Murderous Madonna: Femininity, Violence, and the Myth of Postpartum Mental Disorder in Cases of Maternal Infanticide and Filicide
Stangle, Heather Leigh, William and Mary Law Review
TABLE OF CONTENTS INTRODUCTION I. POSTPARTUM PSYCHOSIS AND CULTURAL VALUES CONCERNING FEMININITY A. Feminist Legal Theory and Mothers Who Kill B. The Insanity Defense and Female Offenders C. Dangerous Impact of the Denial of Female Violence on the Justice System D. Issues of Femininity and Violence in Yates's Trials E. The Institutionalization of Female Passivity and Nonviolence in American Law II. ARGUMENT AGAINST THE ENACTMENT OF AN AMERICAN INFANTICIDE ACT A. Faulty Presumption that All Maternal Killings Result from the Effects of Childbirth B. Misplaced Belief that Women Should Be Treated Lightly for Violent Crimes III. ARGUMENT AGAINST THE ADOPTION OF A GENDER-SPECIFIC INSANITY STANDARD A. Overview of Existing Insanity Standards B. Effectiveness of the Current Gender-Neutral Standard C. Gender-Specific Standards Promote Dangerous Leniency Toward Female Defendants, Especially Mothers D. Gender-Specific Standards Embrace and Perpetuate False Ideas About Women and Violence CONCLUSION
"The sweetest sounds to mortals given Are heard in Mother, Home, and Heaven."
--William Goldsmith Brown
On June 27, 2001, Rusty Yates gently placed baby blankets inside the coffins that held each of his five lifeless children. (1) Just days earlier, his wife, Andrea Yates, had drowned all of their children in a bathtub in the family's suburban Texas home. (2) Andrea Yates has since become the modern day poster child for maternal killings, which are commonly classified as either infanticide (the killing of an infant) or filicide (the killing of a child over the age of one). (3) Yates's acts, and the legal saga (4) that followed, spawned extensive media coverage, (5) popular discussion, and even an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. (6) By the time police led Yates from her home that day, she had already become "'the Medea' of Houston ... the stuff of which myths were made." (7) Although few cases of infanticide and filicide receive the attention that Yates's did, such acts occur with great frequency in the United States and abroad. (8) Every day, some women choose to stab, drown, burn, beat, smother, or strangle the infants and children who depend upon them for survival. (9) Such actions fly in the face of traditional conceptions of motherhood, yet women who kill their children receive consistently light penalties for their crimes. (10)
Maternal killings are treated as a lesser offense than general homicide in the United States and are trivialized to an even greater extent in places like England and Canada, where Infanticide Acts automatically mitigate sanctions for mothers who kill. (11) The same good-natured jurisprudence does not extend to homicidal fathers. When men murder their children, they receive far harsher penalties than their female counterparts. (12) Cases involving maternal infanticide and filicide reveal a dangerous leniency toward female defendants and a general desire to explain away female aggression.
In the wake of Yates's case, the use of postpartum psychosis as a legal defense in cases of maternal infanticide and filicide has received considerable attention. Postpartum psychosis refers to a rare and serious mental disorder thought to occur after childbirth in some women. (13) Since the 1980s, American courts have allowed women suffering from the disorder to raise the insanity defense. Postpartum psychosis played a pivotal role in Yates's case, as defense attorneys argued that the disorder caused Yates to kill her children. (14) The jury ultimately agreed, and Yates received a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. (15) A number of other mothers have been found not guilty on similar grounds. (16)
Despite the rare nature of postpartum psychosis, recent discussion tends erroneously to conflate all maternal killings with the disorder. (17) Everyone from Congress (18) to Oprah Winfrey (19) to the National Organization for Women (NOW) (20) to the lay authors of newspaper editorials (21) has found something to say about the disorder. Postpartum psychosis has also arisen in recent legal scholarship. Many scholars argue that the postpartum psychosis defense, along with other postpartum mental disorder defenses, should apply even more expansively to protect violent mothers from undue punishment. Some argue for changes in current laws, such as the development of a gender-specific insanity standard that caters to the intricacies of postpartum psychosis. (22) Others support the enactment of an American Infanticide Act, which would automatically mitigate sanctions for mothers who kill. (23) Canada and England have already passed such laws. (24)
This Note argues that recent proposals are both unnecessary and misplaced, as they reflect outdated misconceptions about female violence. Existing gender-neutral insanity standards have proven effective in accommodating women with postpartum psychiatric disorders and should not be changed. (25) A significant number of female defendants, including Yates, have successfully raised postpartum psychosis as a legal defense, even in jurisdictions that apply the most stringent insanity standards. (26) Similar defenses have not been applied to fathers who kill their children. (27)
The states have no need to enact an Infanticide Act or other gender-specific laws. Although some evidence of disparate results exists in cases involving postpartum psychosis, (28) a gender-specific approach will not ensure a more equitable outcome. Any disparity stems not from inadequacies in available laws or the insanity standard itself, but from a dangerous societal ambivalence toward mothers who kill. Feminist theorists argue that violent women occupy an ambiguous position, as they disrupt and challenge cultural ideals concerning femininity. (29) Violence remains a masculine realm, and female aggression is deemed the rare result of mental disorder. (30) Consequently, American laws already reflect a number of misconceptions about women and violence. (31) There is no need to promote further leniency toward female offenders.
Part I of this Note will explore the extent to which cultural values concerning femininity have influenced the societal response to infanticide and filicide. This section will provide an overview of feminist legal theory and its relation to cases involving mothers who kill. Part I will also address the role that traditional notions of femininity played in Yates's trials. Lastly, this section will describe the ways in which the American legal system has already incorporated popular misconceptions about female violence into its jurisprudence.
