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  • Writer's pictureAimée Niau

The Impact of Patriarchy on the Female Offender

Lisa Montgomery, a 34-year-old, and Jo Stinnett, a 23-year-old, both American, met at a dog show. They had been in contact via social media where, in 2004, Stinnett told her community that she was pregnant. At the same time, Montgomery began telling her family and friends that she was pregnant. However, this was impossible as her mother and ex-husband had forced her to undergo sterilization. Montgomery contacted Stinnett online to buy a puppy from her. She went to her home and attacked Stinnett to take her fetus which resulted in the death of Stinnett. Montgomery took the baby with her and passed it off as her own. She first lied to the police saying that the baby was hers but shortly thereafter confessed her crime. Montgomery was sentenced to death for kidnapping resulting in death in 2004 and was executed in 2021. 


Women and Crime

To analyze Montgomery’s case, it is essential to understand why women commit crimes. Several studies demonstrate that women commit less crime than men and represent only six to ten percent of the prison population. The crimes they commit differ from the ones committed by men: Crimes committed by women are often less violent, and when they use violence it’s often in self-defense rather than a cold-blooded crime and/or a crime with premeditation. They desist from crime more easily than men and mental illness frequently factors into their crimes. 

However, considering those aspects, when a woman commits a violent crime, she tends to be judged more severely than a man—both legally and morally—because her crime represents a drastic breach of gender norms. When a woman kills, her act is perceived as a double deviance: being a criminal and not complying with female gender norms which portray women as good, nice, and sweet. This rejection of gender norms contributes to them being labeled as “monsters”, “nasty girls”, and “manipulators” and leads to more severe judgment. 

The female murderer is thus seen as a danger to society. Contrary to that male violence exists on a continuum: Force, aggression, and violence are associated with testosterone and are part of male gender norms which reinforce perceptions of virility and masculinity. The threat that the female offender represents to society is often consolidated by neglecting the reason for the crime committed thereby contributing to a form of moral panic that crime could happen randomly at any moment to anyone. To enhance this effect, the victim is often portrayed as an ideal victim which sociologist and criminologist Nils Christie defines as “a person or a category of individuals who—when hit by a crime—most readily are given the complete and legitimate status of being a victim.” Thus, the victim is seen as a vulnerable and random person who has a normal life that most can associate themselves with. 


The Victimization of Female Offenders 

Many women in prison report having been sexually abused at some point in their lives. A North American study on violent female offenders suggests that female violent offenders often experience abuse and family disruption in their lives. This abuse is often committed by men and can take many forms, such as incestuous abuse, harassment, sexual assault, rape, and (attempted) murder. In state prisons, 16.1% of male and 57.2% of female prisoners have been abused. Moreover, male offenders usually report having been mistreated as children, but female prisoners report such abuse as both children and adults which demonstrates a continuous victimization. 

An American study found that 67% of women who have been condemned for the homicide of someone close to them were previously victimized by this person. Women who kill their spouse often do so after years of psychological and/or physical abuse which they suffered at the hands of their partner. Most of the time, the homicide is not premeditated but a reaction—self-defense or exhaustion—which is underlined by the fact that the weapon is often a kitchen knife and not a gun. 

While this does not mean that abuse is the only determining factor for a person to commit a crime, it shows that to understand crimes committed by women we must consider patriarchal structures and sexual violence.


The Case of Lisa Montgomery

When we look at the crime perpetrated by Montgomery, nothing seems to relate to the factors and processes discussed above. Montgomery didn’t kill a relative after being victimized by them, it was not self-defense; it might seem like the crime was premeditated since Montgomery contacted the victim. However, when we take a closer look at Montgomery’s history, the patriarchal impact and the victimization she suffered are quickly revealed. 

To understand Montgomery’s crime it is necessary to know what she has endured. The following paragraph will describe her history and will evoke subjects that can be sensible for the reader including sexual violence, rape, and torture. 

