Bad Girls

Violence by women has skyrocketed in the latter part of this century. Have they taken "women's liberation" one step too far--or are they just showing their natural killer instinct?

By Barry Yeoman, published November 1, 1999 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Sante Kimes doesn't exactly match the popular image of the career outlaw. A low-rent Elizabeth Taylor look-alike, the 64-year-old widow is partial to gaudy jewelry, thick perfume and towering black wigs, and to rid herself of her wattles, she got lipo-sculpture at a California clinic.

But beneath the big hair is a criminal whose rap sheet dates back almost four decades. In the mid-'80s, Kimes went to prison for enslaving a platoon of teen-age maids from Mexico City. The women were forced to work 18-hour days without weekend breaks, and Kimes kept them in line by beating them with coat hangers and throwing them in searing showers. When one young woman declined to strip for an inspection, according to court records and news reports, Kimes attacked her with a hot iron.

Then came the apparent murders, for which Kimes is a principal suspect. A banker vanished after a dinner appointment with her. A family friend was pulled out of a dumpster, a bullet in his head, after expressing his reservations about a real-estate scam involving Kimes and her husband. And last summer, New Yorkers were shocked by the disappearance of 82-year-old Irene Silverman, a diminutive former ballerina who was the landlady of Kimes' son. The Kimeses were allegedly trying to defraud Silverman out of her $4 million mansion--and then the retired dancer turned up missing. Kimes claims she's innocent.

What makes this gruesome crime spree hard to grasp is that Kimes, a former pinup model, doesn't fit any of our ruffian archetypes: the L.A. gang member, the Mafia hit man, the young street punk. She's now at an age when many women are described as grandmotherly. Most significantly, she's a woman. "Woman is the creator and fosterer of life; man has been the mechanizer and destroyer of life," anthropologist Ashley Montagu once said. "Women love the human race; men are on the whole hostile to it."

But our cultural assumptions may be off the mark. Witness the proliferation of female perpetrators like Kimes making headlines. The tabloids had a field day with Lorena Bobbitt, who amputated the penis of her sleeping husband. She in turn was eclipsed by Susan Smith, who drowned her two sons in a South Carolina lake. More recently came the murder last May of former Saturday Night Live actor Phil Hartman by his wife Brynn, who then turned around and shot herself.

The increase in female violence over the past century has been dramatic. When Auburn University sociologist Penelope Hanke, Ph.D., reviewed records from an Alabama prison from 1929 to 1985, she discovered that 95% of the cases where women murdered strangers occurred after 1970, along with 60% of slayings of friends and relatives. In another study of 460 female murderers, Illinois State University's Ralph Weisheit, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of criminal justice, found that women were becoming more stereotypically male in their reasons for murdering. He revealed that robbery-murders accounted for 42% of the cases in 1983, compared to 18% in 1940. And even though males commit the vast majority of street violence, females seem to be catching up. "In 10 or 20 years, those statistics should be equal," predicts Coramae Ritchey Mann, Ph.D., professor emerita of criminal justice at Indiana University.

The recent surge in crime among women illustrates that in spite of their stereotype as gentle nurturers, women have the natural capacity to be as violent as men, according to a growing number of experts. The difference, behavioral studies suggest, is that women need greater incentives to express that violence. Social changes over the years--especially the movement toward gender equality--have provided several.

Freda Adler, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University, calls this the "liberation hypothesis." As the tightly constructed sex roles of previous years start to weaken, she says, women simply have more and more opportunities to break the law. "Women are more involved in what's going on in the world than they were a generation ago," she says. "You can't embezzle if you're not near funds. You can't get involved in a fight at the bar if you're not allowed in the bar."

Violence at Home

The most revolutionary discoveries about women and aggression involve violence toward loved ones. A preponderance of evidence shows that women can be just as ferocious as men. The most famous of these studies comes from Murray Straus, Ph.D., the founder and co-director of the University of New Hampshire's Family Research Laboratory. His National Family Violence Surveys, conducted in 1975 and 1985 with a total of 8,145 married and cohabiting couples, showed that 12.4% of women have assaulted their spouses, compared to 12.2% of men. When it comes to severe assaults, the numbers were 4.6% for women and 5% for men.

A 1999 study by the British Home Office, a government agency in the United Kingdom, found that 4.2% of men--the exact same figure as for women--had been assaulted by a partner in the previous year.

The patterns go back before marriage. Irene Frieze, Ph.D., remembers seeing studies that showed women to be more prone to violence in dating situations. "I didn't believe it," recalls Frieze, a professor of psychology and women's studies at the University of Pittsburgh. "I said, 'This can't be true. I'm going to do my own study.'" Sure enough, of the college students she surveyed, 58% of women had assaulted their dates, compared to 55% of men.

When Frieze brought up her findings in her classes, the students weren't surprised. "One woman said, 'Well, it makes me feel strong and powerful when I hit my boyfriend.' They feel safe--that they can get away with this behavior--because the men have this moral code and they'll never strike back." The men, Frieze adds, don't take the violence seriously, because little of it causes serious injuries.

Straus admits that when it comes to the most brutal domestic assaults, the domain is still men's--they commit six times the number women do. "If by violence, you mean 'who's injured?', then it's an overwhelmingly male crime," he says. That's why there's no great demand for battered men's shelters, and why a disproportionate number of wife beatings get reported to the police.

"You can't just equate numbers," says Ruth Brandwein, Ph.D., a social policy professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "Women who engage in violence are often already in violent relationships. They are living under such unbearable tension that it gives them some control over when they're going to be abused."

