The Holy Nature of Motherhood
During the period between 1866 and 1954 the primary social role of women was to bear and rear children. Women who did not conform to this standard were made into outcasts. Childless women were, in fact, perceived to be potentially bad women. In the trials of Emily Sprague, Marie-Louise Cloutier, and Cordelia Viau in Quebec, their childlessness was seen as central to their crime. In the trial of Cloutier, the trial judge asked: “What could a woman with no children and no tenure in a home do?.. .When there are no children, a woman alone in a house may be victim to many errors.”28
However, when the accused women were mothers, the holy mother figure became central in the petitioners’ appeals for reprieve, commutation of the death sentence, or early release. The respective communities’ opinions on the appeals were forwarded to the minister of justice and typically referred to two major problems associated with punishing women who are mothers: First, it was seen as socially dishonourable to kill and/or imprison a woman who was perceived as a creator and nurturer of humanity; second, citizens were concerned with the welfare of the children should their mother be executed or incarcerated. In Elizabeth Coward’s case the Coral Council of Women wrote to the minister of justice, pleading that “Mrs. Coward has proved to be an affectionate and worthy mother as shown by the love and solicitude for their mother’s release and their engaging to provide a home.”29 The accused herself appealed her sentence to the minister of justice for the sake of her children: “This wretched life of mine is wanted by my children, they need me, especially my youngest daughter of 15 years old.”30
Sarah Jackson also benefited from having had children: a petition asked for leniency “in mercy of her five children who have to face life with so great a handicap"31 Letters submitted by the children themselves were also important in the construction of the social significance of a mother’s role. For example, Jackson’s daughter, Beatrice, undertook a crusade to have her mother released: “I have spent many a sad and lonesome heart broken day waiting for my dear mother. It would make life worth living if she was only free to come home to me.”32 Even though very few petitions were sent on behalf of Dina Dranchuk, a letter signed by L. M. Clark to the minister of justice emphasized her role as a mother: “I beg of you to do all in your power to get this woman reprieved for her dear children’s sake. I feel as other mothers do that it is a terrible thing for a woman to be hung in this country especially in these distressing times after all we should show a little forgiveness.”33
Angelina Napolitano, seven months pregnant and already having four children, was undoubtedly the one to receive the most support simply for being a mother.34 In a letter signed by Frederick Scroggie and sent to Lord Earl Grey, a member of the public states: “I appeal to your Excellency to take into consideration the fact that this woman is to give birth a month before she is hanged to a child. I think it was Coleridge who said ‘A mother is a mother still, the Holiest thing alive.’”35 Another letter, submitted by Anna Hurtubis, called her crime honourable: “Thank God the little woman had the courage (that of the tigress protecting her young) to slay the villain who should have been the first to protect her honour, her children and her home.”36 Another letter, sent from Alexandra Allma to the minister of justice, called for clemency “in the name of motherhood, the base of all civilization and in the name of the home, the bulwark of civilization.”37 Tilford (nine children), Jackson (five children), Tratch (eight children), and Harrop (four children) all received support on this basis.
However, the appeal to their role as a mother was not always sufficient to win clemency for the accused women. For example, Tilford provoked sympathy and a critique of the criminal justice system but was, in the end, executed. On her behalf, Countess F. Fontaine wrote on 15 December 1935:
A mother is the holiest entity on Earth. Remember that a mother of nine children had a great reason, perhaps even a sacred duty in killing a bestial vile creature… .Perhaps he abused the children, as well as her, or even attempted to rape his own daughters. There are many vile creatures in human form, not fit to live. Nature gave women a very rotten deal, for they have to suffer the agony of motherhood, sacrifice their life each time they give birth to a child, while most men, are just selfish bestial creatures only seeking to inflict cruelty upon women.38
As I have suggested, the outcome of the trials (acquittal, sentencing, execution, commutation of sentence, and sentence reduction) and the dramatic quality of those trials are due in large part to the construction of the moral character and the history of the women concerned. The evidence, as I have said, becomes secondary. The trial-as-drama rests upon the construction of the moral characters and histories of the persons involved. The narratives of appropriate gender roles pivot around the role of the woman as wife and mother and are central to the (re)production of these homicidal wives thus influencing the legitimacy of the narratives of domestic violence.
