Amy Bishop, Etc. — Women Are Violent. Women Kill. This Is Why

Cover of "Blown Away: American Women and ...
Cover of Blown Away: American Women and Guns

It is not common for women to kill. Typically, we only murder those closest to us — partners, lovers, husbands or children. But we do. For some reason, this results in confusion.

From The New York Times, another think-piece on Amy Bishop, the University of Alabama professor who recently shot and killed three of her colleagues:

But the landscape of unprovoked but premeditated female violence remains strangely unexplored. Women who kill are “relegated to an ‘exceptional case’ status that rests upon some exceptional, or untoward killing circumstance: the battered wife who kills her abusive husband; the postpartum psychotic mother who kills her newborn infant,” Candice Skrapec, a professor of criminology, noted in “The Female Serial Killer,” an essay included in the anthology “Moving Targets: Women, Murder and Representation” (1994).

Ms. Skrapec was writing at a time when Hollywood seemed preoccupied with women who commit crimes — in productions like “The Burning Bed,” the 1984 television film in which a battered wife finally sets her sleeping husband aflame, and “Thelma & Louise” (1991), in which a pair of women go on a outlaw spree after one of them is threatened with rape.

Both are essentially exculpatory parables of empowerment, anchored in feminist ideology. Their heroines originate as victims, pushed to criminal excesses by injustices done to them. The true aggressors are the men who mistreat and objectify them. So too with “Monster” (2003), in which Charlize Theron, in a virtuosic instance of empathy (and cosmetic makeover) re-enacted the story of Aileen Wuornos, a real-life prostitute who, after years of sexual abuse, began murdering her clients.

A decade or two ago this all made sense. The underworld of domestic abuse and sexual violence was coming freshly to light. And social arrangements were undergoing abrupt revision. The woman who achieved hard-won success in the workplace might well find herself, like the lonely stalker played by Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction” (1987), tormented by the perfect-seeming family of the married man with whom she enjoys a weekend fling.

Much has changed since then, but the topic of women and violence — especially as represented by women — remains more or less in a time warp, bound by the themes of sexual and domestic trauma, just as male depictions of female violence are locked in the noir demimonde of fantasy, the slinky femmes fatales once played by Barbara Stanwyck and Lana Turner more or less duplicated by Kathleen Turner and Sharon Stone.

Why? Because the narratives remain consistently framed by men.

This review of my book, written by a female professor of sociology, writing in “Violence Against Women,” an academic journal, gets it.

“Kelly provides a forum for diverse women’s experiences, analyses, and convictions. Her wide-ranging interviews, of course, bring women’s voices into the debate. At a deeper level, this book provides a kind of dialogue-on-paper that is almost impossible to create in real life, where listening carefully to proponents of profoundly different positions can seem impossible. Kelly does not merely bring women’s voices into the record; she puts women’s often conflicting ideas and perspectives into conversation with each other in a way that makes this book the foundation for future dialogues.”

I spent several years researching and thinking about my book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”. I traveled across the country, spoke to 104 men, women and teens from 29 states, of all races and income levels, including legislators, those working in law enforcement and the judiciary.

I also bring a personal empathy to the desperation that can lead to female violence. In 1998, I became a victim of psychological violence at the hands of a convicted felon, a man whose predatory behavior directed at me — involving at least six potential felonies — was deemed insufficiently interesting for local police or the district’s attorney’s office to investigate.

It is hard to overstate the rage, fury and impotence their contempt had upon me, as this indifference has had upon other women, here and elsewhere. A terrified, angry woman is not someone many people are eager to listen to.

Were I a different woman, my choice may well have echoed Bishop’s.

As a woman, a crime victim, and an author, then, I wanted to bear witness to some of this. I wanted to listen to women and tell their stories, unmediated by dogma, fantasy and myth.

I learned a great deal about when, where, how and why a woman decides to aim and fire a gun at someone she believes lethal to her. There is, still, for many of us, a longstanding and deeply comforting attachment to a Victorian ideal of women —“the angel in the house” — the civilizing, organizing, calming, soothing principle of every fine family.

How often flings for nought, and yokes
Her heart to an icicle or whim,
Whose each impatient word provokes
Another, not from her, but him;
While she, too gentle even to force
His penitence by kind replies,
Waits by, expecting his remorse,
With pardon in her pitying eyes;
And if he once, by shame oppress’d,
A comfortable word confers,
She leans and weeps against his breast,
And seems to think the sin was hers;

As if.

Women are as angry and fed up and worn out as men — by economic inequality, by sexism, by lack of access to decent health care, maternity policies, childcare, equitable divorce or property settlements. We are verbally, physically and emotionally attacked in the home and in the workplace, whether by “microinsults” (the “little” daily snipes we’re meant to laugh off) or by terrifying specifics, like a husband or live-in partner’s constant threat of removing  or even killing of a child or pet.

Every single day in the U.S., three American women will die at the hands of an intimate, usually a husband, partner or ex. Some women will kill first to defend their own lives. France is now considering a new law to address the more subtle, and much more difficult issue, of verbal threat — which, as anyone expert in the sad field of domestic violence will tell you — is every bit as toxic as physical abuse, as it is impossible to prove and shows no bruises to police.

From The New York Times:

PARIS — France’s National Assembly approved Thursday night a proposal to add “psychological violence” to a law intended to help victims of physical violence and abuse, despite doubts that the law is specific enough to have much impact.

The proposed law says that to “act or repeatedly say things that could damage the victim’s life conditions, affect his/her rights and his/her dignity or damage his/her physical or mental health” is punishable by a jail term of up to three years and a fine of up to 75,000 euros, or about $103,000. Carefully covering both genders, the law applies to behavior toward a wife, husband, partner or concubine.

Danielle Bousquet, a Socialist, and Guy Geoffroy, a member of the ruling center-right Union for a Popular Movement, wrote the draft law, supported by 30 other legislators. It received backing last November from the government and Prime Minister François Fillon, who called it “very significant progress.”

The new law, Mr. Fillon said, “will allow people to take into account the most insidious situations, which don’t leave a mark to the naked eye but can mutilate the victim’s inner self.” He called the issue “a great national cause,” and the government has started a series of commercials on television to sensitize viewers to conjugal violence, especially against women.

Ms. Bousquet, 64, said that psychological violence could be gradual. “In the beginning, there are only slight offenses, a husband who is a little too insistent and domineering with his wife, but then the husband’s ascendancy becomes more prominent and each time the victim strikes back, the tone changes and physical violence can set in,” she said in an interview together with Mr. Geoffroy.

That Amy Bishop could kill — a woman who clearly had a long violent history that went un-punished — should be surprising to anyone is in itself deeply naive.

However much it shocks or horrifies male observers (as it seems to), there are women as loaded and primed with latent violence as men, as fully ready to kill. And women know it.

Like Patricia Pearson, author of “When She Was Bad: The Myth of Female Innocence”, and Ann Jones, author of “When Women Kill.”

It will happen again. Count on it.

7 thoughts on “Amy Bishop, Etc. — Women Are Violent. Women Kill. This Is Why

  1. ultimategreg

    I’ve long been annoyed by how the media portrays female murderers as having “snapped” while male murderers are monsters. Women killers don’t always have to be motivated by sympathetic factors. Like male murderers, I think selfishness, delusional thinking, and a sense of entitlement push many women to the edge.

    I understand someone defending themselves from an attacker, but feeling wronged by the economy or hating your job is not a reason to kill. The world never promised anyone anything.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    I agree. My larger point is that women are as enraged and disturbed as the men who shoot up college campuses, high schools, their former employers and their famililies, often killing their wife and children in utter annihilation.

    There has long been some sustaining fantasy that women are somehow immune to murderous rage, that we retain a patience and self-control beyond that of men.

    Women who kill, most typically, do not “snap” — but, as the top defense lawyer on these cases told me, it becomes a battlefield decision. The man who abuses them daily is about to kill them and they act to save their own

    Until you examine the hideous pathololgy of “normal” domestic violence, it looks bizarre.

