Women Who Kill 
by Ann Jones.
Gollancz, 482 pp., £4.99, August 1991, 0 575 05139 6
Show More
Show More

‘The woman who kills is exactly what she is supposed not to be,’ Beatrix Campbell declares in her foreword to Women Who Kill. Killing is reckoned unnatural in a woman, or downright impossible: if she does kill, she isn’t a woman. Unlike men, Ann Jones says, women usually confine themselves to killing their intimates, their husbands, lovers, children. (They are selective, not serial or mass murderers.) And the murders they commit, Beatrix Campbell protests, are ‘not seen in the context of the domination and subordination in which the genders live together but instead it becomes a matter of the perpetrator’s abnormal character.’ What weight is to be given to circumstance, what to character, is always a ricky problem. Beatrix Campbell is less convincing when she says that Myra Hindley might have helped us to understand the conditions in which women are likely to participate in the sexual abuse of children, but was never given the chance ‘because she was buried beneath a plethora of fantasies about transgressive femininity’. This strikes me as rather worse than obscurely expressed: it was the children who were buried.

One of Ann Jones’s ends, the foreword says, is to challenge the incorrect thinking of some feminists who have shared stereotypes of femininity instead of rejecting them, who have represented women as life-givers instead of life-takers, thus denying them the authorship of their own acts. Hence, when she observes that there are very few women who commit murder (in the USA they account for 10 to 15 per cent of homicides), and then asks, What makes women so admirably peaceable?’, we might fancy that she is ironically uttering a complaint. In this sphere, too, women are underprivileged. Perhaps not a few of us, or of us men, will have thought of women in those terms, as givers of life, and sustainers of it. We have supposed that in the main women are too sensitive to the value of life to make ready murderers, and that killing was an occupation for men. So wc admired women for the wrong reasons. If we should still want to keep that admiration, what would be the right, great reasons?

Presumably the most famous female murderers of history have been ruled out because they were recorded or even invented by males. Judith decapitated the Assyrian general Holofernes in his tent and with his own sword; she did this for the sake of her country, no doubt ruled by patriarchs, and became a national heroine. Jael killed the Canaanite captain Sisera in her tent by hammering a convenient nail into his temples while he slept; this was highly pleasing to Jehovah. It is a truism that poisoning is women’s favourite mode of operation, although this could be an instance of one gender stereotype breeding another, since a woman’s place is in the kitchen, surrounded by jars and pots containing an assortment of substances, some less life-giving than others. (During a trial in 1850, cited here, the prosecutor characterised poisoning as ‘the most horrid and detestable crime’ because you couldn’t see it coming and ‘no manhood could resist it.’) Sisera was exhausted by fleeing from the field of battle, so Jael didn’t need to drug the milk she gave him; and Holofernes had been drinking heavily, which made Judith’s task easier. Cleopatra drew a knife on the messenger who brought news of Antony’s marriage, but he skipped off. ‘These hands do lack nobility,’ she then reproached herself, ‘that they strike a meaner than myself’: also she wanted the messenger alive, to hear from him that Octavia was old and ugly. Lady Macbeth would have killed Duncan as he slept, except that he resembled her father; she did at least incriminate the grooms by smearing them with blood, though later she was troubled with thick-coming fancies that kept her from her rest. And in real, recent life, in July 1991 Julie Cheema of Hounslow, aged 44, was given a life sentence for involvement, at some remove, in the murder of her wealthy husband; she had conspired with her 19-year-old lover and her 18-year-old son, and financed the purchase of a shotgun with which a 21-year-old male friend of her lover did the slaying.

One of the many cases related here tells how in Pennsylvania in 1832 Lucretia Chapman, who had fallen in love with a dark handsome young stranger, was found not guilty of poisoning her husband: in part, it seems, because she was a female, ‘a female, with whose character we are ever accustomed to associate all that is lovely in tenderness, affection and fidelity’ (argument by the defence), and because she was herself of good character, giddy, foolish, vain and weak (‘it was in the nature of weak women to fall’ – the defence again), but not criminal. Feminists won’t approve of this line of reasoning; nor of the prosecution’s inane claim that Lucretia had once told her husband to help their young daughter make the bed, and a woman who would compel a man ‘to make the bed in which he sleeps’ could only be moved by the ‘feelings of a savage or a demon’. The handsome stranger, a busy conman whom she had since married in secret, was hanged. He wasn’t the first man to be punished for a murder instigated or committed by a woman, Ann Jones comments. ‘When a man and woman seemed to be accomplices in murder, men found it reassuring to pin the crime on the man and to ignore the woman’s motives and her ability to act.’ The nature of the insult is clarified: if women were ‘in practice’ dead to the criminal law (i.e. comparatively immune to it), this was linked to their being dead to the civil law (i.e. having no rights). A contingent irony is not lost: ‘Radical feminists found themselves oddly aligned with conservative legal theoreticians in demanding equal justice, but their reasoned arguments were lost on high-minded and chivalrous patriarchs.’ It was a man-made trade-off; behind chivalry stands contempt.

