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.

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