Part II will outline the reasons why the states should avoid adopting an Infanticide Act. By critiquing existing Infanticide Acts in both England and Canada, this section will demonstrate that such statutes are not only premised upon the faulty presumption that all maternal killings result from the hormonal side effects of childbirth, but also reflect the misplaced belief that women should be treated lightly for violent crimes.
Part III will argue that American jurisdictions should not develop gender-specific insanity standards for women suffering from postpartum psychosis because: (a) current gender-neutral insanity standards have proven effective in accommodating women who suffer from postpartum psychosis; (b) the use of a gender-specific standard promotes dangerous leniency toward female defendants; and (c) a gender-specific standard would embrace and perpetuate false ideas about women and violence. This section will address the reasons for disparate results in some cases and outline the risks inherent in changing the insanity standard to a gender-specific model.
If American laws further cater to misplaced beliefs about femininity and violence, women will remain imprisoned in a system that deprives them of any real agency or power. A legal system that embraces such beliefs fails to treat the real causes of female violence and denies the value of the victims of female violence.
I. POSTPARTUM PSYCHOSIS AND CULTURAL VALUES CONCERNING FEMININITY
A. Feminist Legal Theory and Mothers Who Kill
Feminist legal theory provides an alternative means of viewing mothers who kill and the responses their acts elicit. In general, feminist legal theory functions as a metanarrative to mainstream legal theory by critiquing and examining its theoretical models and constructs. (32) Scholars who embrace feminist legal theory seek to identify ways in which the law has contributed to female subordination and modify legal approaches to gender issues. Feminist legal theory is therefore both reactive and reformative. (33)
Feminist legal theorists have long recognized that both the media and legal system treat male and female murderers differently. In general, violence does not comport with societal conceptions of femininity. (34) Criminologists attempt to explain away the acts of violent women as the "rare result of provocation or mental illness." (35) This explanation, however, relies upon the faulty conception that women are inherently passive--that "half the population of the globe consist[s] of saintly stoics who never succum[b] to fury, frustration, or greed." (36) Such notions are unrealistic and outdated.
Although the myth of female passivity is "one of the most abiding myths of our time," it is not grounded in reality. (37) To the contrary, women commit a number of violent crimes, and they do so with disturbing frequency. Unlike male violence, female violence often occurs within the confines of the home. The victims of female violence are most often spouses, children, and other family members. For instance, statistics indicate that:
Women commit the majority of child homicides in the United States, a greater share of physical child abuse, an equal rate of sibling violence and assaults on the elderly, about a quarter of child sexual abuse, an overwhelming share of the killings of newborns, and a fair preponderance of spousal assaults. (38)
Despite this reality, violence remains a uniquely "male" behavior. (39)
Although male murderers are recognized, and even glorified in some cases, (40) women remain within the constraints of a limited good girl/bad girl dichotomy. The discussion of violent women often focuses heavily on what it means to be female, and the criminal act in question fades into the background. (41) Ideological fantasy, rooted in the good girl/bad girl dichotomy, works to mold violent women "back into what a woman should be." (42) A woman therefore behaves violently only as the result of external forces beyond her control ("madness") or because she is simply not a true woman ("badness"). Although "mad" women remain "morally 'pure"' and otherwise conform to "traditional gender roles and notions of femininity," this is not true of "bad" women. (43) "Bad" women usually have not conformed to societal standards; as a result of their deviance, they are inherently unwomanly. Stereotypes preserve traditional definitions of femininity by either stripping all agency from "mad" women who commit violent acts or removing "bad" women from the female realm. In this way, ideological fantasy allows notions of female passivity and nonviolence to persist.
Mothers who kill their own children present an even more troubling challenge to cultural ideals concerning femininity. If murderous females occupy an ambiguous place in the Western symbolic system, women who kill their own young upset the very foundation of the system. In patriarchal societies, femininity remains linked with the ideal of virtuous motherhood. (44) Perhaps the most common trope is that of the "Mother-Woman ... deified by the Catholic Madonna," which has its roots in the basic constructs of Western society. (45) The concept of a "unique mother-child bond" has come and gone throughout history, but it resurged with great force in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (46) From this period onward, women began "to symbolize the nurturant safety of the home." (47) They became endowed with "attributes of softness and sentimentality," which have remained a vital part of the feminine ideal. (48) As divisions between men and women in the workforce became more pronounced, sharper divisions between male and female character attributes followed. (49) These divisions still exist, and cultural definitions of femininity remain linked with "female" attributes.
As such, crimes like Yates's prove entirely antithetical to the cultural understandings of femininity and motherhood in a patriarchal society. (50) Mothers nurture; they do not destroy. The need to explain away the actions of violent mothers therefore proves even stronger than that of other violent women. (51) The suggestion that a mother, "the gate keeper to your soul, the nurturer of your mind and body would ever purposely harm you" is often unfathomable. (52) To believe that a mother could harm her own children "would alter the natural order in the world in the same way the moon changes the tides." (53) As the author of a Houston newspaper editorial opined following Yates's trial: "For a mother to kill her babies so goes against nature that she should be assumed to be doing it out of insanity unless there is evidence that she had some other motive." (54) Traditional definitions of motherhood leave no room for the possibility of violence. As a result, "legal and media …
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Publication information: Article title: Murderous Madonna: Femininity, Violence, and the Myth of Postpartum Mental Disorder in Cases of Maternal Infanticide and Filicide. Contributors: Stangle, Heather Leigh - Author. Journal title: William and Mary Law Review. Volume: 50. Issue: 2 Publication date: November 2008. Page number: 699+. © 1999 College of William and Mary, Marshall Wythe School of Law. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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