Books: What happens when girl beats boy

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When She Was Bad: How Women Get Away With Murder

by Patricia Pearson Virago pounds 9.99

One of the most popular themes among the Caravaggisti, the 17th- century painters influenced by Caravaggio, was the Biblical story of Judith beheading Holofernes. Both Caravaggio himself and Artemisia Gentileschi tackled the subject, producing gory canvases in which Judith saws away at Holofernes's neck or holds up his severed head. Judith is far from the sole example in history or myth of a violent woman, fitting into a tradition encompassing Joan of Arc and Myra Hindley.

It is necessary to point this out, before discussing the specifics of Patricia Pearson's book, because When She Was Bad is being presented as a controversial study which demolishes the cherished myth that women are not naturally aggressive. More than that, the blurb claims that Pearson "argues that feminists and society alike are to blame for refusing to see women as dangerous and destructive". What this signals from the outset is that Pearson and her publisher are indulging in a bit of myth-making of their own, identifying a single strand in our complex set of attitudes to women and violence and ignoring others that do not sit easily with her theory.

Pearson, a Canadian journalist and crime reporter, argues that we cannot bring ourselves to recognise the reality of female aggression and violence. So we find excuses for it: battered women syndrome or premenstrual tension or the theory that female killers (like Rose West, whose case gets a one-line mention in the book) are always junior accomplices of violent men. Pearson gives examples of women who have excused their crimes by pretending they were coerced by their husbands, or disguised the murder of their own children by claiming they were victims of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Is any of this specific to women? I am not sure it is very different from Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, claiming he heard voices which told him to mutilate prostitutes; few criminals, male or female, appear in court without offering some species of defence. It may be true that male and female defendants resort to different types of excuses, manipulating cultural expectations about gender-specific behaviour. But the problem is that Pearson's premise, her insistence that we have a "habit of viewing women as put upon, done to, afflicted" only tells half the story. In fact, the spectrum of attitudes towards female violence ranges from a belief - shaky at the best of times - that women are incapable of it, to a terror that they are innately more cruel than men, a sentiment summed up in Kipling's formulation that "the female of the species is more deadly than the male". As it happens, he was referring to a she- bear, but that has not prevented its frequent repetition as a truth about women.

It is not even the case that a reluctance to believe in female aggression assists the minority of women accused of violent crimes. In Britain, we have witnessed numerous examples of men killing their wives for trivial reasons, being found guilty of manslaughter and walking free after five or six years in prison. Women who kill their husbands, by contrast, tend to be convicted of murder and receive a life sentence. This injustice has led to the overturning of verdicts in celebrated cases like that of Sara Thornton, who killed her husband and was initially convicted of his murder. She successfully argued that the court should have taken into account the cumulative effect of her husband's violence towards her, and was released from jail.

Even so, Pearson is quite wrong to suggest that feminists have unequivocally welcomed this development. I am far from alone in arguing that these cases should be dealt with by abolishing the mandatory life sentence for murder, not by extending the provocation defence to situations in which a woman's life is not immediately in danger. Many of us also feel uneasy about invoking PMT as an explanation for female aggression, as though women's moral sense is intermittently deficient because of their hormones.

That is why Pearson's book, with its complaints about "the absence of any sort of feminist conversation about women's responsibility", often seems both tendentious and unfair. What her own statistics show is that in this, as in other areas, women's conduct is becoming more like men's - that the old tendency for women to damage themselves through antisocial behaviour, rather than other people, is breaking down. None of this is particularly contentious, although Pearson's claims about women's role as aggressors in domestic violence, and her assertions about female serial killers - there are lots of them, she says, challenging the wisdom of most criminologists and the FBI - certainly are.

These are matters of interpretation, not the result of Pearson uncovering previously unknown cases or research. Here, for example, is her account of a wife, Jenny, battering her husband, Ruben: "After months of mutual solitude, with Ruben's sense of rejection simmering into anger, he entered the separate bedroom she'd taken, intending to insist that they make love: they were husband and wife". When he climbed on top or her, he "got a vicious knee to the head". This scene took place in Canada, where the law may be different, but it sounds like attempted rape to me. It also reveals the bias which shapes Pearson's book, as entrenched as the supposedly unchallenged beliefs she sets out to expose.