femmes fatales

Are women as violent as men

Margaret Talbot
January 26, 1998 5:23PM (UTC)

In November 1997, the journal Pediatrics published
the results of a terrifying experiment. Doctors at several
hospitals in Great Britain had decided to covertly videotape 39
parents -- most of them mothers -- whom medical personnel had begun
to suspect were deliberately bringing their young children to the
brink of death. What they saw astounded them.
In 30 of the 39 cases, the parents were observed intentionally
suffocating their children; in two they were seen attempting to
poison a child; in a third, the mother under surveillance
deliberately broke her 3-month-old daughter's arm. Many of the
parents seemed as methodical and as brazen, as scoured of fear or
conscience, as any serial killer. "Abuse was inflicted without
provocation and with premeditation, and in some instances,
involved elaborate and plausible lies to explain consequences,"
the study's authors wrote. "For example, one mother claimed that she
had suffocated her son because of stress related to his crying
and continually waking her from sleep. However, under
surveillance, the mother was seen, with premeditated planning, to
suffocate her infant when he was deeply asleep. The majority of
other cases showed attempted suffocation when the child was
asleep or lying passively on the bed. Children did not appear to
provoke their parents into abusing them."

The odd thing -- the really chilling thing -- was that these were
women (and a few men) who masqueraded as good parents, the sort
who rushed their children to the emergency room when they had
trouble breathing, and stood by them with fortitude and devotion
while the doctors puzzled out what was wrong. They were slick,
many of them; they could morph from demonic menace to concerned
mum the minute a doctor or nurse walked in the room. They liked
the social prestige of a mysterious disease; they liked the
proximity to powerful medical professionals; they liked the
attention and the drama -- the wail of the sirens, the adrenalin
rush of the ER. And more than that, they seemed to get some
acidy trickle of satisfaction out of terrorizing their children.


"2:02 p.m.," reads the transcript of the case in which the mother
snapped her daughter's arm before nurses, alerted to what was
happening on videotape, could stop her. "Mother slaps the
infant's head. 2:03 p.m.: repeated. 2:09 p.m.: repeated. 2:53
p.m.: The mother tears up the nursing record and throws it out
the window. 2:58 p.m.: The mother swears at the infant, accusing
her of being responsible for them having to remain in the
hospital. There is growing anger with the mother repeatedly
ordering the infant to kiss her. 'Give me a kiss, you little sod,
give me a kiss. Kiss! Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!'" And so on and on.

With further investigation, it turned out that the 39 patients
under surveillance, ages 1 month to nearly 3 years old, had
41 siblings, and that 12 of those siblings had died suddenly
and unexpectedly.

How could these parents have gone on so long unrecognized for
what they were? How for that matter did others like them get
away with it? Waneta Hoyt, whose five babies were thought to have
died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome -- indeed whose experience was
virtually the entire basis for the influential theory that SIDS
runs in families -- and who, in 1995, finally confessed to having
suffocated them herself. Marybeth Tinning, the Schenectady, N.Y., housewife who, over the course of 14 years, just kept
ferrying her kids to the hospital, and collecting flowers at
their funerals, until she was eventually found to have killed
nine of them.

"She was a predator," journalist Patricia
Pearson writes of Tinning. "Had she been a man, she might have
been a particularly ruthless entrepreneur, an organized criminal,
a serial rapist. But she was a woman, and she located her
well-spring of power in maternity."

For Pearson, the author of a provocative new book called "When
She was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence," the
mystery of how these women eluded suspicion is really no mystery
at all. It helped that they were accomplished liars. It helped
that medical science had settled on the SIDS-in-families
explanation. It helped that the kind of crimes they committed
were rare (though perhaps less rare than we think; some
researchers now say that 5 to 10 percent of the 3,200 SIDS cases reported
each year in the U.S. should be considered suspicious). But above
all, argues Pearson, these women got away with their crimes for
years because so few of us are willing to acknowledge that women
are as capable of cool and calculating brutality as men are.

