Sisterhood is powerless

How feminism has made men's lives safer -- and women's more dangerous.

Published March 14, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Feminism, real or imagined, has long been praised and blamed for a whole pile of societal developments, crises and trends. But it has emerged recently in unlikely quarters: as a major factor in the "intimate" murders of women and as a saving grace in the lives of abusive men. In a devastating twist, feminism, while improving women's lives in many obvious ways, may also have made their lives more dangerous. At the same time, by offering escape and support to battered women, it has saved the lives of abusive men.

Much has been made of the fact that, in the past 20 years, the number of homicides in the United States has sharply declined. That is good news, especially for abusive husbands, who, statistics show, are living longer because their wives and girlfriends are taking advantage of shelters, hotlines and other services for battered women. In other words, feminists have invested decades fighting domestic violence as part of the battle for women's rights and their work has paid off -- by keeping batterers alive.

But there is bad news too. Only one category of homicide has failed to decline at the same rate as the rest. In fact, in some regions, it has not declined at all. It is "intimate homicide," in which a man kills his girlfriend or wife, often murdering the rest of the family too. In about one-quarter of the killings, the man then kills himself.

While psychologists, social scientists and historians have various explanations for the stubborn nature of this gruesome trend, most agree that feminism, or at the very least what it is seen to represent, plays a role in the motivation of men who commit intimate homicide or familicide. And when it is not a motivation, it is frequently an excuse.

"Batterers are very into making excuses and presenting themselves as victims. They really see other people, particularly their partners, as abusing or attempting to control them. It's the way to rationalize, minimize or deny their own behavior," says David Adams, co-founder of Emerge, one of the earliest treatment centers for battering men, in Cambridge, Mass. "They see women's gains as being at their expense."

Though we assume that attitudes toward women have changed dramatically since 1976 -- when authorities began to keep detailed records of "intimate" homicides -- the number of murdered wives and girlfriends has not changed much since then. On average, the rates have been going down 1 percent per year, from 1,600 in 1976 to 1,307 in 1998. That year, 32 percent of the 3,419 women murdered in the United States were killed by "intimates," according to the FBI, which reported that just 4 percent of male homicide victims in 1998 were killed by intimate partners.

In a majority of incidents in which a man kills his wife or girlfriend and children, familiar motives are cited. The killer might believe he has lost control of his partner and needs to reassert it. Or he fears losing his partner, upon whom he is deeply dependent. This confusing feeling evokes intense rage in those threatened by it. Usually such men are consumed with anger and a desire to blame as they kill.

Just last year, one man strapped his 3-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son into their car seats and shot them point-blank after his wife took out a restraining order against him. Another pretended that his 3-year-old son had been kidnapped by someone who would not return him until he, the killer, married his girlfriend. Eight days later, the boy's body was found in a black plastic bag. The crime, the murderer confessed, had been an attempt to coerce his girlfriend to marry him. In July, one week before Atlanta day trader Mark Barton killed nine people and wounded 13 others in his shooting spree in two brokerage firms, he killed his wife and two children in a classic case of familicide.

Barton blamed his wife, Leigh Ann, for his troubles, but professed great love for "my honey, my precious love," in his suicide note. The pair had been separated and were attempting a reconciliation, without great success. "She was one of the main reasons for my demise," he wrote.

One could argue that the number of men who kill their wives and/or children would have remained more or less constant even without feminism. A certain percentage of men, so this argument goes, will always possess that deadly combination of insecurity, rage and self-righteousness found in so many who commit intimate homicides -- and they would end up killing even in the most repressive, patriarchal societies. Clearly, there is no way to resolve this question. But it seems inescapable that many of feminism's laudable consequences, both tangible and intangible -- from increased opportunities and greater earning power to a diminution of the traditional male role as head of the family -- have contributed to male violence against women. And when it is not an aggravation, many murderous men unquestionably use feminism as a rationalization, researchers say.

Linda Langford, who analyzed underlying factors in five years of domestic homicides in Massachusetts as her doctoral dissertation at Harvard University, believes that some men -- particularly abusive or potentially abusive men -- see themselves as victimized by recent changes in traditional male and female roles.

"We are in a social transition from more fixed roles to more fluid rules," she says. "Women are gaining power in more generalized ways. People with more traditional values have a problem with that.

"There's a sense in which men's proprietaryness over women and their children is being challenged. The fact that women are gaining independence might send them into a greater panic. But it's not what anybody else does that makes them the way they are -- they are what they are, and they find excuses to justify their behavior."

And the excuses, if not for brutality then for collective outrage, are increasingly stated with barely concealed hostility, by certain men's groups and fathers' rights organizations, often on the Internet.