    Bishop did not fit the standard profile. It’s one reason her behavior seems so shocking as a result. But I remain intrigued by the idea she perceived her loss of tenure as abuse, perhaps in some similar way.

    My goal is exploring this, not excusing it.

  3. leonkelly

    Some people are bad from the day they enter this world. Amy Bishop just might be one of those kind of people. It may have nothing to do with men or her troubled life. Everything out there about Timothy McVeigh indicates that he was fascinated with killing people. The man liked sending people to their death. The same is true with Doctor Kevorkian, who uses his position as a physician to explore his own personal fascination with killing. There is not necessarily a complex societal/environmental explanation for the existence killers.

  4. fuzzywuzzy

    It is a shame that it takes an outlier like Amy Bishop to bring light to this issue, however, by very definition, it weakens your argument.

    Amy Bishop, like Diane Schuler (who drove drunk and killed 8 people) get a free pass. The things that drove these people to their murderous rages are the same issues that millions, yes millions of men, women and children put up with day after day in society, yet we can count the ones on one hand that lose it and act on their ‘frustrations’. This is very misguided, it should be the silent ones, living with and dealing with the problems that should be focused on.

    To use these obviously highly mentally disturbed people as examples only makes it clear how beyond the pale their behavior is. Sure, we have all had raging feelings of being mistreated, not getting what we deserve, etc… but for 99.99999% of us it inspires us to overcome the abuse, make ourselves better and get on with our lives.

    No one gets the pass to commit murder under any scenario, I couldn’t care less what stresses this PhD was under, or Diane Schuler with her six figure income. What about the people constantly under mind numbing stress that don’t lose it, or the poor and minority victims of discrimation and abuse who put up with it? Or oppressed people worldwide who are victimized by their governments and live with nothing but fear.

    These women are siezed upon by the media simply because they are white upper middle class and make an easy example to frighten us all of what is all around us, waiting to snap.

    In both these cases, the women had histories going back almost 30 years that contributed to their actions. Diane Schuler pretended her mother was dead for 27 years, refusing to talk to her since she left the family when she was 9 years old. I her case the media went on a 6 month diatribe about secret alcholic mothers. Get a clue, this woman was not even an alcholic, she was mentally disturbed and used alcohol that particular day to numb her pain as she commited murder/suicide.

    Amy Bishop has obviously had a long history of anti-social behavior too. These people didn’t snap, they were on this path all their lives and no one stopped them, or worse, they enabled them.

    To even put these people in the same category as the rest of us, just waiting to snap makes me sick. See it for what it is, prejudice.

  5. Steve Weinberg

    Like any human being–female or male–who wants to kill, Amy Bishop would have found it difficult without access to a gun. Would she have become a mass murderer on a university campus if her weapon had been a knife or scissors? Unlikely.

    The corrupt, shameful laissez faire attitude within the U.S. Congress and every state legislature regarding gun possession means lots more “Amy Bishops” will emerge, along with “Joe Bishops.”

    The gun “rights” (quotation marks intentional) lobby says condescendingly that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” But everybody understands that guns make it much, much easier for people to kill people. Will legislators ever approve policies that make gun possession the exception instead of the rule? Solutions abound, as other nations have shown over and over. Legislators will apparently never explore those solutions, however, unless a mass of voters demands decreasing homicide by gun. Why have voters who care about the sanctity of life refused to defeat legislators who encourage widespread access to guns? I wish I knew.

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    The answer to that question is in my book, but one of the key issues of gun ownership or attitudes to it is regional and cultural. There are places in the U.S. where it is quite unexceptional to own a gun, or many, whether for sport, hunting, work or self-defense. I live in NY and attitudes shift hugely within 100 miles as you move from issues of urban crime to upstate hunting. Legislators must contend with wide disparities of opinion, in addition to the hunting industry/revenue that is key for some of them.

    More people will die today from their (mis) use of motor vehicles than through firearms — This is one reason thlings are as they are. With 30 percent of American homes already containing a firearm, the horse has already left the barn, so to speak.

    Americans feel very strongly that gun ownership is a matter of individual choice and legislators see and bow to that. It is uniquely American, and I do not imagine it changing any time soon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s