Table of Contents

Brian the Writer

Justice and Gender - Part One

Brian McCorkle

Generally, females are treated much more leniently than males in criminal law. This treatment is based upon many erroneous beliefs and very few facts.

In part one of this series, I briefly consider violent and murderous females as a natural phenomenon.

The fact that prosecution and sentencing in the criminal justice system is biased and imperfect should not come as a surprise. The system is made up of imperfect human beings who reflect the stereotypes and prejudgments of their society.

Some of the flaws are easily recognized today simply because of changes in community thought. The trials of the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930’s can be seen as an exercise is justice predetermined. Southern white juries did believe that black men had an unnatural sex drive. Southern judges had a duty to protect and cloister white women and that duty included an automatic death sentence based upon mere allegations against black males.

Other cases are not perceived to be so blatant when in reality, they are. In 1954, the Rosenbergs were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. Judge Irving Kaufmann then gave each the sentence for treason. Since women rarely receive a death sentence in this county, Kaufmann need an enhancer. His reasoning for sentencing Ethyl Rosenberg to death was that she was several years older than her husband and should have known better. She was an anomaly since women are generally a year or two younger than their spouses.

During World War II, Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors received sentences that were on average a year longer than other objectors or even draft dodgers. In many prisons, Witnesses were not allowed to hold services.

Observation show that women are treated far more leniently in the justice system than men. There are various reasons proposed for this. First, the concept that men are inherently more dangerous than women. Second, the notion that women do not possess free will or the ability to think logically like men. Third the concept that women have hormones, but men don’t; or that female hormones are really strong, while male hormones are almost inconsequential(1). Then, there is the erroneous notion that women are weak and need protection and even if a woman committed the crime it was not done for the same reason as man would have to commit a like crime. And finally, the myth of motherhood requires some bizarre contortions of thought including an automatic mitigation for even very violent crimes.

There is danger in making comparisons in that we humans have a bad habit of generalizing and stereotyping. If a notion reinforces an existing belief, we will embrace it without question. If a notion conflicts with a preexisting belief, there is a reaction perhaps to the point of pain. Examination of data is seldom recognized as an option. Facts be damned. One unfortunate result is the self-fulfilling statement. That is men are more dangerous, therefore, we must treat each male offender more strictly; then we look at all the men in prison and the length of their sentences and conclude they must be more dangerous.

A further danger is that comparing becomes a contest. For those who believe that women are superior or men are superior, comparisons become a requirement, although not informed, to shore up their belief system. The real comparison is that men and women are both members of the human species and have far more in common than in difference.

The consequences of considering the differences in charging, prosecution and sentencing can be beneficial. If the level of danger is the same, then we are wasting resources by giving longer sentences on the basis of sex. If women are treated more leniently and the rate of recidivism is lower, then perhaps there would be a lower rate of male repeat offenders if the treatment were the same

So are women dangerous? Some are.

Sixteenth century France shared the upheaval of Catholic vs. Protestant that infected the rest of Europe. Catherine de'Medici, the queen mother, took an active role in French politics including dealings between Huguenots and Catholics. One of her main achievements was the precipitation of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572. It is estimated that over 50,000 Huguenots were slaughtered because of her efforts(2)(3).

Zora Neale Hurston documented the behavior of the Dahomey amazons. She interviewed a man captured and enslaved by the Dahomey who gave an account of his capture. “The attack came at dawn… . Dahoman women warriors burst through the main gate, seized people … and beheaded victims with one stroke of their big swords.” These Amazons later beheaded the village king(4). Other accounts of these women give a portrait of fierce brutal fighters.

In 1994, authorities in Gloucester, England began an investigation about a missing girl. The girl was the daughter of Rosemary and Fred West and the last of Rosemary’s victims. Together this couple was responsible for a series of murders that stretched over twenty years. Fred hanged himself while awaiting trial. Rosemary was found guilty of murdering ten women and sentenced to life in prison.

On December 23, 1990 Karla Homolka drugged her sixteen-year-old sister with halothane she obtained from the veterinary clinic where she worked. Karla and her boyfriend Paul Bernardo videotaped their sexual assaults on the drugged girl. Unfortunately, Karla applied too much; her sister vomited and choked to death. Karla and Paul dressed the body then called 911. The medical examiner was busy with holiday stuff determined the death was accidental. Paul and Karla were married and proceeded to torture and sexually assault others and to murder two young girls (prosecutors planned on giving Karla a very short sentence)(5).

And finally, there is Dorothea Puente also known as the grandma serial killer, who killed to collect victims monthly socials security checks. Seven bodies were unearthed from her yard. She was charged and tried in the murders of nine pensioners. A jury found her guilty of three of the murders. Puente did have a criminal past, however in appearance she was the quintessential kindly elderly lady.

So, it can be seen that some women are dangerous. This includes queens, laboring class housewives, and smart middle-class women. Of course, this does not mean that all women are equally dangerous or that all women are prone to murder. It means that some people are capable and culpable. The thought processes that brought Susan Smith to kill her children are remarkably similar to others who murder without regard to their sex. Mary Wells was ten years old when she murdered a six-year old boy; then recruited and eleven-year-old girl to help kill a second six-year-old boy. Several years later, two ten-year old boys murdered two-year-old James Bulger. The capability is there.


1. Some claim that testosterone is the cause of male violence and amazingly will deny that females have such a thing. But, men are held to be responsible for their hormones.

2. Estimates range from 2000 to 10,000 deaths for Paris alone.

3. She is also credited with inventing high-heeled shoes and the wasp waist.

4. I Love Myself When I am Laughing - a Zora Neale Hurston Reader. Feminist Press, 1979, p 65

5. Invisible Darkness. Steven Williams. Bantam 199