(Disclaimer: I originally wrote this review for a graduate course in Feminist Theory at Arizona State University West Campus in Spring, 2002.)
When Gordon Asher was convicted of manslaughter in the death of his wife Jane in 1980, he left the courtroom in Winchester, England, with a six months’ suspended sentence. The Hampshire Chronicle (12 June 1981) quoted him as saying he was “a really happy man” and that if he took another wife, she would have to be “someone very special.” Jane, who had been strangled at a party and her naked body dumped in a chalk pit six miles away, was apparently not “someone very special.”
To read the collection of essays, articles, and poems edited by Jill Radford and Diana E. H. Russell under the title Femicide: The Politics of Woman Killing is to encounter the contradiction of too many women who were not “someone very special” and yet who were. Every one of them.
Jane Asher’s story surfaces several times throughout the book, as do other accounts of specific murders, such as that of Mary Bristow or the fourteen women engineering students mowed down at the University of Montreal in 1989, until the reader develops a sense of familiarity with their names and histories. More important, however, is the sense of outrage that develops along with the familiarity.
And that seems to be exactly what Radford and Russell want.
Theirs is a quiet outrage, the kind built up from patient, plain-spoken narratives rather than bombast and legal rhetoric. “Femicide” is, simply put, the killing of women because they are women. “Femicide” is murder in a political context. No one questions that the dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, was racially motivated. No one questions that the beating death of Matthew Shepard was an expression of homophobia. No one questions that the Nazi Holocaust and the North American “Indian Wars” were attempts to eradicate individuals on the basis of their group identity. But when the victim is “just” a woman, the political motivation disappears. Radford and Russell and their contributors want to make sure the disappeared becomes visible again.
The topics in the collection range from Marianne Hester’s historical perspective in “The Witch-craze in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England as Social Control of Women” to an examination of the routine killing of girl babies in contemporary India in “Female Infanticide: Born to Die” by S. H. Venkatramani. Beverly LaBelle describes “Snuff - The Ultimate in Woman Hating” with a preternatural calm, considering the topic is the filmed torture and murder of women sold as entertainment. Several articles focus on the media’s treatment of murders of women, from the lack of coverage of the killings of 38 African American women in Atlanta at the same time “The Atlanta Child Murders” of young African American males gripped the attention of the nation to the idolization of the men who do the killing, such as Jack the Ripper (who has pubs named after him) and Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, who was cheered at English football games for his ability to elude identification and capture.
Another section extensively examines the misogynist attitudes within the British court system. There, a man who had killed his wife can (or at least could) have all or most of the charges against him dropped if he claimed he thought – just thought -- she was having an affair. The notion that a “reasonable man” would lose control of himself at the mere thought of his wife’s infidelity and could therefore not be held responsible persisted in the British court system until the 1990s. Gordon Asher successfully used that defense after strangling his wife Jane at a party where he had seen her talking with another man. His subsequent actions – calmly carrying her lifeless body to the car, explaining her lack of consciousness on too much to drink, stripping her of her clothes, and tossing her into a chalk pit – indicated to the judge that Gordon Asher was “reasonable.” In other cases cited, men had written letters indicating their intent to kill their wives, had carried out the killings with obvious planning and premeditation, but the mere statement of “I thought she was having an affair” was enough to get them off. It did not matter if the charge of infidelity was true or not; mere suspicion proved sufficient.
The same standards do not hold true for women killing men, neither in the United States nor the United Kingdom. Jacquelyn C. Campbell’s statistical analysis of spousal murders over a five-year period in Dayton, Ohio, “If I Can’t Have You, No One Can: Power and Control in Homicide of Female Partners,” gives a chilling picture of the depth of the injustices perpetrated against women when the violence reaches fatal levels. In Campbell’s study, 64% of the female victims “were known to have been physically abused by that man prior to the femicide,” based on “prior arrest record or by witness or family comments made spontaneously to investigating officers.” Well over one-half of the cases involved “excessive violence,” or what is commonly called over-kill: While a single blow from a fist, a single shot, or a single stab wound can be explained away as a “momentary loss of control,” excessive violence, including but not limited to mutilation of the corpse, “demonstrates conscious determination to kill.” (pp. 102-103) The women who killed their intimate partners rarely resorted to excessive violence or mutilation, suggesting less the premeditation of a calculated murder and more the spontaneous response to an immediate threat to life or limb, commonly known as self-defense.
As in the British cases, jealousy ranked as the most common motive for male-to-female spouse killing in Dayton, with other male-dominance issues – “such as the [case] in which the woman refused to get the perpetrator more wine . . . or those in which the woman resisted her murderer’s sexual advances” – coming in second. Should the violence be initiated by the woman, as in those few cases where she was the first to display a weapon or physically assault the man who eventually killed her, her murderer is likely to be acquitted. Campbell’s report shows how clearly the sexual double standard continues to operate when the question is motive for murder.
While in both instances of female victim-initiated aggression the male perpetrator was acquitted of her death, in only 8 of 23 cases involving male precipitation did the woman escape punishment on the grounds of self-defense. Two of those 8 female perpetrators were acquitted in court trials, and six were not charged with any crime. In the majority (12) of the other 15 cases, each woman pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was not tried. (emphasis mine)
At least four of those women went to jail, as did the other three, who were ultimately convicted of voluntary manslaughter. In all 23 cases, however, there existed a history of abuse and battering, in addition to the fact that the male victim initiated the violence that ended in his own death! One woman was stalked by her ex-husband for months after their divorce, until she purchased a gun for her own protection. When he invaded her home, chased her into a bedroom, and then broke down the door to get at her, she fired several warning shots to let him know she was serious. Undeterred, he continued to advance until she finally shot and killed him. Her adolescent children verified the events. She was still convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Campbell’s study covered the years 1975 to 1979, before extensive research on the effects of abuse that came to be known as “battered woman syndrome.” Ohio Governor Richard Celeste gained attention in the 1980s for pardoning several women who had killed abusive partners, but Femicide does not include information on this, though there is mention that British laws have been revised.
