Criminologist Caesar Lombroso once asserted that women were “overgrown children . . . infinitely more hideous than men” (Graves 38). In an era where women on television are more often shown pulling each other’s hair and screaming as though there were no tomorrow, is it that hard to believe that, following the First World War, Hargrave Adam personified them with a “lust for vengeance . . . incredibly cruel?” (Graves 38). One must wonder, however, if the statistics are as eager to crucify women as are their male critics. Are women really the gender most capable of evil?
Little girls are born into the world the same way as little boys - cradled in their mother’s arms, eliciting a fascinated twinkle in their father’s eye - or are they? Not every little princess meets such a welcome but, whether or not they do, and to what extent, can have an undeniable impact on her likelihood to, one day, violate the law. From the time a child is born, care given by her parents will decide the level to which to she builds a “discourse of fear”, defined by Saskia De Groof as the repetition of certain words, themes and perspectives, or the “pervasive communication, symbolic awareness, and expectation that danger and risk are central features of everyday life” (Groof 267-268). This fear come to be structured by a girl’s perception of the people around her, her community and, most importantly, her growing interaction with both.
In 2002, a study of over one-thousand Belgian adolescents age 14 to 18 were surveyed through face-to-face interviews, as well as questionnaires filled out by one of their parents, as to the frequency and type of education, stimulation, freedom and autonomy afforded while growing up. The study found that girls “closely supervised” by parents were more likely to “have a preference for commercial media”, a taste linked to “increased feelings of insecurity” (Groof 278). This aforementioned propensity in media-consumption also left girls significantly more fearful of crime than their male counterparts.
Not so surprising, researchers were unable to avoid the fact that such media consumption paired with the typical socialization of girls caused them to score above males of a similar age when it came to the amount of fear built into their personalities and outlook on the world. Put simply, findings mirrored what we all knew - during crucial years in development, girls and boys alike were taught what it meant in society to fulfill the role of woman and man. Young boys and girls surveyed by the French in 1999 both identified the ideal girl as being characteristically “organized, caring, coquettish, sensitive, beautiful, tender and understanding”. Most telling, however, came the opposing list of negative traits, including “fearful” and “docile” (Groof 283). Groof goes on to cite a 1997 article by May Goodey, wherein it is noted that “girls are socialized to be vulnerable, to need protection . . . to be cautious” (Groof 286).
What does this mean for the development of the young girl? It is my assertion that the socialization of girls from such a young age, as evidenced above, can possibly cause one of two modes of behavior. On the one hand, girls could adopt the point of view of a victim, feeling as though they will always be dealt a lesser hand than men and, thus, are ill equipped to adequately face the world around them. On the other hand, girls may actively adopt more masculine traits such as being brave, aggressive, or overly ambitious. The latter possibility carries with it the chance that girls will not only acquire these types of behavior but will use them to rebel against the very society that sought to limit or marginalize them. A conclusion cannot be drawn, however, until further investigation into the growth and behavior of the female individual is ascertained.
In 1990, Gottfredson and Hirschi claimed a general theory of crime in which it was asserted that low self-control accounted for “‘all crime, at all times’: acts ranging from vandalism to homicide, from rape to white-collar crime” (LaGrange 41). Basically, these theorists believed that the lower a person’s self control, the higher their likeliness to engage in criminal activity. Contrary to gentleman like Adam and Lombroso, Gottfredson and Hirschi believed males offended the law more readily and often than females. Feminist criminologists echoed this sentiment, suggesting (as I did earlier) that “female crime participation is shaped by the societal enforcement of gender-hierarchal social roles" (LaGrange 44). It stands then, that the crimes said females commit should reflect these gender-specific roles - and that, they do. This is particularly evident when it comes to the most violent crime of all - that of murder.
In order to observe the manner in which women commit murder, several factors must be considered. These factors include who women murder, how they do it and, most importantly, why. Observing violent crime committed by women between the years of 1890 and 1920 in Kansas City provides a surprisingly telling explanation regarding the aforementioned questions and more.
In December 1912, a woman named Carrie Wright entered a police station exclaiming that her husband, armed with a knife, handed her a razor and told her that, this time, they were going to “fight it out fair” (Graves 38). This is only but one example of countless domestic violence disputes the city experienced. At some point, however, women stopped being pitied victims in lieu of taking justice into their own hands. This is where me meet Elizabeth Coleman who, in 1917, took a revolver to her husband, not to forget Mrs. Mary McDonald with the butcher knife (Graves 38-39). All said and done, “more than two-thirds of women’s murder victims had been men, many of them husbands” (Graves 41). This is no rare occurrence. According to a study considered by Coramae Mann, nearly half of women who have committed murder have done so against men whom they were in a domestic partnership with, whether that be a marriage or simply a rendezvous (with murder rates rising with the latter) (Mann 69:79).
