Ottawa Citizen
Monday 16 July 2001

Women who run like wolves

Females are just as violent as males, and explaining away their victims only makes it worse

Ilana Mercer
Citizen Special
The Ottawa Citizen

When her lover decides to ditch her in favour of a more blue-blooded match, Medea, a character in Creek mythology, takes her revenge by killing their adored sons. Once a rapacious killer and schemer to rival any villain of the opposite sex, Medea has undergone a literary transformation in recent decades. Society now insists that women, even at their most ferocious, are no more than passive victims, capable of few free choices. Medea has, found a place in the annals of women's studies courses as a symbol of a woman in revolt against the patriarchy. Assisted along by this view is Medea's contemporary sister, Andrea Pia Yates. Last month, Yates, whom the media persist in calling "a Houston mom," (technically incorrect and morally reprehensible) methodically drowned her children, aged six months to seven years.

One reporter wondered why the police had no explanation for how Yates drowned five children without any escaping. Let's see: How difficult is it to corral your trusting charges for bath time? A promise of ice cream used to do wonders with my then-tiny tot.

The assumption about the woman's daintiness forms part of the "vocabulary of motive" being established by experts and the media. Accordingly, a woman will engage in violence only when provoked or desperate. Premeditated brutality is not part of her biology. Conversely, when men kill, it is because they are hardwired to do so.

If she kills her children, the woman is said to have suffered from postpartum depression. Deployed as a legal defence, PPD may see her exonerated. Sex killer Karla Homolka combined, with feral gusto, an active social life and abduction, rape and murder. Homolka was able to use the battered woman defence. She is not alone.

"Yates," we were told, "had spent her adult life catering to the deepest needs and visions of others." Her aggression was only ever turned on herself in the form of a failed suicide, leading one mental health maven to proffer that this murder is a form of suicide by proxy. Yates, he says, lost touch with reality and thought of killing her children as killing herself. He doesn't explain why, with all the confusion about psychic boundaries, Yates emerged unscathed.

No less repugnant are the collectivist explanations for this crime. "There's blood on everybody's hands," fluted one infanticide expert. The premise here is that children belong to "Rotten Rodham's" Village, and that somehow, because raising kids ought to be a tribal affair, the blame for killing them must also repair to members of the clan.

These explanations infantalize women. They drain the crimes women commit of moral or rational content, writes Patricia Pearson in her 1997 book When She Was Bad. Pearson, who combines "chilling real-life examples with scholarly research," demonstrates that violence committed by women is every bit as ferocious, albeit different, as violence perpetrated by men.

Stripped of the clinical vernacular, women hold their own in crime statistics. Women "commit the majority of child homicides in the United States, a greater share of physical child abuse, an equal rate of sibling violence and assaults on the elderly, about a quarter of child sexual abuse, and an overwhelming share of the killing of newborn." Eighteen per cent of black men killed in Chicago between 1966 and 1996 died at the hands of their mates; most of these men had no record of violence, abuse or other. "Ten to 20 per cent of the six thousand to eight thousand Sudden Infant Deaths reported each year in the U.S. conceal accidental or deliberate suffocation," usually by mothers. How many deadly assaults by mothers are finessed as the "condition" termed Munchausen syndrome by proxy is hard to tell.

Nowhere are the myths about female pacifism more robust than in spousal violence orthodoxy. There are hundreds of sociological surveys conducted with mathematical randomness that attest to the fact that women assault their partners as often or more often than men do. Gender symmetry in violence between couples is as well documented as it is well concealed by agencies such as Statistics Canada. What emerges from the many two-sex surveys conducted in Canada and in the U.S. over the past 30 years is that it is slap for slap, beating for beating, knifing and shooting for knifing and shooting. The fact that women are more likely to be injured in domestic altercations points to differences in physical strength between men and women, not in culpability.

Women's aggression is different to that of men, which is why it is so easy to misconstrue. From an early age, women opt for underhanded and manipulative strategies to achieve their ends. Honour killings are undoubtedly the grizzliest of crimes against women. In the Palestinian Authority, fathers and brothers murder 20 to 40 women every year in order to defend family honour. But when studying female aggression in the territory, anthropologist Ilsa Glaser observed that women's gossip plays a causal role in the events leading up to the butchering. By spreading gossip about the targeted woman, and by putting pressure on the men to act, women were instrumental in instigating the murders.

Besides irreparably biasing any potential jurors, the woman-as-Madonna myth renders faceless the victims of Andrea Yates. Is there any point asking the reader to imagine each child once he grasped that death was about to dawn? The baby girl might have whimpered briefly, and then been silent. Imagine the older children; think of their mother's deadly grip, their small bodies convulsing, their little limbs flailing until, no more. Think of the resolve necessary to take a life, to say nothing of five lives.

The old stereotypes must be replaced with a nuanced understanding, one which recognizes that if women can match men in almost every way that is good and fine, then so can they harbor the potential to be as sinister.

Ilana Mercer is a freelance writer based in Vancouver.

Copyright 2001 Ottawa Citizen Group Inc.