Since the 1990s, there has been a growing interest in the battered woman and the violence that permeates her life. Battering is a difficult topic, because it exists in the privacy of the family home, grows in silence and shame, and has historically been acceptable and even expected from male heads of households. In reality, the very large majority of battered women do not resort to killing their abusers in order to survive. In fact, far more women are killed each year by their abusers. Most of these women suffer devastating injuries in silence and simply attempt to placate their abusers, hoping to reduce the amount and severity of the beatings. However, each year a small number of abused women do kill their abusers as a last resort. Most of these women have attempted to seek help from family, community, and criminal justice resources, with negative results. Oftentimes, the failure of these resources has the unintended effect of increasing the amount and severity of the violence. This leaves some women believing that they are alone in their situation and must decide between their survival and death.
In discussing this phenomenon, this research paper will explore the research available on the following topics:
- History of battering legality
- Women and homicide
- Battering and homicide
- Battered women who kill
- Two theories on why battered women kill
History of Battering Legality
In order to understand why a battered woman would resort to killing her abuser, it is first necessary to examine the failure of resources attempting to address battering. Battering flourishes even though it is now illegal, because these resources fail to stop it entirely. One of the reasons that resources fail is the history of battering and society’s difficulty with criminalizing formerly acceptable behavior.
Throughout most of world history, women have not only been treated as second-class citizens, but also considered property of their fathers, husbands, and other male family members rather than as citizens in their own right. This has been the case under the secular law as well as the tenets of most of the religions of the world. Historically, religious institutions were responsible for defining and performing social control. Most of these traditions demand or at least support the submission of all family members to the control of the male head of household. Consequently, they require this male to take responsibility for maintaining control and discipline of family members by whatever means necessary, including corporal punishment (Belknap 1992; Davidson 1977; Dobash and Dobash 1979; Gordon 1989; Gosselin 2000; Ogle and Jacobs 2002; Pleck 1983, 1987).
For example, some scholars point to the specificity of the Bible concerning the subordination of women to men and the need for men to use corporal punishment in order to maintain control over and protect the chastity of their women (Davidson 1977; Davis 1971; Gosselin 2000; Masters 1964). Other scholars note that in medieval times, the church required men to maintain complete and absolute control of wives and children and advised that failure to do so would result in their own punishment by the church (Dutton 1998; Masters 1964; Pushkareva 1997). Some of these scholars indicate that the church went as far as to warn men to be careful not to beat women and children about the head, because this could cause irreparable damage to their property (Masters 1964).
As secular governments began to take responsibility for social control, little changed with regard to the status or treatment of women. For example, under Roman civil law, women were property just like slaves, without legal or human rights. Male ownership included the right to buy, sell, punish, or impose death on his property (Gosselin 2000; Masters 1964). Gosselin (2000) notes that in the French civil code of the late 1700s women were declared to be legal minors for the entirety of their lives and the property of their fathers or husbands. Such laws also required corporal punishment of wives, including punching, kicking the body, and permanent disfigurement—especially injuries that were easily observable by others in order to increase her shame (Dobash and Dobash 1978; Gosselin 2000; Pagelow 1984).
When Blackstone codified the British common law in 1768, he included rules on the status of women and the use of corporal punishment to control them. This code says that man and woman become one entity by marriage and the woman’s legal existence ceases (Dobash and Dobash 1979; Gosselin 2000; Pagelow 1984). Even more specifically, it establishes the ‘‘rule of thumb’’ indicating that a husband had the legal right and responsibility to control and punish his wife but that he should do so with a rod no bigger around than his thumb (Dutton 1998; Gosselin 2000; Ogle and Jacobs 2002; Pagelow 1984; Ulrich 1991). Of course, this code formed the foundation for law established by Britain in the United States and remained in place there in similar form until the late twentieth century.
In essence, battering has long been a well-established tradition in both religion and secular government throughout the world. Even though some governments have made battering illegal, it continues to flourish everywhere, alongside rape, as a successful method of controlling women. Unfortunately, most efforts to address battering have consisted mainly of women’s support groups, shelters, and hotlines, rather than a coordinated social and legal systemic attack on battering and batterers, which would have a broader reach and likely be more effective.
Women and Homicide
There has been quite a bit of research done on women who kill, likely because murder is an aggressive, violent act that falls considerably outside the passive, submissive role expectations for women. This extreme variation has enticed researchers since the nineteenth century. Consequently, social science research provides a significant amount of information on women who kill, and this research paper will attempt to give a useful overview of these findings.
Women do not often kill; in fact, only about 10 percent of homicides in any given year are committed by women. When women kill, they most often kill intimates: husbands, lovers, or children. The large majority of these killings are actually battered women killing their abusers in order to survive (Browne 1987; Dobash, Dobash, Wilson, and Daly 1992; Federal Bureau of Investigation 1993, 1998; Hart 1991, 1996; Ogle and Jacobs 2002). As a result, homicides committed by women, as opposed to those by men, present fairly consistent characteristics and circumstances (Browne 1987; Browne and Williams 1989; Ewing 1987; Goetting 1988; Jones 1980; Jurik and Winn 1990; Ogle and Jacobs 2002; Ogle, Maier-Katkin, and Bernard 1995; Wolfgang 1958). Women most often kill in the home, likely because they spend much more time in the home than men (Goetting 1988; Ogle et al. 1995; Totman 1978). Women generally kill alone without co-conspirators, and their victims have usually provoked the homicidal attack (Browne 1987; Ewing 1987; Goetting 1988; Jones 1980; Ogle et al. 1995; Roberts 1996; Wolfgang 1958). These killings generally involve explosive, sudden aggression rather than a planned attack (Browne 1987; Ewing 1987; Goetting 1988; Jones 1980; Ogle et al. 1995; Roberts 1996; Wolfgang 1958). In addition, women killers tend to be more socially conforming and traditional in their sex roles and relationships than other women (Blackman 1988; Browne 1987; Ewing 1987; Goetting 1988; Jones 1980; Ogle et al. 1995; Ogle and Jacobs 2002; Widom 1979). These women often indicate that they were suffering from severe depression and despair when they committed the homicide (Browne 1987; Ewing 1987; Goetting 1988; Jones 1980; Ogle et al. 1995; Ogle and Jacobs 2002; Piven and Cloward 1979; Totman 1978; Widom 1979).
Homicides committed by women of a lower socioeconomic class are higher in number, as are homicides committed by women of color (i.e., about eight murders by a woman of color for every one murder by a white woman) (Block and Christakos 1995; Mercy and Saltzman 1989; Websdale 1999). However, these killings do not vary much from the above pattern (Dawson and Langan 1994; Ewing 1987; Goetting 1988; Jones 1980; Ogle et al. 1995; Ogle and Jacobs 2002). It should be noted that some scholars believe that this difference in homicide rates is a result of socioeconomic status rather than race or ethnicity (Centerwall 1984; Stark and Flitcraft 1996). These patterns represent a rich picture of the characteristics of homicides committed by women and have provided scholars with sufficient information to formulate theories on why battered women kill.
Battering and Homicide
Although there is yet to be agreement among researchers, there is evidence in the research to support the existence of two types of domestic violence. Johnson (1995) attempts to delineate these two specific types of battering relationships: (1) common couple violence and (2) patriarchal terrorism. Common couple violence involves minor violence and reciprocity of assaults between partners. In other words, both parties participate in the violence toward each other. This type of violence occurs less often and generally only when the couple is experiencing an extremely stressful situation. Patriarchal terrorism involves the victim being systematically terrorized by the other partner. In this type of battering, the violence is both more serious and more frequent. The qualitative data on battered women indicate that these may be the cases most likely to escalate to homicides. The most common victim of homicide in a battering relationship is the battering victim. In the United States, about two or three thousand women are killed each year by their batterers. In contrast, only about five hundred battered women kill their abusers each year. There is evidence that these numbers may be decreasing where social and legal resources are more successful (Browne and Williams 1989; Bureau of Justice Statistics 1998; Websdale 1999). However, there is also evidence that a significant number of battering homicides may never be recorded as such because the batterer has been successful at hiding the situation, the police fail to record the battering, or the relationship is early in the battering process and these issues remain hidden. It should also be noted that the largest percentage of murdered battered women (about 60 to 70 percent) are killed by their batterers while trying to leave the situation. These are referred to as ‘‘separation attacks’’ (Bachman and Saltzman 1994; Browne 1987; Copelon 1994; Felder and Victor 1996; Klein 1996; Mahoney 1991; Ogle and Jacobs 2002). Of course, there are a significant number of women killed at the climax of a battering incident as well. When battered women kill, it is generally after they have been provoked by their batterers/victims and see no alternative for survival.