"Violence," Pearson writes, "is still universally considered to be the
province of the male. Violence is masculine. Men are the cause of
it, and women and children are the ones who suffer." The
conventional wisdom, born of old-fashioned paternalism and
new-fashioned feminist essentialism, holds that when women maim
or kill, they do so only from the cringing posture of a battered
wife or on orders from an unhinged boyfriend. Or, like Jean
Harris, who murdered her diet-doctor boyfriend, or Susan Smith,
who murdered her two little boys, they were really intending to
commit suicide and somehow "found themselves" killing others
instead. Either way, they manage to keep some saving drapery of
innocence and haplessness, even of victimhood.


Pearson's is in many ways an original book, but it did not emerge
in a vacuum. Over the last few years, criminologists have been
locked in an escalating debate about women's capacity for
violence. And that debate has in turn been shaped by the
longer-standing confrontation between equality feminists (who
argue, in this context, that a woman can be as power-hungry, as
greedy or as vicious as a man and that female criminals ought to
take responsibility for their crimes) and difference feminists
(who believe that women are gentler, more nurturant, more
virtuous -- and as criminals, more easily bullied).

In fact, that's just the trouble. So infused with ideology has
this debate become that the numbers trotted out by the
increasingly hostile camps have begun to seem muddled at best and
suspect at worst. Are women treated more leniently in sentencing?
The studies are all over the map. Are they just as likely as men
to beat on their spouses? Those who think they are -- and that men
are getting a bad rap as the sole perpetrators of domestic
violence -- cite the 1980 survey conducted by family violence
scholars Murray Straus, Richard Gelles and Suzanne Steinmetz. In
a random survey of 3,218 American homes, they found that 12
percent of men -- and 11.6 percent of women -- reported hitting, slapping
or kicking their partners. It's also true that many counties and
municipalities have reported increases in the number of women
arrested for domestic violence over the last few years. But then
again, these may be due to mandatory arrest laws, which oblige
police officers to collar the wife who hurls a plastic jar of
Jiffy in the general direction of her husband just as surely as
they do the man who smashes his wife's nose. Battered women's
advocates seem blind to the idea that some couples taunt and
torment each other with equal gusto and that some men may
actually be the brunt of domestic abuse; adherents of the
women-are-as-thuggish-as-men school seem blind to the fact that
even if a woman slaps first, men are physically able to inflict
more damage. As for the observation that, yes, some women
clearly are capable of mayhem but for whatever reason, women
resort to it far less often than men -- suffice it to say that
you'll wade pretty deep into this debate before you're likely to
encounter such common sense.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"When She was Bad" has much to recommend it -- clear and
vigorous prose, an engagingly urgent tone, plenty of reporting.
But it is also, alas, very much an artifact of this rigidly
polemical debate. On the one hand, Pearson details the exploits
of enough female rogues and ghouls and offers enough startling
statistics -- 17 percent of American serial killers are women; the
majority of child homicides in the United States are committed by
women -- to shake up the most sanctimonious believer in the moral
superiority of females. She is excellent on the subject of the
battered women's defense, arguing that it has been applied so
loosely that it is in danger of becoming an all-purpose excuse
for female criminals, a denial of women's free will and moral
agency. She has interesting things to tell us about why it is
that even women who commit the most "male" of crimes -- serial
killing or the killing of strangers -- don't seem to frighten us as
much. Aileen Wuornos, the armed robber and sometime hooker who
shot seven of her johns and dumped their bodies in the
Everglades, was the subject of a sympathetic TV movie that
portrayed her as the helpless victim of child abuse. (Imagine,
Pearson asks us, if somebody made a movie about Charles Manson or
John Wayne Gacy, also victims of child abuse, that depicted them
in a mainly pitiable light.) Female killers, as criminologist
Eric Hickey points out, attract monikers that either trivialize
them -- "Old Shoebox Annie," "Giggling Grandma" -- or sexualize
them -- "Black Widow," "Beautiful Blonde." (Compare those to "The
Slasher" or "The Night Stalker" or "Jack the Ripper.")


"No female serial killer has the mythic force of the classic
predator," Pearson observes. "We find it impossible to perceive
of them as frightening." One reason for this, she points out, is
that women who murder more than once are still "place-specific"
killers. They don't tend to prowl. Like Waneta Hoyt or Marybeth
Tinning, they're more likely to kill their own children in their
own homes; or, like another of Pearson's subjects, the matronly
Sacramento landlady who poisoned 11 men and women in her boarding
house, to snuff out the elderly or the sick left in their care.

