stance towards reducing stigma and stereotypical views when these trials take place. This chapter also indicates that domestic violence is one component that influences killer women’s actions. Once these women reach their physical and emotional limit, they feel compelled to act. It happens that this action is not always the correct response but to some it’s the only one available.
When looking at female killers it is too simplistic to assume that even though they predominantly kill husbands and lovers that these are their only victims. Victims such as children are prevalent when investigating female killers. When females commit the act of murder people become obsessed with the child baring capacity they have (Cruze et al, 2006). The media grabs these killings and viscously prints articles surrounding these devastating killings. When women kill their own children the general public immediately want answers as to why they could have taken the life of not only a child but their own chid. In child murders a correlation between abuse by the victim towards the offender fails to exist. These children are often young and still reliant on their mother to care for them. It must be acknowledged that abuse from the children’s father or current partner has the potential to be present. Due to the child baring capacity it creates a much bigger focus surrounding the women’s mental state at the time of the event as there is an increasing inability to understand why a woman would carry out an act of murder towards a child.
The women whose victims are children accountable for an even smaller percentage of killers. Subject to similar but much more sever stigmatisation and degradation as other killer women. However, its basis is transfixed on their ability to create life, juxtaposed against the horrific details of the murders. The depiction of child killing women is based upon a fall from grace “The fallen woman has not descended. She has ascended to the place that was already marked out for her by the patriarchal unconscious” (Hart, 1994:43). Reflecting the biblical teachings surrounding the evil female being as a descendant from Eve. It creates a reality in which the males within society expected these acts to happen and they continue to wait for women to fall. Reiterating that the female no matter if she conforms to the system or rejects it in any way, she will always be the lesser sex and have no ability to change that. Succumbing to the patriarchy with every action. During the 19th century babies and children were the most common murder victim of women, killing children from previous marriages due to fear that their new husband would not want to take on the apparent burden of children (Knelman, 1998).
Since the 19th century the popularised depiction of murder focuses upon male killers. Due to this shift in rhetoric infanticide has become an obscure crime. Both altruistic filicide and maternal filicide suicides take the life of a child. Altruistic filicide is the killing of a child due to the parent believing that it’s in the best interest of the child for them to no longer live a life on earth. Many of these killings have links with child-centred obsessional depression (Wilczynski, 1997). The obsession with the child becomes all-encompassing and there becomes a real belief that the child would be in a better safer environment in the afterlife. Maternal filicide-suicides occur when the mother has suicidal tendencies but believes that nobody else will be able to give the care that her children needs and as a result, she kills her children as well as herself (Alder & Polk, 2001). This specific form of murder has been portrayed as the mother punishing the father of the children. This removes sympathy and a focus on the potential decline in mental health of these women and finding the cause of this. The focus is set on the father figure who has lost his family. Whilst this is devastating for that father it should not overshadow investigation into why this act was committed to begin with.
These types of killings create particular portrayals of these women as mentally ill it is “assumed in our society that one of the closes social bonds that can be forged is between the natural mother and her child” (Adler & Polk, 2001:46). When this bond has been purposefully broken, many onlookers have an inability to process and comprehend the actions of these women. Therefore, they have a stringer reliance on the media to unravel the murder. The media uses this reliance and creates a picture that not only is untrue but is sensationalised purely for their own benefit. The psychiatric vulnerability of these women is inflated, medicalising behaviour has far reaching impacts. By using pre-menstrual syndrome, it denies rationality and agency of the offender. It also reaffirms the stereotypical positive view in regards to motherhood (Wilczynski, 1997).
As this chapter indicates female killers are not limited to male victims, they unfortunately kill one of the most vulnerable groups in society. This is not only concerning but also plays into the rhetoric that the patriarchal system enforces upon society. Women who kill children are seen as unnatural, in order to regain her womanhood, she must be remorseful towards her actions (Hart, 1994). If she does not express this during trial or thereafter, she is condemned to the outskirts of society. Her name forever connected to the depiction of evil.
Discussion and Conclusion
The aim of this research was to uncover the attitudes towards killer women and to explore the reasons behind why these women kill intimate family members. This dissertation exposed the entrenched familial values placed upon women, these values are upheld by the state and impact the treatment and feelings towards killer women. The ever-present vilification and mystification of these women continues to remove their agency and subject them to a continual cycle of submission. Discussion has been focused upon the victims of these killer women as well as the environments in which they kill.
Much of the previous research has placed its focus upon attitudes towards women in general with its aim to “reclaim women as important figures” (Styler, 2007:66) fighting for equality throughout society. This body of work takes the concept of inequality towards women and encompasses killer women into theoretical understanding. It also identifies and explores the pressures these women face that are ultimately the catalyst for their killer behaviour. Feminists whilst divided in regards to how to achieve the goal of equality, are able to unite to form advancements towards a progressive society. Whilst Feminism, within the criminological field is present many critiques such as Smart’s (1976) focus upon the lack of female specific research and the failing to create new theory based upon female experiences. The field continues to try and manipulate female offenders to fit accepted theoretical understanding of specific phenomena instead of accepting them as a unique subset of offenders and examining them in isolation as well as the impacts society has upon them.
