Killer Women: The Death Penalty and Depictions of Gender

At 12:20 a.m. on September 29, 2015, Kelly Gissendaner was just one of the 53 women on death row throughout the United States. The next minute, that number was reduced by one after her execution for conspiring with Greg Owen, her lover, to kill her then-husband Doug Gissendaner. Eighteen years prior, Owen lured Doug Gissendaner out to a wooded area, stabbed him to death, and then sent a message to Kelly Gissendaner that the deed was done and he needed to be picked up. As the investigation progressed, both Owen and Gissendaner were considered prime suspects, with Owen looking especially culpable. In the crucible of an interview, Owen cracked and confessed to the crime, going on to incriminate his lover and bring them both down for the offense. Each was offered “a plea deal of life in prison and no chance of parole for 25 years.” Gissendaner refused the deal while Owen leaped up the opportunity. He would later serve as a star witness for the prosecution, stating that she orchestrated the whole affair and recounted that the plan was devised months prior and that Gissendaner had first used him as a “way to get rid of her husband.” Owen is currently serving his sentence and will be up for parole in eight years. Gissendaner’s fate was sealed with Owen’s statements; the portrayal of her as the mastermind, the brains directing the brawn, was instrumental in convicting her of the murder and sentencing her to death by execution.

Gissendaner’s story is not singular. Most of the women on death row were sentenced for the same crime or extremely similar ones—murdering their husbands, children, or even strangers, either through direct or indirect methods. Many of these 52 women and the many that came before them have one aspect, besides all committing serious crimes, in common: They overstepped the boundaries of typical femininity. Feminist critic Lizzie Seal, who has written extensively on the intersection of gender and the death penalty, notes that “'[violence] is an accepted attribute of most recognized masculinities,’ [but] killing by women violates norms of femininity, such as nurturance, gentleness and social conformity.” The deeply ingrained societal binary of masculine-feminine is disturbed by these women who kill and, thereby, transgress that divide to become something they are not supposed to be. Elizabeth Rapaport, throughout years of academic study, has concluded that “[t]he execution or capital sentencing of a woman is not merely a rare event; it is an anomalous one as well.” The execution of women is culturally denounced by patriarchal standards of femininity. That being said, the same cultural inhibitions do not carry over to women who have defeminized themselves by masculinizing through violence; in fact, this is the time when it is acceptable to execute a woman, to rid society of a transgressor. A woman who kills her husband or her children sheds the bonds of maternity and marriage as well as the typically patriarchal imposition of submissive states. Juries do not perceive these women as women, but as something else, something unrecognizable in the face of societal values. The cultural depictions of femininity that are imposed upon women lead to harsh punishments when they transgress these values and become something society wants to believe they are not and cannot become. This is not to say that these women are not punished for their crimes, rather it is just that they are punished twice over: once for the crime against individuals and once again for crimes against society.

According to Seal, there exist multiple typologies—distinct perceptions—of women who kill and end up on the death row. One is the “masculine woman,” created by the gendering of violent crime and the rendering of the originally feminine as masculine, as such boundaries are transgressed. Within this notion is the idea that “violent women are not really women at all, but share more characteristics with men.” Because societal depictions of women are often irreconcilable with tragic and undue violence, combined with the fact that these attributes are readily donned upon masculinity, women who commit violent crimes have their feminine status revoked and are draped in masculine qualities in order to relieve the dissonance of their situation with traditional values. This type includes women like Rose West, Wanda Jean Allen, and Aileen Wuornos, who was the inspiration behind the 2004 film Monster.

The cultural depictions of femininity that are imposed upon women lead to harsh punishments when they transgress these values and become something society wants to believe they are not and cannot be.

The second perception is that of the “muse or mastermind dichotomy,” which sets up the polarized view of these killing women as assistants under the influence of husbands or boyfriends or as dominating, conniving women that “force men to do their bidding.” Kelly Gissendaner falls into this category. By making her the mastermind and Owen the blind follower, all blame falls onto her and her feminine exterior gives way to a masculine interior, marked by a desire to kill. This view also separates the woman from the action, an uncanny severance that removes typically feminine characteristics like warmth and nurturance and replaces them with coldness and calculated distance.

The final iteration of the female killer is the respectable woman. Instead of diverging from typical femininity, she embodies those traits and plays them up in trial to her advantage. She’s hard to convict because she exists within the affirmed social bounds. Respectability also is heavily utilized by the respectable woman: She’s not promiscuous: She has no visible motives: Her age is just right. Venturing further, she’s not a person of color, nor is she uneducated, poor, or belonging to a marginalized community. Lizzie Borden could be considered a respectable murderess; she was acquitted of the murders of her father and step-mother. While these perceptions of women diverge in various ways, they all contribute not only to the defeminization of women on death row, but also to their dehumanization; it is much easier to convict that which one does not see as equal than to admit that a woman—a human being—who has killed, is still similar to everyone else.

Some critics of the death penalty argue that there is an inherent gender bias, that men are unfairly sentenced to death or, on the opposite side, that women are unfairly spared from the punishment. Statistical evidence supports this theory: “1 in 8 persons arrested for murder is a woman, but only 1 death row inmate in 100 is a woman. Male murderers are 20 times more likely to be death sentenced than female murderers.” Critical analysis of this theory, however, dissolves its efficacy and potency in the discussion of the death penalty. Justice is not applied fairly, but this is a result of toxic patriarchal notions of how women should act. This is not a blanket protection of women who commit crimes. The punishment for impinging upon the perceived standard ideals is harsh, demanding years of imprisonment and possibly even a woman’s life.

Women on death row find themselves in a precarious and peculiar situation. Their existence, though not totally unforeseen, is a destabilizing factor to the cultural paradigms of femininity. The death penalty, though riddled with inequality, is not as sexist as its critics may believe; the condemnation of women is not nonexistent, just different. The representation and perception of women sentenced to death row, specifically during their trials, is a result of a societal inability to reconcile the nature of femininity with the fact that anomalies exist. It is necessary to redefine and analyze these views, in order to see more equality and more justice in relation to these murderous women—and those who get away with it. Kelly Gissendaner killed her husband and was rightfully punished for it. That being said, she was also punished for breaking the standards that are embedded heavily within society. The blame was shoved upon her, even though the actual crime was committed by another. This masculinized mastermind was forced by the penal system to obey the paradigms that have been passed down for generations, the same ones that ensnare and control the depictions and actions of women. The death penalty, which in any case is the ultimate punishment, is thus used specifically as an arm of a patriarchal system, as another method to punish those who defy those entrenched cultural archetypes.

Photo: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation