The criminal justice system and the media persist in treating women as ‘doubly deviant’
“When woman falls, she seems to possess a capacity almost beyond man for running into all that is evil.” So proclaimed the Directors of Millbank Prison in 1859, voicing the common belief that female criminals were far worse than male criminals. How much has changed? It’s clear that ‘bad women’ continue to hold the public’s attention. That is, of course, why Piers Morgan chose to make a documentary series called Killer Women, and why a third of violent crime stories in British newspapers are about female offenders, even though they make up only an eighth of those convicted.
During the 19th century, women accounted for over a fifth of convictions. As this was the era in which the model of woman as Mary and Mother was established, society became fixated on these ‘bad women’. Criminologists Lombroso and Ferrero explained that because women were less ‘evolved’ than men, they were less likely to commit crime. Those rare women who did commit crimes were a double exception. They were monstrous.
The courts agreed, particularly where the female defendant had transgressed society’s rules. In the case of Sarah Gale, the real-life subject of my novel The Unseeing, the jury accepted that she must have been involved in the murder of another woman, despite the circumstantial nature of the evidence. The all-male jury no doubt bore in mind that Sarah was possibly an ‘unfortunate’ (a prostitute), and the sentencing judge helpfully reminded them she had been cohabiting with her co-defendant, James Greenacre, “without being joined to him by any moral or religious tie”. Proof that she was a bad sort. Similarly, in the case of Florence Maybrick, convicted in 1889 of poisoning her husband, the judge in his summing up laid great emphasis on Florence’s adultery, suggesting that a woman capable of such a vice was also liable to commit murder. After campaigners petitioned the Home Secretary, he recommended that her sentence should be commuted, but Queen Victoria – no friend of the feminists – refused to accede that “so wicked a woman should escape by a mere legal quibble”. Maybrick remained in prison until after Victoria’s death.
Victorian views on female criminality survived for a surprisingly long time. In 1950, Otto Pollack claimed that female crime had been vastly underestimated because women’s inherent deceitfulness enabled them to conceal their misdemeanours. Even in the 1980s, Neo-Lombrosian criminologists considered prostitution to be evidence of psychopathology. By that stage, however, feminists were fighting back. In 1976, Carol Smart argued that women offenders were perceived as doubly deviant because they not only broke the law but transgressed their gender roles. In 1992, Baroness Helena Kennedy observed in Eve Was Framed that women were still disadvantaged in the courtroom because law was made by men.
This remains true today. Women are still woefully underrepresented in the British justice system (only 15.6 per cent of High Court judges are women and there is just one female Justice in the Supreme Court), and women who come before the courts continue to encounter myths and stereotypes that distort the legal process. The media generally portray female offenders as either treacherously beautiful or unnaturally repulsive. The vast coverage of Amanda Knox and Maxine Carr concentrated on their looks, sex life and apparent composure. Sarah Williams, recently convicted of Sadie Hartley’s murder, was described as, “a leggy beauty who could charm men into bed”.
The statistics suggest that those prejudices carry over to the justice system. Women in the UK are more likely to be imprisoned for violent offences: 22 per cent of women in prison have been sentenced for a first offence, compared to 12 per cent for men. They are also more likely to be punished in jail. According to Ellie Butt at the Howard League for Penal Reform, one of the key issues is that “it’s a system designed by and for men. Women are just an add-on.” She points to a recent HM Inspectorate of Probation report, which concluded that lack of funding and doubts over the future of women’s centres were hampering the efforts of the probation staff, and that, without a clear strategy for women, they would be more likely to re-offend. The report found that female offenders have more often experienced abuse, trauma, depression and substance misuse.
This chimes with Baroness Jean Corston’s report on women’s vulnerability in the criminal justice system, which estimated that more than half of women prisoners have suffered sexual or physical abuse as children, and report domestic violence and coercion as adults. Corston pointed out that women tend to be located further away from their homes, which makes it difficult to maintain their family ties and resettle into the community. Women are also more likely than men to lose their children as a result of imprisonment.
There are other, more insidious, ways in which prejudice is at work. The law focuses on female prostitutes treating them, not their clients, as the problem, save where they have been “subjected to force”. The CPS continues to prosecute women where they are said to have made false rape allegations, despite a report finding that such allegations often involved vulnerable girls. The report also noted that the myth that false accusations were common was impeding the prosecution of rape and domestic violence. Women Against Rape have dealt with a number of miscarriages of justice arising from “negligent and biased investigations into the original rape complaints”. Layla Ibrahim, for example, was jailed after being attacked by two strangers and subsequently accused of causing her own injuries. Her fight continues.
When battered women themselves use violence to escape years of abuse, they find it difficult to use criminal law defences, which are based on male responses to violence. Harriet Wistrich of Birnberg Peirce & Partners and Justice for Women, who has dealt with many cases of women killing abusive partners, believes that, “women accused of murder are convicted more frequently than men. Juries are much more ready to convict.” Stacey Hyde was 17 when she stabbed Vince Francis after he violently attacked her and her friend. In 2011, after a prosecution that painted Stacey as drunken and promiscuous, she was convicted for murder. Her case was taken up by Justice for Women, and in 2015, after an appeal and a retrial, she was acquitted.
Where women obviously subvert gender norms, the law is brutal. In 2015 Gayle Newland was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment for impersonating a man in a sexual relationship with a woman. Headlines screamed that her victim, “would rather have been raped by a man”. Meanwhile, the male undercover police officers who deceived women into sexual and sometimes long-term relationships will face no prosecution.
Female defendants no longer have to face 12 male jurors, but there are still deep-rooted prejudices within both the British justice system and the media against women who are seen to have contravened the norms. Bad women, it seems, are still worse than bad men.
Anna Mazzola’s acclaimed debut novel, The Unseeing, is based on the life of a woman called Sarah Gale who was convicted of aiding a murder in London in 1837. The Unseeing is released in paperback on 26 January 2017.
Image from: http://bit.ly/2ivprGY
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.