“The Mad”, “The Bad”, “The Victim”: Gendered Constructions of Women Who Kill within the Criminal Justice System
2. Battered Women Who Kill—the Mad Woman and the Victim
The first involves a period of heightening tension caused by the man’s argumentativeness, during which the woman attempts various unsuccessful pacifying strategies. This “tension-building” phase ends when the man erupts into a rage at some small trigger and acutely batters the woman. This is followed by the “loving-contrite” or “honeymoon” phase, in which the guilt-ridden batterer pleads for forgiveness, is affectionate and swears off violence. But he breaks his promise and the cycle is repeated.(, p. 733)
2.1. Loss of Control—Battered Women Who Kill as Victims
Under the old law, defendants were encouraged to provide evidence of a characteristic that could be taken into account with regard to the reasonableness of their conduct. This led to the pursuit of a medico-legal category, battered woman syndrome, which could legitimate the existence of the characteristic for legal practice … Under the new law, defendants and their lawyers will be encouraged to portray themselves as ordinary people grievously harmed and acting out of a legitimate sense of anger at what has been done to them. This may be a benefit of the new approach.(, p. 286)
Significant and influential works include Dobash and Dobash’s (1979) study of family violence; Russell’s (1975) exposé of rape, including rape in marriage, and Brownmiller’s (1975) provocative analysis of rape to name only a few. These were followed by Stanko’s (1990) work on everyday violence and Walklate’s (1991, 2007) major and ongoing contribution to the field of victimology.
2.2. Diminished Responsibility—Battered Women Who Kill as Mad
[w]e do not expect any significant shifts in the numbers or types of cases which benefit from the partial defence of diminished responsibility... We do not therefore think that there will be an impact on the courts or prison population as a result of the changes.(, p. 301)
The government consider it is necessary to spell out what connection between abnormality of mental functioning and the killing is required for the partial defence to succeed... It need not be the sole cause or even the most important factor in causing the behaviour but it must be more than merely a trivial factor.(, p. 298)
Reports written for male defendants in which this plea was possible indicate the readiness with which they were created as ‘monsters’ or ‘madmen’, yet simultaneously capable of intending their behaviour, since men are to be understood in terms of what they do.
[w]hen psychiatry and the law interact, the resultant effect is that men are, for the most part, attributed with a sense of agency and responsibility for their actions, whereas women defendants are denied this.
[r]ather less useful in supporting the most appropriate defence for battered women who kill, the justification defence of self-defence. Evidence of battering and abuse is clearly useful in determining whether an individual battered woman was in fear of her life that the killing of her partner was necessary; but evidence as to her psychological state and her subscription to a debilitating syndrome actually undermines such a defence.(, p. 77)
3. Infanticide—the Mad Woman
Where a woman by any wilful act or omission causes the death of her child, being a child under the age of twelve months, but at the time of the act or omission the balance of her mind was disturbed by reason of her not having fully recovered from the effect of giving birth to the child or by reason of the effect of lactation consequent upon the birth of the child, then, notwithstanding that the circumstances were such that but for this Act the offence would have amounted to murder, she shall be guilty of felony, to wit of infanticide, and may for such offence be dealt with and punished as if she had been guilty of the offence of manslaughter of the child.
[A] relatively rare and severe mental disorder which affects one or two out of every 1,000 women within the first few weeks of childbirth. The symptoms span a number of categories of psychosis, but range from mania to delusions to acute depression.(, pp. 206–07)
At the beginning of the twentieth century ... Motherhood was ... constructed as “natural” and a consequence of heterosex. As “compulsory motherhood” was introduced, it meant more than the imposition of pregnancy and birth but also “entry into the nexus of meanings and behaviours which are deemed to constitute proper mothering”.(, p. 31)
So untenable, unthinkable and inappropriate the crime, so much is it at odds with normal motherhood or the feminine predilection for surrogate motherhood that such women can only be immutably unnatural.
[v]irtually any type of perceived psychiatric, emotional, personal or mental problem whatsoever can be interpreted (if the psychiatrists, lawyers and/or judges so choose) as the severe mental illness (puerperal psychosis) theoretically required for the Infanticide Act.(, p. 34)
4. The Bad Woman
4.1. Sexually Deviant Women
A recurrent feature of feminine respectability is sexual propriety ... Historically, women have been judged more harshly than men if they do not meet expectations of appropriate sexual behaviour in terms of chasteness and monogamy, and these norms have played a more important role in the regulation of femininity than masculinity.(, p. 64)
- The courts operate a “double standard” with respect to sexual behaviour, controlling and punishing girls, but not boys for premature and promiscuous sexual activities.
- The courts—and probation officers and social workers—“sexualise” normal female delinquency and thus over-dramatise the offence and the risk.
- “Wayward” girls can come into care and thence into stigmatising institutions without ever having committed an actual offence.
- Deviant women … that is, women who do not conform to accepted standards of monogamous, heterosexual stability with children, are over-represented amongst women in prison because the courts are excessively punitive to them (, p. 817).
4.2. Bad Mothers
The single defining characteristic of iconic good motherhood is self-abnegation. Her children’s needs come first; their health and happiness are her primary concern. They occupy all her thoughts, her day is constructed around them, and anything and everything she does is for their sakes. Her own needs, ambitions, and desires are relevant only in relation to theirs. If a good mother takes care of herself, it is only to the extent that she doesn’t hurt her children.
