Should a woman be able to "tolerate" abuse because she has a demanding job? Or because she's black? A disturbing Guardian article exposes the stereotypes that keep women who kill their abusers from getting a fair trial.
The Guardian's Julie Bindel (no stranger to Jezebel) writes that while British men who kill their wives often use the defense of "provocation" to reduce their sentences to manslaughter, women who kill abusive husbands or boyfriend are often convicted of murder. She contrasts the case of Sara Thornton, who killed her husband after he repeatedly beat her, with that of Joseph McGrail, who kicked his common-law wife to death. A judge in Thornton's case said she should have "walked out or gone upstairs" instead of killing her husband; she was sentenced to life in prison. The judge in McGrail case, meanwhile, expressed "every sympathy" for him, and said his wife "would have tried the patience of a saint." He got a two-year suspended sentence.
For men who kill their partners, the defence of provocation is tailor-made. Provocation will reduce a charge of murder to manslaughter if the defendant can show that things were said or done to provoke them, causing them to experience a sudden loss of control. In such cases they will often justify their actions by claiming that they "just snapped" or "saw red". Judges have been known to express sympathy for men who claim they were nagged or cheated on by female partners, but often appear to have little for women who kill after being raped by their partners or experiencing domestic violence. This tends to be because when women who are being regularly beaten by their partners kill, their dominant emotions are usually fear or despair - not exactly a sudden, explosive "loss of self-control".
Judges may be more sympathetic to male killers because they see their anger at more justified, or because violent outbursts are more accepted from men than for women. But Bindel implicitly buys into double standard by writing that women's "dominant emotions are usually fear or despair." Society may expect the dominant emotions of abused women to be fear or despair, but that's a stereotype — one that may cause judges and juries to treat women more harshly when they do turn angry or violent. Killing an abuser obviously isn't a good solution for anyone, but the idea that it's somehow more natural for men is deeply damaging.
The view that men are provoked and somehow forced to kill, while women should know better, jibes with recent research on perceptions of male and female responses. Women who get angry are seen as emotional, while men are assumed to be reacting to some outside stimulus. Bindel illustrates this upsetting dichotomy in her analysis of Thornton's case: "as the judge's comments made clear, little was known about what drives a battered woman to kill her abuser." Wouldn't that be abuse? If McGrail's wife's actions drove him to kill her, why couldn't the beatings Thornton received drive her? Again, murder is never justified, but why can the British courts explain it away for men but not for women?
The research on emotion implies that people see women as flighty and fragile, but the cases Bindel discusses bring up another stereotype: that women have a greater obligation to control their tempers than men do. Bindel mentions Alicia Crown, who killed her boyfriend in what she says was self-defense. Her lawyers argued that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from her boyfriend's abuse and from a difficult upbringing in Jamaica, but the jury rejected this defense, seeing her as "remarkably resilient." Domestic violence expert Marai Larasi comments, "In my experience black women are particularly susceptible to being viewed as 'strong', able to cope and somehow not vulnerable." In this case it wasn't Crown's fragility that got her in trouble, it was the assumption that she, a black woman, should be "strong enough" to take abuse and not fight back.
Kirsty Scamp was sentenced to 12 years in prison for killing her abusive boyfriend Jason Bull. Scamp worked in a home for adults with behavioral problems, and Bindel writes that "the judge commented to the jury that Scamp should have been able to tolerate Bull's erratic outbursts because of her experience at work." Again, the assumption is that women have the responsibility to "tolerate" abuse.
The cases of Thornton, McGrail, Crown, and Scamp show that the way we perceive men's and women's emotions can have a terrifying impact on people's lives. We see men's feelings as determined by outside factors — if someone "provokes" them, it's natural for them to respond with violence. Yet for some reason we don't think of women's anger as being triggered in this way. The assumption that women's emotions come from within — that women are simply "emotional" creatures — delegitimizes these emotions. When a woman gets angry, or when she turns violent, it's not because of something someone else did — it's because she didn't sufficiently control herself. This leads not only to unfair gender disparities in sentencing, but also to victim-blaming and indifference to domestic violence. Certainly murderers deserve justice, but so do abuse victims, and no one is going to get this justice until we stamp out the view that a man's anger is justified, while a woman's is somehow her own fault.
Driven To Kill [Guardian]