Violence on the Street

Except for high profile lawbreakers like Aileen Wuornos, the Florida prostitute who robbed and killed at least seven of her johns, most of the crime news involves male perpetrators. If a woman is involved, she's generally considered an accomplice to a man. When Bonnie and Clyde were killed in the 1930s, the New York Times headline read, "Barrow and woman slain in Louisiana trap!" Even Karla Faye Tucker, executed in Texas last year for a pickax slaying, was working in concert with her boyfriend.

According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, women made up only 15% of all those arrested for violent crimes in 1996, but the gap is closing. The statistics show that arrests of women for violent crimes increased 90% between 1985 and 1994, compared to 43% for men. The numbers hold up across many specific crimes: aggravated assault, other assault, and sex offenses other than rape and prostitution. Only in the case of murder did men widen their lead: a 13% rise for men compared to a 4% drop for women.

Indiana University's Mann believes that crime statistics are only now starting to catch up with reality. "Women are just as violent as men, and were often just getting away with the violence," she says.

"Now, with equal rights, the justice system is looking at females differently," explains Mann. "Whereas before they were excused or overlooked, now they are being apprehended."

A criminal defense lawyer admitted, "If she hasn't committed murder and she has children at home, she walks." A judge confided, "It's difficult to send a mature woman to prison. I keep thinking, 'Hey! She is somebody's mother!'"

Frank Julian, J.D., a professor of legal studies at Murray State University in Kentucky, cites a Florida-based study showing that men were 23% more likely to be imprisoned than women who committed the same crime, partly because of the sentencing recommendations of the probation officers. "Women offenders were often viewed as suffering from psychological or emotional problems, or as victims of family problems, bad marriages or dependent relationships," Julian writes. "Men were more likely to have their cases judged in view of the seriousness of the offense committed, employment history and prior record."

Is Violence in the Genes?

In the 1960s, famed psychologist Albert Bandura conducted a series of experiments in which children watched adult models hitting inflatable Bobo dolls. The children were then offered the opportunity to imitate the behavior. Under normal circumstances, the boys knocked down the dolls far more often than the girls did. But when the models got rewarded for knocking down the Bobos, the children's behavior changed--the boys and girls became almost equally aggressive.

That seems to suggest that males are innately more violent than females--but that women will resort to aggression when given an incentive. Which makes sense to Brenda Shook, Ph.D., a biological psychologist at Union Institute in Sacramento. "Females of all species will go to great lengths, including violence, to protect the young," says Shook. But among humans, the primary responsibility for defending the family--and thus preserving the family genes--went to the male.

But both biological and cultural theories of women's innate capacity for violence hinge on one major trigger. Says Freda Adler: "We're talking about socialization." And for time immemorial, males have been conditioned to be aggressive. Boys got G.I. Joes; girls got Barbies. Men were sent off to war; women bandaged their wounds.

But American girls have always gotten mixed messages. Our culture rewards a certain type of violence in women. "It is the height of femininity to slap a man's face," says Murray Straus. "It's drilled into them."

The groundwork for female violence, it seems, has been there all along. But what may have been a subtler message in a more genteel society has become a clearer directive. The media increasingly promote female violence: Weapon-wielding women are becoming commonplace in everything from Hollywood movies to Saturday morning cartoons.

Women also absorb the cultural norms aimed at everyone, and "this is a violent country," says Coramae Ritchey Mann. "There's no reason this wouldn't have rubbed off on them."

Really Bad Girls The violence that made headlines

FOR LOVE OR MONEY

From 1896 to 1908, Belle Gunness killed between 16 and 49 people, including her stepdaughter, hired hands, lovers and husbands. When her homestead mysteriously burned in 1908, officials unearthed the bodies of 10 men and two women. Gunness escaped.

SINISTER SISTER

"Sister Amy" Gilligan charged new patients $1,000 upon entry into the Archer Home for Elderly and Indigent Persons in Windsor, Connecticut, and then promptly dispatched them with arsenic, often tricking them into leaving her their insurance money. Arrested in 1916, Gilligan may have killed as many as 40 people in her care.

ANGEL MAKERS

Between 1911 and 1929, the Hungarian towns of Nagyrev and Tiszakurt saw the deaths of more than 100 people at the hands of women, led by village midwife Susanna Fazekas. She would boil flypaper and distribute the resulting poison to the women. Thirty-four women were put on trial; 18 went to prison; eight were executed. Fazekas killed herself with poison.

BRUTAL BROTHEL

For 10 years, sisters Delfine and Maria Gonzales ran a brothel on a ranch in central Mexico, torturing girls who resisted and killing those who fell ill, tried to run away or lost their looks. When police raided the ranch in 1964, the bodies of some 80 women were found buried, along with countless babies and 11 male migrant workers.

SMOTHERLOVE

Over 13 years, Marybeth Tining killed nine of her own children while authorities held that the deaths were natural. "I smothered them each with a pillow," she said later, "because I'm not a good mother." In 1987, she was sentenced to 20 years to life, her husband still believing she was innocent.

ANGEL OF DEATH

Waltraud Wagner used lethal injections, strangulation or drowning to kill between 49 and 300 elderly patients in an Austrian hospital in the mid-1980s. Wagner's motive, as one of her three conspirators put it: "The ones who got on my nerves were dispatched directly to a free bed with the good Lord." All four were sent to prison.

--Sarah Blustain

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Karla Faye Tucker in Gatesville, Texas, was convicted of the 1983 killings of a Houston man and woman with a pickax. Hers was the first execution of a woman in Texas since 1863.

PHOTO (COLOR): Right: Susan Smith is led into a Union County, South Carolina, courtroom Jan. 16, 1995, for her arraignment on two counts of murder. Smith, convicted of drowning her own sons in 1994, may also face the death penalty.

Barry Yeoman is a freelance writer in Durham, North Carolina. His work has appeared in the Nation, New Woman and the Webzine Salon. Sarah Blustain