Battered Women Who Kill
Battered women live in a world quite different from their non-victimized counterparts. It is a world filled with tension, distrust, violence, and fear. Aldarondo and Straus (1994) identified ten risk factors for marital violence. They note the willingness to use violence at all, dependency, violent behavior outside the home, and physical violence in the family of origin as major factors. They also note the importance of marital rape, possession or use of weapons, abuse or killing of pets, psychological abuse, and threats used to solve problems or control the partner. These characteristics have also been identified by other researchers studying battering in general (Straus and Gelles 1986, 1990; Straus, Gelles, and Steinmetz 1980). While this set of general characteristics of battering relationships indicates an environment of fear and violence, other studies have shown even more difficult circumstances for battered women who kill their abusers.
Research indicates that battered women who kill their abusers live in a world that is even more intimidating. Browne (1987) did a study comparing her sample of battered women who had killed their abusers with Walker’s 1979 sample of battered women who had not killed their abusers. She found several significant differences in the cases of battered women who killed their abusers. She identifies a higher frequency of violence in these cases and more serious injuries as a result. These cases more often involved serious sexual abuse, high levels of isolation of the victim, frequent substance abuse, and frequent threats to kill the victim. She also notes higher levels of hopelessness among these victims, particularly those who had attempted to leave or get assistance and had failed, leaving them feeling entrapped in the violence. This adds support to Johnson’s (1995) claim that there are two types of battering relationships and each has somewhat different characteristics. All of this research has led some scholars to develop theories on battering and battering homicides.
Two Theories on Why Battered Women Kill
Lenore Walker was one of the first scholars to devote her efforts to understanding the battering relationship. In 1979, she published a book detailing the pattern of battering that she discovered from working with battered women. This pattern is referred to as the cycle of battering, or the cycle of violence. This cycle consists of three phases. First, Walker identified a period of tension building in these relationships, where the batterer emotionally abuses the victim with intimidation and threats. Victims generally react to this abusive behavior by attempting to placate the batterer in order to avoid the threatened violence. The second phase consists of the actual battering incident. The third phase consists of contrition, whereby the batterer apologizes for the violence and attempts to convince the victim that it will not happen again, in order to prevent the victim from leaving the relationship. Walker followed up this work in 1984 with a book explaining her theory of why women stay in battering relationships and how this can result in a homicide. This theory is called battered woman syndrome. In this theory, Walker argues that over time, battered women develop learned helplessness. This means that as the cycle reoccurs over time, the battered woman learns that nothing she does has an influence on the battering. It becomes inevitable regardless of her response to the threats. The victim feels helpless and entrapped in the violence. Some victims simply give up and expect to die; others continue in this mode until they believe that they are going to be killed and then resort to killing their abusers in order to survive.
Battered woman syndrome has become well accepted in the legal community as a supplement to self-defense strategies for battered women who have killed their abusers. It is similar to arguing that the battered woman was slowly driven to a form of temporary insanity, resulting in her homicidal behavior. In essence, battered woman syndrome is a partial excuse for committing homicide; however, it is not a legal justification. In other words, it may reduce her responsibility for the homicide and mitigate the punishment, but it does not legally justify the homicide.
Battered woman syndrome has also received significant criticism over the past twenty years. For example, it is hard to argue in court that the defendant made a reasonable decision while claiming that she was temporarily insane. Ogle and Jacobs (2002) argue that this theory focuses only on psychology and only on the victim, as if the victim were the problem to be explained. They claim that this theory ignores all of the cultural, social, structural, and situational variables that are inherent parts of any interaction between people. Consequently, they utilize an interaction perspective to explain battering and escalation to homicide.
Ogle and Jacobs (2002) borrow the cycle of battering from Walker and use it as the framework for understanding how interactions occur over time in a battering relationship and how these interactions might escalate to a homicide. They argue that the tension-building phase creates negative affect (i.e., bad feelings like anger, fear, or despair) for both the batterer and the victim. The batterer temporarily relieves his tension by battering the victim, but the victim lives in a constantly increasing, high state of arousal. When people experience such feelings, they normally utilize their personal coping mechanisms to end the tension or at least manage it. Since women are generally socialized against the use of aggression, they are likely to begin coping by appeasing the batterer to keep him calm and reduce the likelihood of violence. For example, the victim may try to do everything just as the batterer wants it, hoping that this will prevent another beating. When another battering incident occurs, she has learned that her actions will not stop the violence. At this stage, some women will try physical self-defense, which usually results in more serious injuries. But again the batterer will apologize and promise not to do it again. Most women will believe this contrition for a while because they so desperately want it to be true. When the tension building and battering continue to occur, the victim often responds by utilizing her personal coping resources to attempt to end the violence. For example, she may call her parents for advice or talk to a trusted friend about the situation. These coping efforts by the victim will signal a loss of control to the batterer and he will respond by increasing the tension and violence in order to regain complete control of both the victim and the relationship.