A pleasanter irony, also involving chivalry, arises in the story of Margaret Nicholson, a seamstress, who in 1786 approached George III with a written petition and, concealed beneath it, a knife. ‘The king was saved by his exceedingly fine manners,’ for as he took the petition he bowed deeply to the woman and avoided the knife. Miss Nicholson claimed that she hadn’t intended to stab him, only to frighten him into granting the petition, but the latter was found to be blank paper. Judging her mentally disturbed, the king magnanimously committed her to the care of one of his messengers ‘who, for lack of anything else to do with her, took her to his home in Half Moon Street’. End of story. (Once I opened a car door for a young woman and she fell out; she said she was taken by surprise, it hadn’t happened to her before; she seemed not displeased; but that was some time ago.) It was because it was a little too late for Miss Nicholson to be packed off to the American colonies that she had to be accommodated in Half Moon Street, and her story serves to introduce a chapter on the transportation of felons to America; perhaps one in three of these were women. That in 1772 a woman in London was hanged for stealing bread to feed her children is appalling; crimes against property have commonly drawn disproportionately heavy punishments, so possibly transportation was reckoned too good for her. The boy in Joseph Andrews (1742), transported for robbing a hen-roost, was lucky; perhaps in real life, being a man, he would have been deemed more useful as a labourer. Yet women were acceptable as servants, wives, prostitutes; not surprisingly, some of them committed further crimes; not surprisingly, some killed their husbands or their children: in one case a three-year-old daughter, to save her from ‘future misery’.

In New York in 1978 Bernadette Powell shot her ex-husband Herman Smith, by accident, she stated, while attempting to remove his gun from his trousers as he lay in a drunken stupor. During their marriage he had repeatedly assaulted her, and subsequently they had rowed over their young son. In court the waters were thoroughly muddied, to put it mildly. On the point of the beatings, District Attorney Joch countered by suggesting that she got her kicks that way: ‘Do you know what a masochist is?’ When the woman’s brother spoke of breaking up one attack, Joch enquired as to whether Smith’s penis was ‘out’ at the time; no gloss is offered, but presumably a state of sexual excitement would be held to extenuate, if not legitimise, the man’s behaviour. Revolting, but orthodox in adversarial procedure, as the television series LA Law demonstrates. (We also gather from the series that, apart from the exceptionally avaricious, only sadists, twisters, ham actors and other weirdos ever enter the profession.) Ann Jones adds that locked in the files of the New York Supreme Court was the transcript, a mere month old, of proceedings in which Joch’s own wife was granted a divorce on the grounds of repeated brutality. Bernadette Powell was convicted of second-degree murder and given a gaol sentence of 15 years to life.

Women have been the victims of terrible miscarriages of justice. That men have too could be said to be beside the point. It isn’t. But in the face of wife-beating the consideration must be put aside, temporarily. (On the question of support for abused husbands, Ann Landers, a columnist, wrote: ‘I’m sure more men beat up their wives than the other way around, but if you think there is a need for a Shelter for Battered Husbands, gather together those of like mind and get one going. I’m working the other side of the street, Mister.’) In 1990 Sara Thornton of Warwickshire was convicted of murdering her violent husband by stabbing him with a kitchen knife, and sentenced to life imprisonment. In July of the present year the Court of Appeal refused to reduce the conviction to manslaughter, holding that she could not plead provocation since there was no evidence of her having suffered a sudden and temporary loss of control. The moral seems odd: if a husband attacks a wife, perhaps just once, and she reacts immediately, killing him on the spur of the moment, ‘in hot blood’, she is guilty of manslaughter; if a husband attacks a wife regularly, over a period of time, and the wife, whose distress has grown cumulatively, kills him in what is considered cold or coldish blood, she is guilty of murder. Is premeditation necessarily more shameful than not pausing to think? Which woman has suffered the more, which man has inflicted the greater suffering? It shouldn’t be left to feminists to protest; according to newspaper reports, one man in court shouted ‘Shame on you’ when the decision was announced and was rebuked by the appeal judge. That the trial judge who originally convicted Mrs Thornton was a Mr Justice Judge sounds like a sick joke.

