Theorizing Female Conjugal Homicide as Narratives in a Historical Context
A historical basis for modern fascination with women-who-kill may be found in the trial narratives of women condemned of murder, in which the representations of actual women killers are strongly coded and mingle with a public fascination. Prominent cases include those of Ruth Ellis in 1954 (the last woman to be hanged in England), Myra Hindley2 (also of England), and, more recently in Canada, Karla Homolka. The mythologies of Ruth Ellis, Myra Hindley, and Karla Homolka and the related public outcry and condemnation of them reveal, above all, “that we do not have a language to represent female killing, and that a case like [these] disrupts the very terms which hold gender in place” Carlen 1993,61). The acts of these women rightly invoke moral condemnation, but we lack feminist explanations of women murderers who have not killed in self-defence because their deeds fall between the cracks of the normative representation of women.
Typically, violence done to women, but not violence committed by women, is representable. Woman-as-murderer is unspeakable and does not fit social norms and codes of femininity. Despite the fact that they have been portrayed as evil, deceitful, and cunning, female murderers throughout history are usually common people, and female-perpetrated murders occur in disturbingly ordinary circumstances. Often, their stories function to illuminate women’s daily lives and common experiences of violence. In what ways can these counter-images of murderous women negotiate with public spectacle?
Traditional portrayals of women killers are saturated with images of particularly sexual and evil creatures randomly killing. However, the scientific literature, accounts from actual murderers, and court evidence suggest that women who kill do not usually kill strangers but, rather, loved ones (e. g., partners, children). Nor do they kill randomly—often, they kill their violent partners.
Life with Billy (1994) is a fictional film based on the life of Jane Stafford, a woman condemned for killing her abusive partner in Nova Scotia. Documentary filmmakers deliver striking and sensitive portraits of women, their lives, their stories, and the abuse they have had to endure before they finally defended themselves. As these women typically claim: “It was my life or his,” and “There was no other way out.”3 Other such counter-inscriptions of women killing their partners are offered in The Provoked Wife (1991), Why Women Kill (1992), Women Who Kill (1994), Defending Our Lives (1993), Stories from the Riverside (1994), and When Women Kill (1994), and all provide a key understanding of
real life stories and “survival killers” (i. e., spouses who kill in order to survive) who commit conjugal homicide.