Yet all of these level-headed observations don't
necessarily add up to a reliable picture. Since Pearson makes no
reference to overall crime statistics, for example, it would be
easy to come away from this hard-selling book with the impression
that women commit as many violent crimes as men do. A glance at
the FBI's "Uniform Crime Reports" over the last 10 years shows
otherwise. In 1996, for instance, men accounted for 89.7 percent of the
arrests for murder. In the aggravated assault
category, men accounted for 82.1 percent of all arrests. Indeed, the only offenses for which women's arrests came
close to men's were fraud and embezzlement; the only one in which
they actually exceeded men's was runawayism. Even in the category
of "offenses against family and children" (which includes
desertion and non-support as well as abuse), men outstripped
women, 77.6 percent to 24.6 percent. Whether you regard these proportions as a
good thing or a bad thing, as politically useful or politically
inconvenient for your particular brand of feminism, there they
are, hulking and unequivocal.

At times, "When she Was Bad" sounds like the evil twin of those
early feminist tracts celebrating the suppressed accomplishments
of history's lost women. We've all heard of Jack the Ripper, but
who, Pearson demands, has heard of his female equivalent, the
bloodthirsty Jane Toppan? It's not exactly boasting, but it could
be mistaken for boasting. (Women can be serial killers, too! And
not only that, but they have a proud feminist heritage! You go,
Grand Guignol girls!) Surely we don't need to insist on women's
equality in every sphere, no matter how tortured the argument or
undesirable the sphere, in order to achieve it in most. Go too
far down the road with the equality feminists and you part
company with reality.


Go too far in the other direction, though, and you end up with a
book Like "'Bad' Mothers: The Politics of Blame in Twentieth-Century America." Notice the quotes around bad. Moral judgments --
at least of women -- are few and far between in this collection of
essays, whose authors mostly share the conviction that the "bad"
mother is a "social construction" or a punitive stereotype. (As
one essay puts it, "Bad mothers are the ones who get caught.")
To be fair, feminist historians Molly Ladd-Taylor and Lauri
Umansky do note in their introduction that "some mothers are not
good mothers. No one can deny that. There are women who neglect
their children, abuse them, or fail to provide them with proper
psychological nurturance." (Yes, and there are women who kill
their children, too.) And you can find several essays here that
make smart and subtle arguments about the ways in which
child-rearing experts and social commentators have pinned the
blame on mothers for everything from autism (refrigerator
mothers) to homosexuality (overprotective mothers) to juvenile
delinquency (working mothers).

But this is also a book that shirks distinctions it ought to have
the gumption or the decency to make. It's one thing to hold a
mother responsible for her child's autism -- a neurological
disorder over which she could have had no control; it's quite
another to hold her responsible for using heroin when she's
pregnant or for failing to protect her child from abuse or
incest. Yet for Ladd-Taylor and Umansky, the latter two examples
are just as sexist and stereotyping as the first.

The truth is that there are times when the myth of female
innocence and the scapegoating of individual mothers not only co-exist, but work in tandem. Doughy-faced, half-pretty Louise
Woodward, the young English nanny accused of shaking to death 9-month-old Matthew Eappen, won both leniency in sentencing and an
astonishing amount of public sympathy in part, it seems, because
she was a woman. (Chalk one up for Pearson's side.) Meanwhile,
Matthew's mother, Deborah Eappen, an ophthalmologist who had gone
back to work part time, got hate mail from people who blamed her
for leaving her children in anyone else's care. (Chalk one up for
Ladd-Taylor and Umansky.) For some people, it seemed possible to
believe simultaneously that Deborah Eappen was a terrible mother
for leaving Matthew with Woodward, and that Woodward was a good
girl who did Matthew no harm. The Woodward case was too late-breaking a story to make it into either of these books, but I
wonder what they would have done with it. Sadly, it seems to
prove them both right.


Margaret Talbot

Margaret Talbot is a staff writer at The New Yorker.

MORE FROM Margaret Talbot


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