While Ann Jones is perfectly within her rights, her citing of egregious loons gives them a new and undeserved lease of half-life. Lombroso, for example, and the unnamed person, perhaps one of Darwin’s ‘popularisers’, who asserted that woman was ‘simply a lesser man ... an affectionate and docile animal, of inferior grade’. Orson Fowler, a phrenologist and ‘sexual scientist’, is rightly ticked off for his concept of gender, but in talking of seduced women (1870) he was not remote from part of the present book’s drift:

Behold her clinging, even to her betrayer, with a devotedness bordering on madness! Rendered a complete wreck in mind and body, by arts however diabolical, one would expect her to arm herself with fiendish vengeance, and drink his heart’s blood; yet behold how fondly she embraces him, still delighting to serve him, even to the utmost that complete devotedness can possibly devise! ... She is utterly regardless of self, and patient under all the misery she suffers, because they are inflicted by him, yet devoted still. Completely wrapped up in him, she meekly endures any and every torture he inflicts!

Except that Fowler was a male confirming expected female behaviour, and his rhetoric savours more of emotion (not to mention hand-rubbing) than of reason. As late as 1950, seemingly in a book published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, Otto Pollak maintained that women committed at least as many crimes as men, but their crimes rarely got into the records: clever enough to hide menstruation and fake orgasms, women could lie about anything, and once menstruation destroyed ‘their hope ever to become a man’, lie and cheat and kill they would. All one can do is ask that Pollak should be thought of not as a man but as a madman.

We are in the sphere of the alienist. In 1931 Ernest Jones wrote of the witchcraft epidemic and the persecution of witches: ‘The behaviour of the Church in ascribing all manner of unworthy traits to women, and even debating whether she [sic] had a soul at all or was merely a beast, was without question due to its degrading attitude towards sexuality in general, and was a manifestation of a morbid misogynous revulsion produced by extreme repression.’ The upshot, he continued, was the turning of fear and hate against a certain class of women, ‘against those who were either strongly sexual or else filled with hate themselves from dissatisfaction’. A rich source of hate in men was the belief that witches fornicated with the Devil. Weren’t ordinary men good enough for them? (If not, it was because, as was well known, witches brought about impotence.) A vengeful and consolatory feature, I imagine, was the thought that the witches couldn’t enjoy it much; an icy coming they would have of it. Incidentally, Otto Pollak’s ingenuity almost matches that of the inquisitorial authors of the Malleus Maleficarum (1484), who contended that the very first woman was formed from a bent rib and ‘through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.’ They contrived an inspired etymology for the word femina, deriving it from fe and minus, since woman is ‘ever weaker to hold and preserve the faith’. The true derivation is from feo, ‘fruitful’, whence also fecundus, ‘life-giving’.

It isn’t easy to be sure what the purpose of Women Who Kill exactly is. The cases discussed speak for themselves, as clearly as can be in matters of this nature, horrifying, sickening. That women have had, and have, good cause to kill there is no doubt. The tone of the commentary is one of grievance, persistent but not always well defined. It is the succinct proposal of Wendell Phillips (1859), quoted halfway through the book, that helps to bring the argument into sharp focus: ‘You have granted that woman may be hung, therefore you must grant that woman may vote.’ An occasional touch of humour lightens the darkness without trivialising: one female prisoner, whose shotgun went off accidentally, told the author, ‘When I get out of here, I’ll never have a gun around the house again,’ whereupon another, who had hired a hit man, interposed: ‘If I ever get out of here, I’ll never have a man around the house again.’

There is a sense, not I think paranoiacally imagined, that the mildest dissenter, the mere questioner, can’t win. On the one hand, women convicted of killing their husbands have been treated more harshly than men convicted of killing their wives. On the other, the ‘social fathers’ who wanted to deal leniently with women killers were implicitly inverting Wendell Phillips’s pronouncement, were in effect saying: ‘If we don’t send a woman to the gallows, then we don’t have to let her go to the ballot-box.’ Beatrix Campbell’s opening remark, ‘The woman who kills is exactly what she is supposed not to be,’ is mirrored in Ann Jones’s claim, tout court, that ‘the story of women who kill is the story of women.’ Such generalisations, so impressive at first sight or sound, are the stuff of ideology. And the danger with ideology is that, driven by anger, it grows blind to particularities, it ignores whatever is ‘beside the point’, it divides and estranges, until, losing its primal inspiration, it becomes autonomous and self-serving, for it will serve nothing and no one but itself.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences