Monday, January 26, 2009

Gender and Identity in Women on Death Row in the United States

Jessica Mason
WS 305 Gender and the Custodial State
Dr. Catherine Fisher Collins - University at Buffalo
May 9 2005

Strapping Down Deviance and Preserving Heteronormativity:
Gender and Identity in Women on Death Row in the United States

Pre-Execution Madness: Life on Death Row

At sixty years of age, Donna Marie Roberts awaits death in a windowless cell no larger than a closet. Until Ohio newspapers exposed, what they described as “medieval” conditions, Robert’s cell was lit 24 hours a day and was without hot water (“The Forgotten Population” 13). Making matters worse, Roberts is the only woman currently awaiting death in Ohio. Her solitary presence on death row exaggerates the already stark isolation and sensory deprivation in the correctional institution. Where there are more men at the Mansfield Correctional Institution, there are larger cells, windows, and working televisions. She is afforded none of the above luxuries, and even during what is supposed to be a period of recreation, she is still alone in her secluded portion of the recreation yard (“Forgotten” 13). Because Roberts is a female offender on death row, her visibility is diminished and her sanity is at risk. Though the institution may be meeting its requirements on paper, anyone observing such desolate conditions would recognize their ineffectiveness and austerity. When she is executed, she will be the second woman in Ohio to be put to death since 1954 (Streib 18). As her name appears on lists and in academic research, her personality and her story are not present. Unfortunately, it is far too easy for Donna Marie Roberts, and women like her, to become another statistic. Women on death row desperately need a voice in our society. As prisoners of various races, ethnicities, sexualities, classes, and genders, they need empowerment and uncorrupt exposure to counter the oppressive patriarchal forces working against them.

Strikingly similar to the everyday isolation that Donna Marie Roberts faces on death row, Maureen McDermott spends 23 hours a day in a 6 by 12 foot cell at the nation’s largest women’s prison in Frontera, California. McDermott faces a death sentence for a financially motivated plot for murder: hiring a man to kill her roommate. Her privileges are fewer, her restrictions are greater, and she is more isolated than any man on death row in California (Whitney 16). The invisibility of women on death row accounts for the blatant abuse of their living conditions. Discrepancies between men’s and women’s prisons, along with general conditions of overcrowding, inadequate medical care, vermin influx, and sexual assault within the prison walls cry out for attention (Whitney 16).

While President Bush and the United States government continue spending money and sending troops to war for the “purpose” of establishing systems of democracy in Iraq, rates of imprisonment are the highest they have ever been in our own country. In fact, the United States currently has the highest incarceration rates in the world. In 1999 for every 100,000 citizens in the U.S., 615 were incarcerated, and the numbers continue to grow (Girshick 17). The low number of women on death row is one factor that renders the prison population invisible. Unsurprisingly what follows the combination of women and low numbers are poor conditions and poor treatment.

Gendered Barriers & Invisible Needs

Whether she is labeled a femme fatale, a black widow, a man-hating lesbian, or a neurotic mother, the female criminal is unfairly subjected to a plethora of male-centered, prejudiced, and politically motivated abuses. Women on death row in the United States suffer from severe forms of dehumanization, sexual bias and invisibility arising from socially and politically corrupt motivations. As a group, women on death row are entrenched in serious isolation. The plight of female prisoners desperately needs attention and action from the government and the public. This is not an easy task, considering that the layers of injustice requiring exposure and analysis have grown out of centuries of deliberate suppressive practices against women. The problems that women on death row face are symptoms of male-domination throughout the country and around the world.

Heteronormativity is a concept that describes standards created by white, heterosexual males, for the benefit of white heterosexual males. Men have subjugated societies and cultures for centuries, but the white, heterosexual male fulfills the ultimate form of domination in the United States. Slowly, women of different backgrounds and social statuses have entered into oppressed areas of society, but we have a long way to go to achieve goals of liberty, equality and justice for all. Women on death row represent the core of women’s oppression: invisibility and silence. They are a minority among minorities, and as such, they are at an unparalleled disadvantage. The criminal justice system is the central means of upholding ideals of democracy and equality, but it is filled with gendered bias and other prejudices. With the majority of law makers, enforcers, breakers, and interpreters being male, it is no surprise that “masculinist assumptions” are integrated into criminal justice processes (Keitner 39). Although statistics do not represent the entire truth or the voices of incarcerated females, they do provide a surface indication of the role that gender plays in the criminal justice system. Changing gender issues may account for the increasing number of incarcerated women in the United States, because despite the growing figures, women’s overall criminality is not making a parallel transformation (Covington 3). It is important to analyze both statistics and social observations with an awareness of the male-centered beliefs that have shaped gender roles, as well as the way that gender plays out in social and criminological spheres.