Hundreds of Web sites dedicated to fathers' rights openly blame the women's movement for their unjust oppression.The Fathers' Manifesto, for example, calls for the repeal of most family court decisions that grant custody and child support to women:

"The present feminist concept of women's 'independence' really means a government-enforced entitlement to be paid for the rewards of being a mother, without the responsibilities that go with it: to men, to children especially, and ultimately to the world at large," says the manifesto.

"We vow," it continues, "to remove all government involvement from family matters by the establishment of the father as the head of the family, under God."

It is when a man's control over his family is threatened that his rage can lead to murder. To be reminded of an intense dependency on a woman while losing control of her becomes an insurmountable emotional task, say experts. Acceptance is out of the question; reassertion of control, by whatever means necessary, becomes the alternative.

"It's 'I'm going to annihilate my family and myself, if this woman is going to leave. I'll kill her before I let her go,'" says Nancy Isaac, co-author with Langford of the Harvard study.

"Something that signifies the relationship is over -- that sparks a killing spree," says Mindy Mechanic, psychologist at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and an expert in post-traumatic stress in abused women. "They feel like they can't survive without the woman -- as though she's the lifeline. If you realize everything you have and want and need is unattainable to you, what do you have left?"

Children are not usually the primary targets. They might be substitute victims, if the woman isn't available; or they are seen as obstacles to the man's relationship with the woman; or they could be revenge victims, killed as a way of hurting the woman in the worst possible way.

"If you think about domestic abuse, it's a system of power and control," says Langford. "The children are a tool of that control."

And there is sometimes a perverted "Father Knows Best" element when a man slays his own children. The neatly typed note left by Barton before his murderous Atlanta rampage showed that he had persuaded himself that he was protecting his children by killing them.

"I killed the children to exchange them for five minutes of pain for a lifetime of pain. I forced myself to do it to keep them from suffering so much later. No mother, no father, no relations," he wrote.

(He "spared" them by bludgeoning them with a hammer in their beds.)

It's a form of "righteous slaughter," a concept spelled out by UCLA sociology professor Jack Katz in his book "Seductions of Crime: Moral and Sensual Attractions of Doing Evil."

"When people do impassioned killings, they think they're doing something righteous by upholding some universal value," says Katz. "At that moment, they think that everyone would agree with the action they're taking."

David Adams of Emerge interviewed a man convicted of killing his estranged wife after luring her to their former home to watch videos with their children. The man made sure she had too much to drink, got her into bed and then, once she was asleep, bludgeoned her with a baseball bat and stabbed her in the neck.

Adams asked the man a series of questions, including whether he felt a woman who disobeys her husband deserves to be beaten.

"What if you believe she shouldn't be beaten, but she should be killed? the man asked.

"What do you mean?" asked Adams.

"I don't believe in hurting a woman -- that's why I waited for her to fall asleep," the man replied. "But I believe you should take the marriage vows seriously."

And, oh, yes, the man added, he'd had sex with her before he killed her. He knew the coroner would discover his semen inside her body. He wanted the man he suspected his wife was seeing to know that he, the estranged husband, had been the last to have her.

Clearly, even when women leave, they are not safe, particularly if they can be lured back under false pretenses. But their departures, while likely to incite rage or even violence by the estranged men in their lives, create a safer environment for those men. Statistics show that women who leave abusive men are primarily avoiding deadly encounters in which their husbands would have been the victim. Women apparently can sense their own murderous impulses but not those of their mates.

Studies show that the numbers of women killing their husbands and boyfriends have plummeted. Women killed 1,357 intimate partners in 1976. They killed 430 in 1997. The decline was most dramatic in the 1990s, and researchers took serious notice of it a couple of years ago, when the Bureau of Justice Statistics published a landmark paper on intimate homicides.

As is often the case with statistical reports generated by government agencies, only numbers, not explanations, were offered in the report. Since its publication, researchers have scrambled to flesh out some theories. They have come up with three main reasons why intimate murders committed by women have decreased by more than 300 percent in 20 years. Feminism is wrapped up in all of them, whether it be the shelter movement and progressive laws, lower marriage rates or women's improved status.

The bottom line, it seems, is that women now have more options for leaving abusive relationships and finding support away from home. "Women now have a means of escape from violent relationships, such as shelters," says Juley Fulcher, public policy director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. When they can leave, they don't have to fight back.

In fact, the decline of intimate murders by women confirms what many researchers have said for decades: Women kill their spouses mainly in self-defense. For instance, one pioneering study by Jacquelyn Campbell in the early 1980s showed that 75 percent of women who killed their partners had been previously abused by them. The study was based on police reports filed over a five-year period in one city, long before investigators were trained to be sensitive to such issues.