Suffice it to say that, in nearly half of the cases (thirteen out of twenty – eight), the accused had been a victim of domestic violence; however, if we exclude Quebec, the percentage rises to more than 70 per cent. This factor is not significant in terms of the acquittals related to a self-defence plea but it might play a role in the length of the sentence or even the sentence itself. In fact, in almost all the cases the death sentence was to be commuted to long terms of incarceration. Even if the violence endured by the “accused” from the “victim” was well documented by doctors, police, children, family members, and neighbours, its relevance was modulated by narratives of appropriate gender roles and the context of the time (Frigon 1995, 2002).
As I have suggested, the trial narratives construct appropriate gender roles around the triangle of femininity/wifehood/motherhood. These narratives also reflect the shift in the representation of women killers in contemporary popular culture from the femme fatale to the battered woman and beyond. Through assessing the foregoing analyses of historical trial documents, we are able to see how court discourse and media reporting relies upon and reproduces the cultural myths and figures of femininity.
By exploring the so-called offending women involved in actual crime we can see how representation becomes cultural artefact and social norm. In fact, films, plays, documentaries, and tv shows can be charted through the blurred boundaries of fact and fiction as participating in the evolution of the characterization of women as fallen. The historical analysis of women and conjugal homicide is interesting in light of the women-who-kill genre, from the “femme fatale” to the “super-bitch killer beauties”39 to the “survival killers” subgenres in cinematographic and other artistic representations.
In order to offer a space for theorizing gender, I conclude this chapter by providing a brief exploration of the fictitious scripts and characterizations of women who kill. The 1940s film noir’s construction of the femme fatale paved the way for a “decade of deadly dolls” (Birch 1994) and for Hollywood’s productions of super-bitch killer beauties. In the late 1980s and early 1990s movies in this category included: Fatal Attraction (1987), The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1991), Single White Female (1992), and Basic Instinct (1992). These productions introduce pathologically manipulative and violent females who threaten or take the lives of men and other women but whose beauty and charms mask their evil natures. Over the past four decades portrayals of women’s violence have consistently relied upon the same formulaic stereotypes. As a case in point, Swimfan (2002) is a Fatal Attraction for teenagers and relies on the same plot: a young, blond, unstable, sexual, and manipulative teenage girl sleeps with a young popular guy from the swimming team. She reassures him that she does not want to tie him down but eventually stalks him, tries to kill his girlfriend, and so on.
In contrast, Crimes of the Heart (1986), Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), Life with Billy (1993), The Burning Bed (1984), and Dolores Claiborne (1993) all offer weak resistance to the typical characterization of women-who-kill. Here, femmes fatales or beautiful killers do not occupy centre stage. In Life with Billy, for example, the daily experience of terror and a pervasive climate of fear are well established and replace stereotypical characterizations of the
woman-who-kills. This representation of the severely abused woman resorting to murder epitomizes, and introduces, the survival killer subgenre. Although it differs from the earlier characterization of women-who-kill, this subgenre is still designed to entertain. In Steven King’s Dolores Claiborne (1993), for example, the ordinary circumstances of a conjugal murder committed by an ordinary, middle-aged, plump mother provide a thrilling account of domestic homicide. A notable and exceptional case is the film Thelma and Louise (1993), which offers a significant shift in the women-killer movie genre by providing a feminist space, shifting from a “genre that shows women turning at each other for empowerment to turning to each other for empowerment” (Travers 1992, 72).
Women who kill, in fiction and in real life, fascinate because murder itself is so final, so irrevocable. Also, these people are triply deviant—they are women, they are criminals, they are murderers—and they have stepped out of the stereotypical bounds of femininity, family, and society (Carlen 1983). Committing murder contradicts their socialized roles, which depict them as being naturally loving and nurturing. More important, their expected passivity is replaced by a violent agency.
Although these feminine characterizations remain species and spaces of fascination and fantasy, there is some political hope. In contemporary, popular representations there seems to be a shift from reading killing women as turning on each other for empowerment (Fatal Attraction and The Unfaithful Wife) to representations of women killing as turning to each other for empowerment (Thelma and Louise and the rescued historical accounts of women killing to protect their children and themselves from violent spouses). They represent a more politically realistic and emancipatory image: a shift from the femme fatale syndrome to the super-bitch killer beauties to the survival killer protecting herself and her children from their abusers is also in the making.40 Historical cultural work such as this also counters the erasure of women’s identity, factual and fictional, now and then.