[i]t is clear that it is only certain types of women—those who are perceived as conforming to gender stereotypes—who benefit from these more informal means of social control. Women who resist more informal mechanisms of social control can also be punished by being moved “up-tariff” and subjected to more formal means of social control such as a prison sentence.(, p. 431)
Professor Daly found that familied women who committed crimes that made them “bad” mothers, such as sexual abuse of children or prostitution, did not receive the courts’ mercy. These women not only break the law, but by breaking the law they transgress their own female nature and their primary social identity as a mother or potential mother.(, p. 107)
5. Labelling and Agency Denials
In our society, agency and victimisation are each known by the absence of the other: you are an agent if you are not a victim, and you are a victim if you are in no way an agent. In this concept, agency does not mean acting for oneself under conditions of oppression; it means being without oppression, either having ended oppression or never having experienced it at all.
[I]n emphasising victimhood, intentionality or agency is neglected. Representations of the murderess as victim, then, function to deny her responsibility, culpability, agency and often her rationality as well, in their bid to explain her behaviour ... While undeniably often successful in securing reduced sentences, the disadvantages of such a strategy outweigh the benefits in terms of improving general societal attitudes to, and challenging negative myths and stereotypes of, women.(, p. 25)
The campaign to allow BWS evidence into court may well have begun with the best of intentions, then, but the theory now seems to fast be becoming a straitjacket which tries to confine the realities of battered women and domestic violence within rigid parameters which do little to challenge society’s or the law’s understanding of spousal abuse, women’s violence, female agency and femininity itself.(, p. 78)
[b]y insisting upon the evil nature of the murderess, thus causing her to lose humanity. She is transformed into a monster from outside society threatening the mainstream, rather than one of its members, produced and enabled by her social and cultural milieu. The agency denial which takes place in this technique is specifically that of human agency. The murderess is considered to have acted, but not as a human woman.(, p. 25)
[f]emale criminals are relatively unusual when compared to the numbers of male criminals, and concepts of a “reasonable woman” have, therefore, been deemed unnecessary. This means that women’s responsibility and agency is not automatically presented, as is the case with men.(, p. 169)
Denials of female agency ... are crucial to decreasing the threat women killers pose to the dominant male-dominated institutions of heteropatriachy. If a woman can be found to have been so victimised that she did not know what she was doing when she killed, or if she is portrayed as a mythic, inhuman personification of wickedness, then the radical implications of her acts are muffled, her challenge to oppression nullified, at least as far as the dominant purveyors of cultural meaning are concerned. She is returned to her place of passivity and silence.(, p. 170)
6. Problems with Denying the Agency of Women Who Kill
What is so striking about all of these images of deviant women is how profoundly damaging they are, once attached to any particular woman or group of women. Amongst them all, there is no conception of the “normal” exuberant delinquency characteristic of males. Any women would be damaged by being portrayed as a witch or a whore; and while a “sick” female deviant may be less punitively treated, she will attract other stigma.(, p. 95)
6.1. Issues of Justice for Women Who Kill
The topsy turvy justice of patriarchal law puts women on trial for their own victimisation. Thus … questions asked in courts of battered women who kill emphasise women’s own responsibility for prolonged victimisation. Why don’t battered women leave their abusers? Why are they abused so many times?(, p. 177)
6.2. Issues of Justice for Their Victims
[t]he right our victims have to be valued. And it radically impedes our ability to recognise dimensions of power that have nothing to do with formal structures of patriarchy. Perhaps above all, the denial of women's aggression profoundly undermines our attempt as a culture to understand violence, to trace its causes and to quell them.(, p. 176)
7. Concluding Remarks
Conflicts of Interest
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- 1When women turn violent it is often upon themselves e.g., self-harming. For more on this see, for example .
- 3The term symbiotic is used here to mean a relationship of mutual dependence between the labelling of women who kill and the denial of their agency in this way. That is to say, that these particular agency denials are dependent on the labelling of these women and vice versa.
- 4The consequences of labelling women in this way will be discussed later in the article.
- 5It is important to note here that whilst an important body of research exists on female perpetrators of violence, it is still a relatively small area of research when compared to that which has been conducted on male perpetrators of violence. Moreover, it is also notable that within current research on women who kill, only a limited amount has focused on the agency of female killers, which will be discussed later in the article.
- 6Although this study was carried out in the United States and is more applicable to workings of the American Legal System the study is relevant to the discussion in this article and the results provide further evidence to support the arguments being made.
- 8The notion of motherhood and bad mothers will be discussed in more detail later in the article.
- 10The case of Susan Poole was chosen for analysis due to the ‘bad mother’ narrative which is apparent throughout the judge’s comments. This narrative is pervasive despite evidence at trial suggesting Susan was suffering from a mental disorder and could have potentially been labelled as mad.
- 11It must be noted that if the judge had instead issued the recommended probation order with mental treatment, she would have been constructed as a ‘mad’ woman who needed treatment, rather than punishment.
© 2013 by the author; licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/).
Weare, S. “The Mad”, “The Bad”, “The Victim”: Gendered Constructions of Women Who Kill within the Criminal Justice System. Laws 2013, 2, 337-361. https://doi.org/10.3390/laws2030337
Weare S. “The Mad”, “The Bad”, “The Victim”: Gendered Constructions of Women Who Kill within the Criminal Justice System. Laws. 2013; 2(3):337-361. https://doi.org/10.3390/laws2030337Chicago/Turabian Style
Weare, Siobhan. 2013. "“The Mad”, “The Bad”, “The Victim”: Gendered Constructions of Women Who Kill within the Criminal Justice System" Laws 2, no. 3: 337-361. https://doi.org/10.3390/laws2030337