Battered Women's Syndrome: Science or Sham?Tuesday, October 22, 2002
By Wendy McElroy
As Domestic Violence Awareness Month nears its end, organizations like the California Coalition for Battered Women in Prison are calling loudly for the mass pardoning of "battered" women who have been convicted of first-degree murder.
PC feminists should instead take a real stand against gender violence and abandon the Battered Woman Syndrome -- a legal defense used to exonerate women who kill abusive men in the absence of imminent danger.
BWS claims that battered women are psychologically traumatized and therefore not responsible for their violent actions. Thus, a battered woman is not held responsible for murdering her abuser in his sleep, as in the much cited court case State of North Carolina v. Judy Ann Laws Norman or in the movie The Burning Bed. BWS sidesteps the long established principle that only a clear and imminent danger to life can justify murder, especially the premeditated variety.
Controversy swirls over whether BWS even exists or is a creation of feminist politics. Whatever is true, BWS is a legal defense available to women and de facto denied to men. Both women and men should be held equally accountable for their acts of violence. The courts should not bar anyone from a valid legal defense -- but is BWS valid?
BWS is more than a demand for compassion. As a woman who was severely battered, empathy is my first reaction. But compassion toward a murderer does not justify her act. BWS is being politically used to make cause celebres out of women who make the most reprehensible choice possible -- the cold-blooded killing of another human being.
Consider the case of the self-confessed serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute recently executed by the state of Florida for murdering seven men. Wuornos initially claimed that the men, all killed within a year's span, were customers against whom she was defending herself. She later recanted and told the judge: "I am guilty as can be. I want the world to know I killed these men -- as cold as ice. I've hated human beings for a long time." Wuornos' motive was also robbery.
Seven human beings who were never convicted of a crime -- indeed, who were accused of one only by a murderess, thief and liar -- received private death sentences. They were dismissed by a media which would have eagerly examined every detail of the victims had they been female.
By contrast, Wuornos has been the subject of movies, a documentary, a play, and an opera sympathetic to the murderess and dismissive or hostile to her victims. The play, entitled Self-Defense (or The Death of Some Salesmen), presents the murderess as a martyr. She is a symbolic reminder that men abuse women. Lest anyone miss that message, the policeman who arrests Jolene Palmer (the Wuornos character) states his motives, "White, middle-aged men are at risk!"
The opera, entitled Wuornos, is a self-consciously political justification of murdering men. Pointing a finger of blame at Wuornos' allegedly abusive father and distant grandfather, the opera advertises itself as "the rage of one woman" speaking "for centuries of pain." Wuornos is described as "a woman who makes the ultimate sacrifice for the love of her life -- another woman." This refers to the fact that Wuornos had been persuaded to confess her guilt by her lesbian lover.
Such presentations hit hard upon the tragic childhood of Wuornos. But the goal does not seem to be compassion or understanding of the human condition. After all, no compassion or understanding is extended to the dead men or their families. The message is clear: the men deserved to die.
In her essay, "Sexual Violence Against Women and a Woman's Right to Self-Defense: The Case of Aileen Carol Wuornos," the renowned radical feminist Phyllis Chesler provides "statistics" and theory to support this message.
Without citing sources, Chesler explains, "According to contemporary studies, 90 percent of all violent crimes are still committed by men. ... When those women who commit 10 percent of all violent crimes do kill, nearly half kill male intimates who have abused them or their children, and they invariably do so in self-defense." [Emphasis added]
Chesler's statistics do not seem to apply to spousal killing. The Department of Justice's "Murder in Families" study found "among black marital partners ... 47 percent of the black spouse victims were husbands and 53 percent were wives. Among white victims ... 38 percent of the victims were husbands and 62 percent were wives." It is also difficult to understand how Chesler knows that battered women invariably murder in self-defense, not in anger or for revenge.
I keep returning to the least discussed aspect of BWS. The men who deserved a trial before being executed: Were they, in fact, guilty?
Wuornos did not endorse the opera that eulogizes the murder of men, although she was asked repeatedly to do so. Before she died, Wuornos expressed great remorse for the pain she had caused the families of her victims. What does it say about PC feminists when a serial killer who hates mankind shows more decency than they can manage?
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.
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