Gender and Other Diversities on Death Row

Gender is a social construction used to identify and categorically place individuals into modes of behavior that exist within a framework. In the United States, this framework is a patriarchal one. Gender, therefore, has taken on characteristics to fit the patriarchal model. For instance, the confusion of sexual organs with gender is a result of this patriarchal, suppressive model that controls the behavior of women by placing them in a repressive dichotomy and labeling any challenges to the structure as deviant. Unlike sex, gender is very powerful because it indicates a chosen identity and represents selfhood. Unfortunately, gender has been exploited by stereotypes created by men, and demanding autonomy often results in being labeled or punished in different forms of discriminatory treatment that is sanctioned by the patriarchal government. Gender can be self-identified, but it can also be corrupted by outside influences. Prejudice attitudes towards women on death row further complicate the troubles that female inmates face. Declaring yourself or being labeled “gender neutral” is often unfairly interpreted as being of a male orientation (Covington 5). This works against women on trial and carries dangerous consequences in trials involving capital punishment. Women charged with violent crimes are prime targets of gendered oppression because their crimes defy patriarchal expectations. Gender sensitivity is necessary in the criminal justice system, but only when a woman in is control of her identity and will not be punished for fitting or defying the role that she chooses to identify with, if she chooses to identify with any at all.

Arising out of gender classifications are gender stereotypes, or traditional ideals that serve to control the behavior of women using strict images and messages of masculine and feminine appropriateness. Challenges to gender stereotypes need to be made publicly outside of the criminal justice system in order to have positive affects within the system. If challenges are not made, rigid gender norms of femininity will continue to control the fates of female offenders, especially violent female offenders (Bosworth 60). Women inside prisons need exposure from agents who are motivated by the desire to protect women from the patriarchal and political corruptness existing behind the prison walls.

Artistically motivated fictional and media constructed narratives bring women on death row into the public eye, but these efforts are frequently motivated by financial gain. Court TV airs “Snapped,” a crime show on America’s violent females. The slant that Court TV producers use is the depiction of seemingly innocent (or “normal”) females who suddenly break down, committing shocking and brutal crimes for money, jealousy and other stereotypically feminine motives. The network’s exaggeration of the shock value in each case it explores is one sign of their awareness of the public’s fascination with the merging of violence and women. The public is eager to identify a motive involving a case where a woman kills (Birch 5). In order to spark the interest of the imagination, media sources use gender stereotypes to fill us with more suspicion and fear over the unknown, pulling audiences into the cycle of oppression. Media depictions of violent women are filled with biases and stereotypes that sway the interpretation of the observer in a misleading manner. Politically motivated media sources know how and when to expose their version of a woman on death row. Often, the population is made visible only when execution is looming (Schulberg 284). Even inside the court room, prosecutors and defendants make scrupulous efforts to transform fact into fiction, generating narratives that either create or destroy sympathy in the jurors. It is no surprise, under these circumstances, that gender bias plays an integral role in the sentencing of women convicted of violent crimes.

Bad Mommies & Other Media Made Monsters: Ridding the Established Social Order of Nameless Deviants

We are all human, regardless of where we fall along the spectrum of appropriateness in thought or behavior. Criminals become target individuals who have fallen victim in the name of establishing and maintaining social order and gender appropriateness in society. While it is easy to label a deviant individual ‘evil’ from a distance, it is harder to do so with personal knowledge of the individual. From the trial to the last meal, the death penalty is a very ritualistic process. An illusion of safety is created by the sacrificial killing, but this is only possible because the community has somehow separated itself from the offender (Morgan 293). The multimedia obsession with the sacrifice and the steps taken in preparation for the killing are primitive behaviors. In a way, the sacrifice transforms the criminal into the victim. The identities of women who kill either undergo media transformations or are virtually invisible to the public eye.

Mothers and lesbians are targeted by the media because their actions deviate from powerful, social norms. A woman’s actions may have nothing to do with her sexuality or her role as a mother, but because she is a lesbian or a mother, her sexuality and motherhood becomes inextricably tied into her offense. Defying motherhood becomes a crime even worse than murder, and is severely looked down upon and punished so as to prevent future defiance of the roles that women are assigned according to patriarchal values. When Ana Maria Cardona was on trial for the beating and murder of her three-year-old son, she was exploited through the connection made between the womb (motherhood) and her crime. Attorneys worked to paint an image of a monster, using ideals of “benevolent motherhood” to make their arguments (Keitner 42).