"No matter who gets killed, it's wife abuse. That pattern has held up in current studies," says Campbell, a professor at the John Hopkins University school of nursing. "People have found that in states with good domestic violence laws, there are lower rates of men killed by intimate partners."

In addition to shelters and other means of escape from domestic violence, legal advocacy for battered women has played a key role as well, says Laura Dugan, professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University, and co-author of a forthcoming study on intimate homicide in 50 U.S. cities from 1976 to 1996.

Legal advocates, who range from volunteers to full-time paid staff, sit in on battered women's cases when they hit the courts, and guide women through the difficult process. "As opposed to shelters, where the women have to make the first move, legal advocates are reaching out to a large pool of women," Dugan says. "Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be an effect in saving women's lives."

Women's increased status and independence also have had an impact on their ability to leave abusive spouses and boyfriends, says Richard Rosenfeld, professor of criminology at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and Dugan's co-author on the 50-city domestic violence study. Women today have higher incomes, education levels and workforce participation than they did 25 years ago. This allows them to leave abusive men they might have otherwise killed. Marriage rates, too, have significantly declined, allowing unsuitable mates in the volatile under-30 age bracket to split up before their differences turn into violence.

These changes, says Rosenfield, are particularly noteworthy among African-American women.

In 1976, the per-capita rate of intimate homicide among blacks was 11 times higher than among whites. Twenty years later, it was only about four times higher. "This is very good news," says Rosenfeld. By 1998, the murder of black husbands by their wives had the most significant drop of all categories of homicide, about 75 percent.

"Black women have become closer to black men on all the status indicators, and are in fact even more likely to have a higher education level," says Rosenfeld, who, with Dugan, is the first to explain this trend.

One parallel phenomenon they uncovered tempered the mostly positive changes. Decreasing welfare payments has led to an increase in intimate homicides, and particularly in those with male victims, says Rosenfeld. "We may think of the AFDC [Aid for Families with Dependent Children] as inducing independence, and it may -- but not on abusive men!" says Rosenfeld. In the absence of welfare support, impoverished mothers may choose to stay with violent mates.

"We might have seen an even greater decrease in spousal homicides if welfare benefits hadn't declined," he says. In fact, Rosenfeld notes that since the federal government axed AFDC benefits in 1996, there has been something of an upturn in intimate murders. "It could just be a squiggle, but it's there, especially among African-Americans," he says. "We hope and urge that policy-makers look at welfare reforms, especially as the economy downturns, as it must."

And so, in the world of dysfunctional relationships, survival becomes a matter of luck and timing. A woman linked to an abusive husband might get out in time to save his life. To save herself, she must find a way to evacuate herself and her children before he realizes that she is ready or able to do so. Unfortunately, it can be deadly for a woman to be long-suffering or optimistic.

The emphasis now, researchers agree, needs to be on identifying abusive men as well as creating programs to help them change. "What those programs might be remains a very open question," says Rosenfeld. "Judges are starting to make [violence counseling] programs a condition of probation for men convicted of domestic assault. But no one yet knows the effectiveness of these programs."

Indeed, counseling violent men may not be enough. "There needs to be new ways of raising our boys. We have to challenge the belief that men be tough, non-emotional and in control," says Ty Schroyer, men's program coordinator for the highly regarded Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, Minn. "Because of male socialization, they're just not reaching out [for help]. They may not even recognize that they have a problem."

For her part, Jacquelyn Campbell is working on a major study of homicide data from across the nation to determine what specific warning signs to look for in abusive men who go on to kill their female partners.

"Stalking is huge," Campbell emphasizes. This applies whether the couple has separated or is still together. Other factors that appear to contribute: The man threatens to kill her; the perception that he is capable of killing; extreme jealousy; forced sex; abuse during pregnancy; and increasing frequency or severity of abuse. For a woman who is deeply invested in a relationship, this litany of seemingly obvious precursors to murder can be hard to distinguish from plain abuse.

It would be hard to believe that a woman could endure a single instance of any of the factors that Campbell lists if it wasn't so easy to understand the reason that many women do not flee. It is because they believe, as one might, that the men who love them could never kill.

That, perhaps, is the greatest sadness in the statistics. Even as they have battled for the means to get out of abusive relationships, women have not found a way to survive them. When she leaves a disintegrating relationship, a woman may save her partner's life, but she endangers her own. As powerful as sisterhood can be, it cannot always save lives -- at least not the lives of women.

By Jennifer Foote Sweeney

Jennifer Foote Sweeney, CMT, formerly a Salon editor, is a massage therapist in northern California, practicing on staff at the Institutes for Health and Healing in San Francisco and Larkspur, and on the campuses of the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley.

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By Alisa Smith

Alisa Smith is a freelance journalist in Victoria, British Columbia

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