But it wasn’t just men affected by women on a power trip. It was also their children, a phenomenon similarly captured by Mann. According to Graves, “women have been much more likely to cause the death of children and infants than of other adults” (Graves 40). While this may have been historically true, the above paragraph disproves that of the near-past and present - a place where it still exists, but to a lesser degree than women’s violence against men. In Kansas City, for example, children constituted twelve-percent of women’s murder victims during the time period studied. Infamous in the area was Ms. Katie Falig who, with a thirty-inch cord, strangled her infant in 1915. Popular cases in today’s society reflect this behavior, with Andrea Yates making headlines in 2001 by drowning her five children in the family’s bathtub. In fact, homicide remains “one of the five leading causes of early childhood death in this country” (Mann 70).
Interestingly, despite victims being those they were intimate or in a familial relationship with, women who commit murder are often treated with the light side of the law. What goes on in the jury’s mind, behind eyes that have seen such intricate detail of the crime presented to them? There are several speculations. According to Graves, all those news stories in the Kansas City papers chronicling women who had fought back abusive husbands planted “seeds of sympathy” that became evident went the women went to trial (Graves 38). As for old Elizabeth Coleman, MacDonald and their fellow female murderesses, only one “who pleaded not guilty of murdering her husband was found guilty” (38). But that’s not the end of it - the one who was found guilty happened to have had a male accomplice. The male presence alone was enough to harden the jury. Nevertheless, Graves continued to postulate that the jury saw these women as protecting themselves and their children, an effort justified even by violent behavior.
If this was the attitude of the people of Kansas City, they certainly contradicted themselves when it came to the punishment of women who had killed their own children. Katie Falig, for example, plead guilty to fourth-degree murder, yet was paroled on the very same day! In fact, only one woman in the time period studied was indicted for infanticide (Graves 40-41).
And yet, the studies come down to this - men leave women for other women, so women kill the men. Men leave their kids when they don’t want to deal with them. Women can’t leave, so they kill them. Still left to be undetermined, what does this say about the society in which these women live? If Gottfredson and Hirschi were correct, somewhere within the gender roles women are fulfilling is something that may provoke them to go over the edge.
Just as French children in the study earlier discussed pegged women as quaint, fragile and sensitive, so women really seem to be. When said women are placed in a world that thrives on the creation of a “discourse of fear”, there is a conflict between accepting the place of caring little female and a human being that needs to protect and look out for oneself. This discourse of fear, in my opinion, is no longer limited to that which is instilled by parenting. This fear is everywhere, especially in the media. Backing up this theory is a 1998 study wherein both men and women were shown news stories from the archives of the St. Louis Dispatch and Kansas City Star. According to Stan Ketterer, “The topics [in chosen articles] were key crime issues in the state at the time - concealed weapons, date rape pill, methamphetamines and sentencing for crack and powdered cocaine” (Ketterer 77). The results of the study did nothing less than completely confirm the fact that women are naturally more disturbed by stories of crime than men. They also found the articles to be more readily credible and relevant to their lives (Ketterer 79-80). If crime is so disturbing to women, and they realize that it is pertinent to their survival to be aware of such activity around them, why do some begin to behave in a way consistent with the very criminals they fear?
The answer to this is simple. There must be a point where a woman stops being what society trains her to be and begins to rebel. Forms of this rebellion may come by way of women joining gangs, which is occurs in greater numbers than ever. They begin to take on more masculine characteristics in order to cope in a world where women are nothing more than a stone to step on (Miller 1-4). Similarly, according to Graves, “[People] . . . could understand and pardon deliberate violence from women when violent husbands provoked them . . . women’s violence against someone outside an abusive marital relationship may not have been pardonable but could be eventually forgiven because it was not deliberate” (Graves 38-39). Perhaps these women were, as society trained them to do, merely protecting themselves and their children and, thusly, “were rewarded for doing so, even by criminal justice authorities” (Graves 39). And as for those women who kill even the children they are meant to protect? Mann subscribes to the theory that it is gender inequality that keeps mothers bound to their children. It is having no outside lives that may drive women to kill what chains them down, noting that “rates of child homicide increase in proportion” to such feelings of unfairness between women and the men that had promised to father their children (Mann 71). Graves, too, finds herself questioning if such a situation held influence over Ms. Falig’s actions, asking, “Was Falig a seduced and abandoned young woman unable to cope with her shame or support her baby?” (Graves 40). It’s worth a thought, even if we cannot know the answer.
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