In Moriarty and Freiberger’s essay, “Classifying Female Serial Killers: An Application of Prominent Typologies,” an appendix lists names of female serial killers. Surveying myself and my partner, I found that out of sixty names, only three were familiar to us. Only one, Aileen Wuornos, was clearly recognizable, and this is precisely because of the films and books that had come out close to and after her death. Wuronos, who has been and is falsely regarded as the first female serial killer in America (Moriarty 486), was crucified by the news media for her strident personality, promiscuity, alternative sexual preference, and for having had multiple male victims. Her trials and execution are prime examples of how gender stereotypes work against women on trial for murder.

Sexual orientation also plays a major role in the prosecution and sentencing of women. When Nick Broomfield, the co-director of, Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer, claimed that eighty percent of women on death row are lesbians (Esther 38), he did not have the statistics to substantiate his claim. As a person who had been working closely with Aileen before her death, his observation is significant because it suggests that studies and surveys should be conducted regarding sexuality to determine if there are any patterns in the way that sexual identity plays out in sentencing. In cases where alternative sexualities are present, they are used against the defendant by the prosecution, and this is possible due to prejudices that jury members often carry toward “marginalized” groups. Statistics regarding the relationship between sexuality and capital punishment have not been collected because of fears over inaccuracy (Esther 38). Although it is difficult to address a human characteristic that is not necessarily visible on the exterior, it is still crucial to do so. Women are given plenty of extraneous labels when they are on trial for murder, so allowing women to have a choice in how they identify would at least provide them with some power and autonomy. Wanda Jean Allen and Aileen Wuornos were both exploited because of their visible sexualities, but this was done for different purposes and in different ways. By making their sexualities an issue in the courtroom, prosecutors defeminized both women. The gender stereotype which equates women with femininity, gentility and passivity allows for the prosecution to use sexuality and violence as factors which turn the women into defiant outcasts of society. Wanda Jean Allen became a symbol of the death penalty due to her poor status and low IQ. Despite her defense team’s efforts to prove her metal deficiency, she became the first African American woman to be executed since 1954 (Kirby 26). In Allen’s case, the prosecutor used a male image to transform her into death sentence material, focusing on the dynamics of her relationship with her lesbian lover and describing her as the one who “wore the pants in her family,”(Esther 38).Whereas Wanda Jean Allen was a lesbian killing another lesbian, Aileen Wuornos was an even greater threat to traditional gender ideals because she was a lesbian who killed men (Esther 39). Wuornos posed a threat to men, which complicated the gender stereotypes working against her even further. Not only were these women punished for murder, but also for their gender transgressions.

Aside from media depictions of violent women, scholarly writing about women on death row is scant (Schulberg 277). Statistical data can only do so much when it comes to challenging long existing patriarchal structures. This is best illustrated in the difficulty that scholars face in trying to gather statistical information on sexuality among death row inmates. Women who kill are prime targets for exploitation by the court and the media. In each case involving a woman who kills, the narrative is distorted over time, becoming exaggerated in certain aspects and minimized in others. Ignorance and myth create notions of violent woman being “evil monsters,” but violent women are not monsters, they are first and foremost humans, and they have diverse histories and feelings just as women who are not imprisoned do (Lloyd 190). Having a forum where women can interact with the public is necessary, but it does not come without a price. The same mode of communication for which women find support can be used against them.

A woman on death row is manipulated by the gendered roles that are prescribed to her, as well as the goals of lawyers involved in the case, and this causes confusions in how she identifies and how the jury views her. Women who commit murder are processed through the courts until they assume a position in either the category of badness or madness (Birch 5). Because of gender stereotypes that prescribe femininity to women, prosecutorial lawyers have to paint a black and white picture to convince the jurors to sentence a woman to death. Regardless of sex or gender identities, this court room motive is not realistic. Execution is a process of revenge, but even more so, it is a political act (Tendia 8). Likewise, there are political motivations behind the criminalization, defeminization, and dehumanization of women who kill. Women are complex beings with different struggles and personalities. Narratives of women who end up on death row have been lost within the political agendas that govern the criminal justice system. Just as their narratives and personal realities are lost in the shuffle of the criminal trial, so, too are their identities and voices.

