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A crime against their gender: How the world sees women who kill

Updated Thursday 30th June 2011

Does the perception of women who kill as acting against the typical behaviour of their gender mean we try to find reasons why they're not 'proper' women?

Laurie Taylor:
Lizzie Seal is the author of a new book, Women, Murder and Femininity. But what interests Dr Seal, who's a lecturer in the School of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Durham, is the manner in which women who commit unusual murders are represented, women like Myra Hindley and Rosemary West and Mary Bell and Beverley Allitt.

Well Lizzie Seal now joins me in the studio together with Louise Westmarland who's a senior lecturer in criminology at The Open University.

You say at the opening part of your book that one of the catalysts for your research on women who kill was a TV documentary over a decade ago, what was it that got you going?

A screenprinted posted intended to play up the connection between Aileen Wuornos' sexuality and her crime Creative commons image Icon &y under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
A screenprinted poster intended to play up the connection
between Aileen Wuornos' sexuality and her crime

Lizzie Seal:
Yes that's right, quite a few years ago now I saw a documentary that was called Perverted Justice and it was about the application of the death penalty in the United States to women.

And the documentary showed that women very rarely get the death penalty, but in cases where they did they were at more risk of being executed if they weren't conventionally feminine.

And so it highlighted factors such as women who'd committed killings which were seen as masculine, or women who themselves were seen as being kind of more like men, were at risk of facing harsher punishments.

Laurie Taylor:
So really the representations determine the sentence, the sort of story that was told about the person?

Lizzie Seal:
This is what the documentary argued, yes, and particularly as well it looked at issues of sexuality and how lesbian women, in particular, were likely to face harsher punishments.

Laurie Taylor:
And this is a decade ago, and you've been really pursuing this since. Because violent crime of any sort, statistically, is less likely to be perpetrated by women, this must already mean that people are looking for explanations more readily than they are, perhaps, in the case of men?

Lizzie Seal:
Yes, absolutely that violent acts, violent crimes, especially when it comes to homicide, of course it's not seen as appropriate behaviour for men but it is understood as being within the kind of spectrum of what we understand male behaviour to be. Whereas when it comes to women it's automatically more unusual and then, automatically ,perhaps more deviant.

Laurie Taylor:
It's almost as though they failed as women, they're not proper women if they have, in fact, committed some violent act?

Lizzie Seal:
Yes, and that they violated some of the ideals we have of womanhood, such as nurturance and care and gentleness.

Laurie Taylor:
Now let me turn to you Louise, I know you spent a long time working alongside police officers. I seem to remember some research you did years ago when you were actually driving around on night patrols on very tough night patrols. What did you learn then from the way in which, say, the police talk about women and crime?

Louise Westmarland:
I think Lizzie Seal's completely right, it's seen as an unusual and unnatural act for women to be killing and doing violence.

But just to take up one point about the death penalty, I was wondering, as you were speaking there, whether the mannish women that you talk about, and the lesbian women, so called, were maybe easier for the state to kill as well, because the state doesn't seem to like the idea of executing women? In your book there's a few cases where women were about to be executed but then they get reprieved and I was just thinking maybe that sort of relieves the state of the guilt of killing a woman in that situation?

Lizzie Seal:
Yes, absolutely and that argument has certainly made that in terms of being able to get a reprieve - that it's much harder for women who in some way aren't seen as being women, like we said earlier [or women who] are seen as harder to identify with, or harder to empathise with, and that then they're at more risk of facing harsh penalties.

Laurie Taylor:
Just explain to me why you concentrate on the unusual and unusual cases.

Lizzie Seal:
Sure, well I'll say what I meant by that and then why I selected that, if that's okay.

So by unusual cases of women who kill, as we've said, it's already rather unusual anyway but when women do commit homicide it's most likely to be of their own children, and then after that of a male partner.

And there is some research in this area and, specifically, there's some feminist research in this area, and I was interested in looking at other types of cases, so in themselves they're quite varied, where women kill someone other than a male partner or their own child.

Or I have included cases that do fit that description but where it's multiple homicides because that's also very unusual.

And I selected these for a couple of reasons, one, was I wanted to show how we could still bring a feminist understanding to these types of cases, although they might not automatically seem to fit in with such a perspective and I also chose them because I was influenced by ideas about transgression, sociological ideas about transgression, that through looking at the extreme or the unusual or the especially rule breaking it tells us something about how our rules are made, it tells us something about how we make normality.

Laurie Taylor:
So when we take these unusual cases, and I've mentioned some of them already when I was introducing you - cases like Mary Bell, Myra Hindley, when you look at these you develop a typology and you say almost the representations - the way in which these women are talked about - there seem to be five different ways in which they're talked about.

So we can explore the idea of the "masculine" criminal woman, because we've touched upon that already haven't we, and you talk about the case of Aileen Wuornos, that American woman. Just expand on that a little bit more.