Montgomery’s mother Judy was an alcoholic who tortured Montgomery and forced her to prostitute herself. Montgomery’s stepfather, Jack, beat, abused, and raped Montgomery and her sister several times per week for years. He also invited his friends to their home to rape Montgomery one after the other. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights she was “anally, orally, and vaginally raped by several men for several hours at a time” who finished by urinating on her. Her first husband, Carl, as well as the second, Kevin, brutalized, tortured, sexually assaulted and raped her for years. After her fourth child, her mother and her first husband, Carl, forced her to undergo sterilization. Moreover, according to a petition alleging the violation of Montgomery’s human rights by the American state, several state agents knew about the condition of Montgomery at home and did nothing. 

In a petition to stop the execution of Montgomery, the petitioners argue that a national expert asked Judy Clarke, an experienced female lawyer, to join the legal team. Clarke, as a woman, quickly managed to build a relationship of trust with Montgomery who had difficulties trusting men because of her history of abuse. They wrote that one of the lawyers was a misogynist who would not work with a female lawyer and asked the male federal judge to remove her from the case. Consequently, Clarke could not work on the case anymore. The lawyers’ bias made them view Montgomery as a sweet and weak woman who could not have committed the crime on her own and accused Montgomery’s brother. 


Findings

An analysis of different court documents that are demanding Montgomery’s execution as well as the above mentioned petition which is requesting a fair trial and a sentence which takes into consideration her history shows how patriarchal structures have contributed to Montgomery committing her crime and have impacted the trial. 

In the court documents, the victim Jo Stinnett is often presented as innocent, weak, a good and ideal victim which creates empathy and emphasizes the contrast between the good innocent victim and the bad monstrous murderer. Thus, the audience is likely to develop empathy for the victim as someone who did not deserve to be in this particular situation and identifies with her thinking that the specific crime could happen to anyone at random: family, friends, even to oneself. This contributes to creating moral panic whereby the female offender, portrayed as a monster, is seen as out of control and a danger to society which results in the consolidation of the perception of the risk that she represents to people.

Montgomery is described as a monster, a bad mother, and a manipulator. This labeling which is often applied to female offenders is a way to enforce the boundaries of the “good girl” and women’s place in a patriarchal society which is maintained by the criminal justice system. Thus, female violent offenders embody the double deviance of being a criminal and deviating from gender and societal norms of how a woman must act. Those kinds of female violent offenders are often treated more harshly which is the case with Montgomery who is the first female prisoner executed by the federal government in almost 70 years. 

Studies found that the sentencing of female offenders could be biased by the fact that mothers appear as either “good” or “bad” mothers. Children and family would be the focus of courts to exercise their judicial paternalisma feminist criminological concept that argues that patriarchal institutions will treat female offenders differently than male offenders. This would be the case in particular for status offenses to keep and enforce institutional authority.

The analysis of the vocabulary used in the documents suggests the use of morality. The narrative morality play is often used in crime reporting by placing on one side the evil criminal and on the other a force of good (judge, judiciary, lawyer). Morality play has the effect of constructing a narrative in which the good overcomes the evil. Violence threatens the law and judicial order. Therefore, they frequently cast violent offender events as morality plays to reinforce the illusion that society keeps control of its citizens which assures the outcome of punishment and allows the dominant hegemony—in this case, patriarchy—to stay in place. Moral panic is used in the same way: The fear and threat that offenders induce pushes people to ask for harsh punishment and put their trust in the justice system to punish the guilty. Those crime stories have “the purpose of reaffirming the basic moral standard of society demonstrating both the might and the rightness of institutional authority.”

     

Conclusion

The justice system rarely considers gendered aspects, especially when the female offender does not fit into gender norms. In the case of Montgomery, the patriarchal system allowed her victimization by failing to hold her abusers accountable for their actions. Instead, it paved the way for her being sentenced to death to maintain and maintain the norms and standards of the society which keep the hegemonic group in place without considering her victimization. In effect, the patriarchal system and the institutions that reproduce it have an impact on the creation of the female offender. Montgomery is only one example of how women are often victims of the patriarchal system before becoming criminals due to it.


Written by Aimée Niau.

Cover photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm.

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