Femicide is, however, much more than a compilation of news reports and vented spleens. Radford, Russell, and their contributors almost all have personal experience with the effects of femicide and can speak of the pain of losing a friend or a lover under such circumstances. This intimacy with violence – which in the case of women is more often than not intimate violence – adds a quiet intensity of emotion as each writer carefully applies a fundamental feminist analysis.
They dismiss the judgment of rape as the ultimate form of sexual violence. In their analysis, murder is much more violent than rape and it imposes the ultimate silence upon the victim so she can never speak on her own behalf again. They further note that the murder of a woman is rarely identified by law enforcement agencies, the press, or the courts as being sexual – and therefore gendered – in and of itself. When sexual assault, sexual mutilation, or other sexually-oriented acts affect (or effect) the woman’s death, those acts are considered separately from the actual murder; application of the term “femicide” makes the killing itself a gendered crime and a political one.
Like Catharine MacKinnon’s Feminism Unmodified, Femicide espouses no specific branch of feminist theory. (MacKinnon, in fact, is acknowledged for her review of the entire Femicide manuscript prior to publication.) Rather than argue about or try to defend theories about why women are oppressed – and killed – as women, the authors offer only a brief statement: “The radical feminism outlined here, however, is different from that of the early 1970s. It is a feminism that perceives male sexual violence as the basis for securing the gendered power relations of patriarchy.” (p. 354) Using this uncomplicated framework, they are able to assemble a collection of works that pointedly “recognizes the differences among women in terms of their relationship to the other power structures present in patriarchal societies.”
Racial and ethnic difference receive the most attention. Not only does Femicide provide a cross-cultural perspective by presenting reports from India, but the collection includes examination of how femicide is treated differently on the basis of racial issues in the United States and Britain. North American media may have reported on so-called race riots in Brixton, but the treatment of victims of domestic violence and femicide in the Asian community in Britain fares differently. Yet it has parallels to American policies and practices. In Southall Black Sisters’ report “Two Struggles: Challenging Male Violence and the Police,” the irony and dilemma are clear:
For black women, challenging an issue like domestic violence within our own communities and challenging the racism of the police at the same time is often fraught with contradictions. On the one hand, we are involved in campaigns against police brutality, deaths in police custody and immigration fishing raids. On the other, we are faced with daily beatings, rape, and sexual harassment. We are forced to make demands of the police to protect our lives from the very same men along whose side we fight in anti-racist struggles. (p. 313)
Is there, in the end, a simple solution? No. In the concluding essay “Where Do We Go From Here?” Jill Radford acknowledges the difficulty, the risk of burn out in activism, the frustration. She recognizes “the failure of the state . . . to offer women protection from femicide” through continued practices that “diminish men’s responsibility.” (p. 352)
[I]t is not necessary to argue that the preservation of male supremacy is an actual goal of the men committing femicide to see that it is at the very least one of the consequences of these crimes. What difference does it make for the victims of femicide if their killers are considered mentally ill? Being mentally ill does not free men from their misogyny or racism, so their “illness” is irrelevant to the contention that their femicidal attacks are misogynous acts that serve to perpetuate misogyny. . . .[C]hallenges to this violence constitute a profound challenge to patriarchy itself. In this way working against femicide is fundamentally political work. (p. 353)
In his exploration of the links between language, religion, and sexism, The Alphabet versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image (Arkana, 1998), Leonard Shlain offers a frightening observation on how deeply ingrained the double standard of violence is in Western culture. Citing the biblical record, he reports, “[I]n a seminal book over seven hundred pages long, the demolition of women’s status begins on page 2 and is essentially completed on page 3.” (p. 112) Eve’s sin of curiosity, a sin which is never numbered among the seven deadlies, condemns her and the entire human race to misery and death. The patriarchal male god Yahweh dismisses the fact that poor Eve was an innocent who had no knowledge of good or evil, right or wrong, before she succumbed to the serpent’s blandishments and ate of the forbidden fruit. She is nonetheless condemned, and blamed for everyone else’s misfortunes. Yet her son Cain, who slew his brother Abel with full knowledge of his wrongdoing, receives mercy and protection from that same vengeful deity. “In these two morality tales less than one page apart, Yahweh judges murder by a man a less egregious crime than disobedience by a woman.” (p. 114) Too often, it appears, that same judgment is handed down in the courts today.
Eve was the first woman; she was also the last to be considered “special.” All the rest, from Hypatia to Jehann d’Arc, from the nameless but faithful concubine in the Book of Judges to Kitty Genovese, from Janice Lancaster of rural Maryland to Barbara Drummond of California (estranged wives killed by their husbands in spite of attempts to obtain court protection), from Linda King to Kay Blanton (personal acquaintances, both femicides): they are all martyrs to a political cause. Their names and often the circumstances of their deaths are easily forgotten or ignored. That there are so many of them, across cultures, throughout time, around the world, makes the challenge daunting.
As Radford observes in closing, “Work on femicide is one of the most grueling feminist enterprises. It can, unless we are careful with one another, burn us out quickly. To avoid burnout, I would also argue that it is essential to hold onto our ideals and dreams.”
We must therefore remember that each of us is indeed someone very special. Femicide: The Politics of Woman Killing provides a chilling, lucid, and very special reminder.