Lizzie Seal:
So the masculine woman representation has been in relation to criminal women and especially women who've committed violent crimes has been a recurrent representation. And I look at how that has grown up through understanding the sort of women who commit crimes being masculine, and also how it's grown up through understandings of women perceived as being lesbian, as being masculine as well.

And as we mentioned before this was a particularly potent representation in Aileen Wuornos' case. She had killed seven men who she solicited for prostitution along a highway in Florida.

And she was portrayed as masculine in a couple of ways, I mean one was partly based on appearance and demeanour - she was seen as not kind of ladylike and feminine; one was that she was in a sexual relationship with another woman; and one was the type of killing itself - that the killing of strangers who she'd met in open space is seen very much as being more like a male serial killing.

Laurie Taylor:
When you're talking about representations,these representations are in the press, these representations are in the media, these representations are in the courtroom as well?

Lizzie Seal:
Yes absolutely, so the kind of representations that might come out in court exactly but also in newspaper stories etc.

Louise Westmarland:
But they start before that, - the police, when they're investigating a homicide have to develop a case that is going to be heard in court, and so they have to start developing these stories or narratives. It starts much earlier, I think, as you'll probably agree, than simply in the press. And they serve a purpose. And also, just as Lizzie's explaining, they have to have a sort of a moral - they develop this idea that innocence is developed, which is a moral career, so the perpetrator will have a moral career, the victim will have a moral career, so you have this idea of an innocent victim and a less innocent victim or almost an innocent perpetrator.

So if you're a woman who fulfils all the feminine norms and stereotypes, well you might be a slightly less guilty perpetrator, you could be sliding towards the side of an innocent perpetrator, which some of the ones in your book are cases of that, Lizzie, especially the respectable woman.

Laurie Taylor:
So, because by definition murders like this are going to make the front pages, you want to say that in order to bring the case to public attention, detectives and the police develop a narrative of their own.

Louise Westmarland:
Well more than that, I mean - it's also to solve the case and to also develop the case because they have to have a way of explaining - well, supposedly explaining, I'm not saying that they're ever going to get to the truth - but supposedly explaining why this person has done what they do. And certainly the press are an important part of the way that the police will work.

Laurie Taylor:
The other one is the respectable woman, the idea that here's someone who's been tipped over the edge - is that a fair characterisation?

Lizzie Seal:
[Someone who is s]tretched too far, yes, yes absolutely. There was a case I did some research on from archival case files of a woman called Edith Chubb and she was a housewife with a large household, she had been working very hard up until near the time of the killings that she carried out in a hospital; and she actually strangled her sister-in-law after her sister-in-law put down a cup of tea where Edith had just been cleaning. And the kinds of narratives in the court case, and indeed in the media, were very much about how hardworking Edith was, how she fulfilled her caring responsibilities and that she'd been stretched too far, pushed over the edge.

Understanding crime: Study criminology with The Open University

Louise Westmarland:
And she got off with it.

Lizzie Seal:
Well she got the best outcome she could which was manslaughter.

Louise Westmarland:
But I think the best thing that she did - I think the thing that you brought out in the book really - the best thing she did was when they said: 'Well why did you hide the body and how did you pretend...' 'Oh well you know I would have been sent away and my poor children would have been on their own.' I mean that's the clinch isn't it, that she's not going to be wanting to leave her children.

Laurie Taylor:
We haven't got time to go through all the types, but it is fascinating to me the muse/mastermind type because how well this was played out, if I may say, in the case of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, wasn't it? Perhaps you might like to expand on that.

Lizzie Seal:
Yes, so the muse/mastermind dichotomy is looking at killings where women have been involved with a man, a man that they're in a relationship with, and that on the one hand they might be portrayed as a kind of dupe of the man, or on the other hand they might be portrayed as the sort-of evil mastermind of the whole thing.

Laurie Taylor:
Yeah it was interesting, wasn't it, because in the courtroom I did think they there was an attempt to portray Myra Hindley as being manoeuvred and manipulated.

Louise Westmarland:
But that's also about demeanour isn't it? What you can't see from the book, although it's really great, is how did that person appear in court, and I think you can imagine the respectable woman - turning up in incredible respectable clothes, compared to Myra Hindley.

Laurie Taylor:
Yeah, but that then switched around somewhat didn't it, because I think we saw the recent television representation of Lord Longford, in that case you see Myra Hindley presented as a much more manipulative person.

Lizzie Seal:
Yes I think that did become dominant the representation of her, that she was manipulative.

Laurie Taylor:
Yeah. So the point of looking at these representations?

Lizzie Seal:
Well they tell us something more generally about femininity and its possibilities and its limits, though also through looking at these cases we can understand more about the wider culture in which they happened as well. So they can tell us about things like family life and so forth.

This debate is adapated from Thinking Allowed, first broadcast on BBC Radio 4, 22nd June 2011.

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