True Deviance and Real Crime: The Threat of Gender and Other Transgressions

Many of us understand the death penalty as it exists today, but are unaware of the historical roots of the process. Throughout U.S. history, women have been persecuted for witchcraft, lesbianism, and adultery even before these executions were documented (Whitney 16). The origins of the executions of women reveal a great deal about the way women are punished today and what behaviors brand them punishable. Lynchings, or illegal executions by masses of individuals, were used during the 19th and 20th centuries as extreme acts of hatred and prejudice against African Americans. African American journalist and activist, Ida B. Well, documented accounts of lynchings involving women in the late 19th century. She wrote openly regarding the injustices of “Separate but Equal” laws and “Black Codes,” and her editorials became testimony for the lynchings of both friends and strangers (O’Shea 6). Kathleen O’Shea’s book, Women and the Death Penalty in the United States, 1900-1998, includes lists of the documented executions of women. As disturbing as the documented lynchings are, there are certainly many more wrongful deaths that are unaccounted for in official government documents. Disturbingly, but not surprisingly, the majority of the documented lynchings were of black women. The numbers of lynching from 1882-1924 are astounding. In 1892 one hundred and sixty-one African Americans were documented as having been lynched (14). Each lynched woman and man should not be forgotten. Citizens of the United States must not forget the country’s past. It must be present in the courtroom and on the bench, to prevent hate from governing society in the future.

Of course, this isn’t done enough, and many of the same sentiments that rendered African American’s invisible have similar affects on minorities today. Women, especially women of color and other non-white, non-heterosexual groups, face strong prejudices that stem from the same places of hatred that existed in the past. Not only are women on death row social deviants for their violent action, but they are also rendered deviant by their defiance of the roles that a patriarchal society has established for them. All criminals who are sentenced to death are “othered,” but this is more severe for deviant women because of their history of being treated as second class citizens (Keitner 40). Despite their different beliefs and behaviors, feminists and female killers both challenge traditional roles and margins, posing a threat to established norms (Jones 13). This commonality provides an opportunity for feminists to reach out to women in prison and on death row, not to condone murder, which critics may suggest, but to empower the women in society who are most in need of guidance and constructive visibility. By reaching out to the women in our own country who are most in need, we can work toward peace, equality and empowerment.

Works Cited

Birch, Helen. Moving Targets: Women, Murder and Representation. London: Virago, 1993.

Bosworth, Mary. Engendering Resistance: Agency and Power in Women’s Prisons.Vermont: Ashgate, 1999.

Covington, Stephanie S., and Barbara E. Bloom. “Gendered Justice: Women in the Criminal Justice System.” Gendered Justice: Addressing Female Offenders. Ed. Barbara
E. Bloom. Durham, NC: Carolina AP, 2003. 3-19.

Esther, John. “Death to Lesbians: How Sexual Orientation Affects the Sentencing of Women.” Lesbian News 29.6 (2004): 38.

Girshick, Lori B. No Safe Haven: Stories of Women in Prison. Boston: Northeatern UP, 1999.

Jones, Ann. Women Who Kill. Boston: Beacon, 1996.

Keitner, Chimene I. “Victim or Vamp? Images of Violent Women in the Criminal Justice System.” Columbia Journal of Gender and the Law 11 (2002): 38-71.

Kirby, David. “Was justice Served? The Execution of a Lesbian Raises Tough Questions about the Death Penalty. The Advocate. 27 Feb. 2001: 26-27.

Lloyd, Ann. Doubly Deviant, Doubly Damned: Society’s Treatment of Violent Women. London: Penguin, 1995.

Moriarty, Laura J. and Kimberly L. Freiberger. “Classifying Female Serial Killers: An Application of Prominent Typologies.” It’s a Crime: Women and Justice. Ed. Roslyn
Muraskin. New Jersey: Pearson, 2003. 485-496.

Morgan, Etta F. “Women on Death Row.” It’s a Crime: Women and Justice. Ed. Roslyn Muraskin. New Jersey: Pearson, 2003. 289-304.

O’Shea, Kathleen A. Women and the Death Penalty in the United States, 1900-1998. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999.
---.Women on the Row: Revelations from Both Sides of the Bars. Ithaca, NY:Firebrand, 2000.

Schulberg, David E. “Dying to Get Out: The Execution of Females in the Post-Furman Era of the Death Penalty in the United States.” It’s a Crime: Women and Justice. Ed.
Roslyn Muraskin. New Jersey: Pearson, 2003. 273-288.

Streib, Victor L. Death Penalty for Female Offenders, January 1, 1973, Through December 31, 2004. Ohio: Streib, 2005. 7 May 2005 <>

“The Forgotten Population: A Look at Death Row in the United States through the Experiences of Women.” A Death Penalty Report. 2005. American Friends Service Committee. 1 May 2005

Tendai, Rubin. “Women, Minorities Caught in Death Penalty Politics.” New York Beacon 5.7 (1998): 8.

Whitney, George. “Women on Death Row.” Off Our Backs 28.1 (1998): 16-17.

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