[BY GUEST BLOGGER KIMBERLY GREYSON-BOST]
There remains a deeply embedded social resistance to viewing the battered woman who kills as an issue of gender equality (Schneider, 2000.) This resistance is prevalent in public opinion, media representations and in the weak legal representation and disproportionately harsh judicial treatment of abused women who kill. Battered women are still required to meet the standard of the “pre-retreat duty” (Stark, 2007) while men are excused from this duty. This is a deeply entrenched gender bias that is based on the unrealistic societal presumptions about how women should behave when faced with imminent danger (Baker, 2005.)
The “special reasonableness” (Blackman, 1984) of BW is largely ignored in courtrooms as a logical form of self-defense, both by defense attorneys and through a woman’s lack of resources to hire expert testimony. The benefit of an expert witness for an abused woman on trial for killing her abuser is not only a fair point of leverage for her, but it educates the judges and juries who will decide her fate (Blackman & Brickman, 1984.)
For some women their abuse begins with their fathers and ends with a trial attorney who treats them as if they were “pond scum” (Hempel, 2004), refusing to address the abuse in the woman’s defense and allowing the trial focus to remain on the sexual practices with her abuser.
For the most part society still puts responsibility on the victim by asking; “Why didn’t she just leave?” instead of asking; “Why was he allowed to continue doing that?” Most people don’t understand that some women will respond to violent provocation as the last straw just as any reasonable man would (Rix, 2001; Ewing, 1987) and they don’t have to be glamorous or dainty with super powers in order to qualify for clemency.
The general public also seems to have a difficult time understanding that even when large, powerful women fight back they are the most likely to be injured, to seek medical attention, and have a significantly higher level of fear than the batterers they have killed (Stout & Brown, 1995.)
The science of psychology has shed light on the way people organize images of the other (Fairbairn, 2009.) For the most part, people create categories of others based on how similar or different they are from the individual. Most people will not allow their ego to share anything in common with a murderer, especially a woman who is supposed to be nurturing and non-aggressive. Most people can’t even imagine themselves ever being in an abusive relationship much less comprehend the awful psychology that can change a battered woman, with no intentions of becoming a killer, into a woman who does kill and with sound reasons for doing so.
In the mean time, the tabloids, music and film industries are furiously churning out images of hyper-sexualized female objects, outlaw women who kill, or the pond scum that deserves no empathy at all. The carryover effect is devastating and unjust in the courtroom. At the end of the day the media has an excuse – it only produces what people want to see.
Maybe that means it’s up to us to make sure the media gets the message that what we want to see is an accurate portrayal that informs viewers with sensitivity to the plight of a battered woman who has killed her abuser. This could develop an empathic carryover to the courtroom. Removing those old stereotypes might provide some BW with little relief from the disproportionate sentencing they receive for not being womanly or likable enough.
The cold, hard reality is that there has always been, and always will be, some birds in the game bag who will put up a fight until the bitter end. How they choose to do so should not be evaluated by popular gender images conjured up by the media as a means of determining guilt.
The media can change this and has reformed the presentation of images of other groups of people who required it. With the number of women in prison for killing their abusers steadily rising, right now might be a good time to require a change of our own.
Baker, K. (2005). Gender and emotion in criminal law. Harvard Journal of Law & Gender, 28, 447-466.
Blackman, J, & Brickman, E. (1984). The impact of expert testimony on trials of battered women who kill their husbands.
Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 2(4), 413-422.
Ewing, C. P. (1987). Battered women who kill: psychological self-defense as legal justification. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company.
Fairbairn, G. J. (2009). Empathy, sympathy, and the image of the other. Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 21(2), 188-197.
Hempel, C. L. (2004). Battered women who strike back: Using expert testimony on battering and its effects in homicide trials.” In
Cling, B.J. (Ed.), Sexualized violence against women. New York: The Guilford Press.
Rix, K. (2001). Battered woman syndrome and the defence[sic] of provocation: Two women with something more in common. The Journalof Forensic Psychiatry, 12(1), 131-149.
Schneider, E. M. (2000). Battered women & feminist lawmaking. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Stark, E. (2007). Coercive control: How men entrap women in personal life. New York: Oxford University Press.
Stout, K. D., & Brown, P. (1995, Spring). Legal and social differences between men and women who kill intimate partners. Affilia,194-205.
Photo by Lily M.A. Parminter, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.