The first finding is that societies attitudes towards women has failed to significantly change since the first bible teachings in which Eve eats the forbidden fruit after falling victim to the snake. Males within society inferred from this story that women have the capability to act with villainous intention. These males who fear the potential power killer women possess and how this power could in fact have the ability to attack the patriarchy, resulted in powerful male figures taking hold of society and fought to “design it’s norms and institutions, which become status quo” (Mackinnon, 1989:238) in order to maintain control lessening the ability for women’s empowerment. Even when women attempt to rewrite the origin of these derogatory teachings in the 19thcentury with feminist reinterpretation, its simply seen as an alteration that society can accept or reject (Styler, 2007). The patriarchy still has a strong hold throughout society and its poison has spread to the far corners of the judiciary system. In a society that currently has its strongest female empowerment movement ever to be seen the startling reality still stands of oppression and abuse. Mackinnon (1989) argues that women have never known what sex equality looks like because they have never been allowed to live in a society in which it is present. The fight for this elusive equality will continue until there is an acceptance of the female being one which has power and autonomy.
The second finding surrounds the depiction of these women, killer women are not only unrepresented in criminological research but when they receive any form of representation, vast amounts of misrepresentation occur. These representations of killer women are transfixed upon fascination, disgust and repulsion. The actual women who kill are lost and erased from society (Frigon, 2006). It allows for society to create a barrier between the law-abiding citizen and the offender. A lack of compassion and understanding for these women enforces the belief that they are unwanted by society and that under no circumstances can empathy be shown towards these women. The media helps to create this consensus view and it therefore sets the parameter’s for deviance (Naylor, 1995). After the othering of these women during trials they are plagued by stereotypical rhetoric which eliminates any opportunity for their specific circumstances to be taken into account.
Finally, these killer women kill intimate partners and, in some instances, they kill children. There is the potential for these killer women to have been in some of the most controlling and abusive relationships that society has ever seen. However, they still face a barrage of questioning and a lack of belief from society, there is an “extraordinary degree of public misunderstanding exists concerning battered women who kill their assailants” (Schneider, 200: 112). The public succumbs to the narrative created by media outlets and fails to look into the reality of these women’s lives. This and the lack of emphasis on theories such as learned helplessness and battered women’s syndrome results in a lack of understanding of these women’s daily lives.
This piece of investigation has utilised current research into prejudice against women, starting from the earliest of teaching and placing the impacts of the prejudice they create toward women on those women in society who chose to kill. These killer women have been looked at in isolation but the ramifications of such early teachings and the patriarchy needs to be placed into the field of killer women. In order to gain a full understanding of the society in which she kills. Time spent on underrepresented criminal populations is essential in order to understand why and how we can stop these specific crimes from occurring.
In critique of this dissertation it fails to directly correspond with the women who this dissertation focuses upon. It is very unfortunate that the women who this dissertation seeks to empower and demystify cannot be directly contacted and used within this research. As outlined ethical restrictions impose boundaries on researchers to protect these vulnerable women. The protection of these vulnerable women is paramount. In order to fully understand the impacts typical feminine characterisations, have upon these women as well as the reasons behind the killings these women have to be contacted. In order to eliminate misunderstanding, killer women have to input into research. They themselves can work with researchers to change the way the criminological field theorises about them. It has to be questioned if women have the ability to talk on behalf of other women or just for themselves (Naffine, 1997). To assess this direct contact needs to be made with killer women. To identify if the current feminist research is accurately representing this group of women.
In short, this research has unravelled attitudes towards the female population as a whole but has also explored the way in which the media, general public and law treat killer women. It has opened up the possibility of finding the origin of the gender roles and how these continue to be interpreted throughout present day society. Stereotypes continue to oppress and deny women agency and power. Thus, impeding the amount of positive change that can happen. The feminist movement still faces deeply entrenched unequal views towards women, for change to happen all women from all walks of life need to unite and face this oppression head on. Those at the fringes of society that face domestic abuse or instability in life need to be recognised, their voices should be listened to in order to protect themselves and other women like them. In order to continue this research and help those women trapped in violent relationships it is imperative that theories such as learnt helplessness and the cycle of abuse be evaluated and expanded upon. Killer women hold invaluable information which could hold the ability to help hundreds of women to escape abusive relationships without having to resort to killing their intimate partners. Not only this but their true story needs to be told to eliminate the false rhetoric that has been created by media outlets, seeking to enlighten the general public that these are women and not evil creatures.
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