"Women Can Be Just As Violent As Men:" The Real Lesson Of Amy Bishop

Neuroscientist Amy Bishop — now under investigation for her 1986 shooting of her brother as well as the murder of three of her colleagues — shows that women can be killers. Why is everyone so surprised?

As more of Bishop's history comes to light — prosecutors have ordered an inquest into her brother's supposedly accidental death now that evidence suggests Bishop may have been inspired by a newspaper article to murder him — her crimes have ignited a firestorm of philosophizing. Gina Kolata writes for the Times that Bishop "has become bigger than life, a symbol for those who think that genius is close to madness, or that women cannot get ahead in science, or that tenure systems in universities are brutalizing - or even that progress against fatal diseases is so important that someone like Dr. Bishop should be set free to pursue cures." Sam Tanenhaus, also in the Times, argues that her crimes reveal a "gap" in art, a failure to recognize that women's "evolved status" has given them more freedom to kill. And Slate's Emily Bazelon "speculated that Bishop could represent an extreme (and violent and awful) manifestation of some women's frustration with unequal treatment in the workplace. Not to excuse her behavior, but as one lens through which to view it." After news of Bishop's previous violence came out, she reconsidered, but the question remains, does Bishop's crime require a "lens" at all?

Tanenhaus writes that many artistic representations of violent women have been "exculpatory parables of empowerment, anchored in feminist ideology." This "made sense" when "the underworld of domestic abuse and sexual violence was coming freshly to light" (apparently no one knew about domestic violence before Thelma & Louise), but things are different now:

The uncomfortable fact is that for all her singularity, Dr. Bishop also provides an index to the evolved status of women in 21st-century America. The number of female neurobiologists may still be small, but girls often outdo boys in the classroom, including in the sciences. (Mattel recently announced a new addition, Computer Engineer Barbie, to its line of popular dolls.) A Harvard Ph.D. remains a rare credential for women (as well as for men), but women now make up the majority of undergraduates at many prestigious colleges. And the tenure struggle said to have lighted Dr. Bishop's short fuse reflects the anxieties of many other women who now outnumber men in the work force and have become, in thousands of cases, their family's principal or only breadwinner.

Echidne of the Snakes wrote that Tanenhaus's piece was "all about female empowerment turning women into mass murderers. Just like men!" — and indeed, Tanenhaus claims that the art that best tells stories like Bishop's is that in which "the hypothetical notion of empowerment gives way to the exercise of literal power." Because of advances in education (and Barbies), Tanenhaus says, women now have more of this "literal power" than ever, and some will use it to kill. He's right in one respect — art that depicts women solely as victims of violence, or occasionally as avengers, fails to represent the aggressive impulses of someone like Bishop. But art's job is not to represent every possible situation, and narratives of female victimhood are often a response to the cultural and political hegemony of men. Women have made real strides towards equality (though the "mancession" may not be one of them), but this hegemony still exists, and to say that we need a whole new art-scape now that women are equal in life and crime is a pretty serious overstatement.

Upon learning of Bishop's history, and of the fact that her failure to get tenure seems to have been a response to the poor quality of her work rather than an instance of discrimination, Bazelon wrote, "she's not a good example of a woman frustrated by unequal treatment gone wild. She went wild for different, deeply embedded reasons, it seems clear." We don't really know yet what made Bishop "go wild" — but her crime shows neither that women have achieved total equality nor that our inequality is going to make us all into psychopaths (as Bazelon also notes, "You can be an extreme awful example of an emotion a lot of other people share, and that doesn't make the emotion or the other people awful or potentially violent").

Rather, what Bishop's story teaches is something that should surprise no one: women can be murderers, and not just in retaliation against abuse or in post-partum psychosis or in any of the other specifically female situations Tanenahus details. The idea that violence and war are exclusively male, and a female-dominated society would be all sweetness and light, not only misunderstands human nature but muddles the case for female equality. Women don't deserve equal rights because we're morally better than men. We deserve them because we are human beings — human beings who, unfortunately, sometimes commit unspeakable crimes. I don't like the implication that fiction writers must also be sociologists, but in this case two authors Tanenhaus interviews seem to understand the situation far better than he does. Joyce Carol Oates says, in an analysis of Bishop that Bazelon also praises, "she is a sociopath and has been enabled through her life by individuals around her who shielded her from punishment." Patricia Cornwell's take is even simpler. Tanenhaus gives her the last word, and I will as well: "People kill because they can. Women can be just as violent as men."

Violence That Art Didn't See Coming [NYT]
Did Amy Bishop Kill Because Women Are Screwed In The Workplace? [Slate]
And Here It Is [Echidne Of The Snakes]
Professor's Killing Of Brother Will Be Focus Of An Inquest [AP, via NYT]
A Murder Suspect's Worth To Science [NYT]