Not the Perfect Victims

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Rally for Marissa Alexander/Picsora

By Emma Roderick

In January 2014, Marissa Alexander, whose lengthy prison sentence for firing a warning shot into the air in order to fend off an attack from her estranged husband galvanized feminists and anti-racist activists around the country, was released after spending three years in prison. She will live another two years under house arrest, wearing an electronic ankle bracelet for which she must pay the state $105 per week. Alexander did not harm anyone. But what about women who do kill their abusers?

These women get significantly less media attention and significantly less support from feminists. Yes, they are the sympathetic subjects of several hit country singles: Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead” and Martina McBride’s Independence Day have both been covered on American Idol, and I remember rocking out to the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” with friends when I was 13. Even when the women in these songs appear callous (Ain’t it dark, wrapped up in that tarp, Earl?) they are clearly the heroines: young, white, and conventionally attractive, they win the moral high ground. Only one of the songs alludes to legal consequences.

Real-life statistics paint a much grimmer picture. Some 75% to 80% of women who kill their abusers are convicted or accept a plea, and most receive lengthy sentences. Although national data on this issue are not tracked, published studies of specific prisons and locations show similar results: women who kill men are given longer sentences than men who kill women, and women who kill their abuser are given longer sentences than women who kill strangers (despite generally having no prior convictions). At least 80% of all women in prison are single mothers, and although the prison population has increased exponentially over the past 30 years for both men and women, it has increased more for women than men (646% vs. 419% between 1980 and 2010). 

Angela Corey, the prosecutor in Marissa Alexander’s case, argued that Alexander could have left the house rather than shoot. Several studies show that nearly every woman incarcerated for killing an abuser sought help to escape and did not get it. In some cases, the police did not listen to her. Others reached out to shelters but were among the 10,000 turned away every day because of budget slashes. Some succeeded in having their abusers arrested, only to see them released on a light bail. Others were offered a spot in a shelter, but decided to gamble on not uprooting their lives and those of their children to move across the country to a secret location, while their abuser stayed in their house, keeping his job, bank account, and community. Women with fewer resources—financial, legal, and personal—are of course the most likely to face challenges in escaping. And although the “battered women’s defense” is sometimes effective in reducing sentences, it is far more likely to work for white, middle-class women.

Retaliating against an abuser is not the only crime for which victims of domestic violence end up in prison: many women are strong-armed into committing crimes by their abusers or they are incarcerated for “letting” abuse happen. In one particularly sordid case, the male perpetrator received a 37-year sentence for raping a five-month-old baby, while the baby’s mother received two consecutive life sentences for “letting” him do it.

The war on drugs has been devastating for men and women alike, with the percentage of women in prison increasing by 757% from 1977 to 2005, mostly for drug-related crimes. Between 1986 and 1991, African American women’s incarceration in state prisons for drug offenses increased by 828%. Often the women have been coerced into drug deals by the men with whom they’re involved.

As Marissa Alexander’s case shows, concerted action can have an impact. Feminists and anti-racist activists can work with such projects as the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, STEPS to End Family Violence, the Prison Birth Project, or any of a number of local and national groups.

Real women who commit crimes because of male violence won’t be starring in any music videos. They aren’t “perfect victims,” but they do deserve a fair chance at justice too long denied.

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Emma Roderick is a school social worker and volunteer with the Prison Birth Project in Western Massachusetts. 

This article originally appeared in the spring 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

DSA Queer Socialists Conference Call

April 24, 2017
· 36 rsvps

DSA is in the process of forming a Queer Socialists Working Group. This call will cover a discussion of possible activities for the group, its proposed structure, assigning tasks, and reports on the revision of DSA's LGBT statement and on possible political education activities. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.

 

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

April 30, 2017
· 51 rsvps

Join Philadelphia DSA veteran activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 4-5:30pm ET, 3-4:30pm CT, 2-3:30pm MT, 1-2:30pm PT.

DSA Webinar: Talking About Socialism

May 02, 2017
· 6 rsvps

Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.

Instructor:

Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
  • Create your own elevator pitch about democratic socialism and DSA.
  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
  • Have a concise explanation of what DSA does, for your next DSA table, event or coalition meeting.

Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
  • If you have a computer with microphone, speakers and good internet access, you can join via internet for free.
  • If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt <talt@igc.org> 607-280-7649.
  • If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt <schmittaj@gmail.com> 608-335-6568.
  • Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance, by midnight Sunday.

 

DSA New Member Orientation Call

May 06, 2017
· 45 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  2 pm ET; 1 pm CT; 12 pm MT; 11 am PT.  

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
· 69 rsvps

Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix. 9 ET/8 CT/7 MT/6 PT.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 18 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.