Why Women Kill

Is Dr. Amy Bishop a new breed of female murderer? Kathleen J. Ferraro on the connections between job status, gender, and homicide.

If criminologists agree on anything, it’s that murder is predominantly a male phenomenon. Men are much more likely to commit murder and to be victims of murder. This holds true across cultures and historical eras. Contrary to media images, murder rates have declined in the United States over the past 30 years. In 1976, the homicide offending rates per 100,000 of the population were 16.3 for males and 3.0 for females. By 2005, the most recent year for which data are available, the rates were 11.9 for males and 1.2 for females, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Murder is a rare though tragic event.

Which is only one reason why Dr. Amy Bishop, accused of killing three faculty colleagues last week after learning she had not been granted tenure at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, is such a statistical oddball.

The nature of Amy Bishop’s alleged crimes suggest possible links between changes in gender relations and homicidal behavior.

Another reason: When women do commit murder, they are most likely to kill the people closest to them. National data covering the years 1976 to 2005 indicate that about 42 percent of the victims of female murderers were intimate partners or other family members; only 8.7 percent were strangers. For cases where the circumstances are known, women comprised only 8.7 percent of workplace homicide offenders. Women’s typical weapons were arson or poison, and they were rarely the perpetrators of multiple homicides (only 6.5 percent of all cases), the BJS study found.

Bishop does not conform to the most typical characteristics of female-perpetrated homicides. She allegedly killed three people and seriously injured three others at work with a gun she carried into a faculty meeting. Reportedly, she would have shot her best friend in the department had she not run out of ammunition. How do we make sense of such anomalous behavior?

Is Amy Bishop a product of women’s liberation? Now that women outnumber male graduates in biology and can be considered for tenured university positions, will we be seeing more crimes like this? In the 1970s, Freda Adler and Rita Simon suggested that as American women became “liberated,” they were becoming more like men in their criminality. Their ideas were thoroughly critiqued by scholars who demonstrated that 1) women were still a small portion of violent offenders; and 2) women offenders were not middle-class feminists with professional careers, but usually the most marginalized, poorly educated, and low-income women in society.

And as the statistics cited above demonstrate, the period of greatest advances toward gender equity, the 1970s-2010, did not witness an increase in female-perpetrated homicides, but rather, a decrease. The notion that gender equality will generate a new breed of female murderers is contradicted by all available evidence and is just pretty silly.

Adam Winkler: Crazy for TenureWendy Murphy: Did Amy Bishop Murder Before?The nature of Amy Bishop’s alleged crimes, however, does suggest possible links between changes in gender relations and homicidal behavior. We know that many homicides are the end result of passionate emotions and those emotions are socially situated and gendered. We feel shame, anger, jealousy, or resentment based on how we are socialized to understand our social experiences. Men have traditionally felt responsible for the economic support of their families and male identities have been closely linked with occupational success. Men who commit mass killings, especially of family members, have often been shamed by job loss or professional failure. They are hard-working, respectable members of the community who cannot bear the loss of status entailed by economic ruin. Their homicidal behavior is an extreme expression of the painful emotions connected to failure of a central component of masculine identity.

We have rarely seen women engage in homicidal behavior in response to occupational disappointments. Certainly women have felt the worry and depression that accompanies a decline in income, but until the last half century, most women lacked the opportunity to develop primary identities as successful scientists, political leaders, and intellectuals, although of course there were exceptions. Today’s women, however, may achieve great success in almost any profession and experience the same feelings of shame, humiliation, or anger at the loss of their reputations. Amy Bishop does not signal a new breed of violent female murderer. She simply demonstrates that the central importance of occupational success is no longer limited to male identity. Women can feel just as horrible about the loss of job status as men. Like the vast majority of men, nearly all women will find nonlethal methods of coping.

Kathleen J. Ferraro is a professor of sociology at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of Neither Angels nor Demons: Women, Crime, and Victimization (Northeastern, 2006) and Women’s Lives (Allyn & Bacon, 2009).