As the violence continues, the victim will no longer believe the apologies offered by the batterer. At this point, the contrition phase is going to dissipate or disappear entirely because the victim doesn’t believe it, and therefore it is no longer useful to the batterer. He will focus his control efforts on intimidation, threats, and violence. At this stage, fear significantly increases for the victim. In addition, when contrition disappears from the battering cycle, all that is left is tension building and battering incidents. So, while the batterer relieves his tension by battering, the victim lives in a constant high state of fear waiting for the next threat and beating. In essence, at this stage, there are no non-confrontational periods for the victim— it could happen at any time. Most victims respond reasonably to this escalation by going outside their personal resources to social or public resources for help. This may involve calling the police, a battering hotline, a shelter, a divorce lawyer, or a counselor for assistance. Since public knowledge of the batterer’s behavior can have serious social and criminal justice consequences, he will feel at greater risk than before. The batterer reacts to these victim coping efforts in two ways.
First, he will act to block any further use of these resources. For example, he may threaten to kill the dog or beat the kids if she calls her parents, the police, or a counselor again; sell the car, so she has no transportation; gather up important papers that she would need to have in order to leave; or reduce her access to money. Second, the batterer will react by increasing the frequency and intensity of the violence in order to regain complete control of the victim and the relationship. With each progression of the battering cycle, the chance of desistance by the batterer diminishes because success in regaining and maintaining control is self-reinforcing. In other words, each time the batterer is successful at blocking resource use and regaining control, he is more convinced of his superiority and omnipotence. Ogle and Jacobs (2002) are not arguing that the victim does not experience trauma in this battering process, but rather that it is perfectly reasonable for a victim in this situation to view it as progressively more lethal.
At this point, the victim knows that any effort to utilize outside assistance will put her and her children in an extremely high-risk situation. Most of these victims are very courageous; they will make multiple attempts to obtain outside assistance from social resources and will bear the intensified violence when those resources do not successfully end the battering.
Unfortunately social resources to assist battering victims are not particularly abundant or successful. Battered woman shelters are few and far between and severely underfunded. In the United States, there are three times as many animal shelters as there are battered woman shelters (Senate Judiciary Committee 1992). There are about 1,200 battered woman shelters in the United States serving thousands of women each year, but their services are requested by about two million women each year (ibid.). Having the batterer arrested may create temporary safety, but most victims find themselves later facing an even angrier batterer who is not intimidated by a protection order (Klein 1996). Neighbors don’t call the police when they hear the commotion for fear of violating someone’s privacy or giving the batterer reason to aggress toward them. Clergy and counselors sometimes fail to recognize the level of danger in these situations and convince victims to try to work out differences. Doctors do not always question the victim in a safe environment where she can give honest answers. Worse yet, insurance agencies reserve the right to cancel life and health insurance on women and children living in battering situations; of course, the only way they obtain such information is by the victim-reporting the battering to some social service agency. So in order to get help, battered women have to be willing to be mistreated by the system. Unfortunately, all too often, when battered women do what they are told to do to end the violence, such as use social resources or leave the situation, they are punished by the system, and some are killed by their batterers in separation attacks.
After the victim has made multiple attempts to utilize these social resources and watched them fail, it is not unreasonable to expect the victim to view herself as alone in the situation. It is not unreasonable that she will resign herself to kill or be killed to end the violence. Since women generally are physically smaller and have less strength than their male partners, their self-defense will almost always have to involve a weapon. It is also likely that to be successful in protecting themselves and ending the violence, they will have to act before their batterers initiate one of their attacks, during what the courts call a non-confrontational period. Ogle and Jacobs (2002) argue that if juries were exposed to this interactional information about the battering relationship over time, they would be more willing to accept a self-defense justification for battered women who kill their abusers even if they do so prior to the next attack.
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