Academic journal article Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology

Female Perpetrated Homicide in Victoria between 1985 and 1995

Academic journal article Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology

Female Perpetrated Homicide in Victoria between 1985 and 1995

Article excerpt

This article presents findings of research on women who kill. All cases in which a woman was investigated by police as a perpetrator in a homicide in Victoria, Australia, between 1985 and 1995 were examined. The aim was to investigate the range of circumstances in which women kill. Seventy-seven cases were identified. The primary source of data was the Victorian Coroner's office. Initially it was expected that most women would have killed a partner as a result of the experience of long-term violence. However, the findings of the study show that the situation with respect to women and those they kill is more complex. Three primary relationship categories were identified: women who kill their partners, women who kill their children and women who kill non-intimates. The third category primarily involved women who killed friends and acquaintances. This paper will argue that the homicide literature fails to provide a conceptual framework for understanding women who kill and hence contributes to the cultural stigmatising of violent women as "mad" or "bad".

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Homicide is considered to be an extreme form of violence where one person is killed by another. (1) The vast majority of homicides, like violent crimes generally, are perpetrated by men. Women constitute approximately 13% of homicide offenders in Australia (Mouzos, 2000, p. 51). It is perhaps not surprising then that most studies of homicide focus on male perpetrators and on homicide as a "fundamentally masculine phenomenon" (Polk 1994). However, this paper will argue that homicide is studied as a "masculine phenomenon", not simply because more men commit the crime than women, but because violence, from which homicide results, is viewed as masculine.

The first section of the paper will outline research and theories that have influenced thinking on the topic of homicide. This section will also consider the contribution of recent research on women who kill which challenges assumptions about gender and violence implicit in the criminological literature. The middle section describes the findings of the present research on women who killed in Victoria and explores the diversity and complexity of circumstances in which women kill. The final section of the paper considers the relationship between gender and violence in light of the findings and highlights the social and political challenge that women's violence poses.

Homicide: A "Masculine Phenomenon"?

Homicide, as both a social phenomenon and a criminal act, has been studied within a theoretical framework that conceives of violence as masculine. Such theories remain heavily influenced by sociobiological approaches, which posit that violence is "natural" and "instinctive" in men. Much of this work stems from the research by Daly and Wilson (1988) who argue that male violence is an integral part of evolution whereby men compete for status, resources and the control of women's reproductive capacity. Daly and Wilson suggest that there are universal differences between the sexes and that men kill as a result of masculine proprietariness. Polk, who draws on Daly and Wilson, argues that a "theme of masculine competitiveness runs through homicide" (1994, p. 188). Men feel "compelled to compete for resources, for status, for dominance and control of sexual partners" and use violence to ensure they compete successfully (Polk 1994, p. 189).

Polk's book When Men Kill provides a comprehensive analysis of men's homicide in Victoria. Polk suggests that "there is a wealth of literature that establishes the indisputable proposition that homicidal violence is masculine in its makeup" (1995, p. 188). He discusses masculine possession (of women), sexual jealousy and masculine depression as reasons why men kill women. Masculine confrontation, crime-gone-wrong and conflict resolution are identified as the causes of male-to-male homicide. Polk concurs with Wolfgang that homicide is, in general, a predominantly lower or under class phenomenon. …

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