Did Amy Bishop kill because of workplace discrimination?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Feb. 25 2010 1:44 PM

Did Amy Bishop Kill Because Women Are Screwed in the Workplace?

No, that's the wrong lens for this story.

Amy Bishop. Click image to expand.

Last week, I talked about Amy Bishop on the "Slate Political Gabfest." Bishop, of course, is accused of shooting and killing three of her colleagues at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. She also has a history of violence. But there's another aspect to the story: Before the shooting earlier this month, Bishop was denied tenure and filed a gender-discrimination suit. And so, on the Gabfest, I speculated that Bishop could represent an extreme (and violent and awful) manifestation of some women's frustration with unequal treatment in the workplace. Not to excuse her behavior, but as one lens through which to view it.

Since then, we've learned more about Bishop and her many episodes of volatility and rage, and I'm pretty sure my own first impression was wrong. Along the way to that conclusion, I had the following e-mail exchange with Gabfest listener Sam Thomas, who teaches history at the University of Alabama-Huntsville:

From: Sam
To: Emily

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Hi Emily,

I listened with horror to your chatter about UA-Huntsville professor Amy Bishop in which you wondered if a gender-discrimination complaint she filed might indicate that she is at one extreme of women frustrated by workplace discrimination. My horror stems both from the fact that I work at UA-Huntsville and know a bit more about the case, but also from the implications of your statement for all women.

First, as you probably now know, Amy was unstable and violent long before she entered the workforce and in other contexts beyond the workplace. In addition to (probably) murdering her brother, and (possibly) mailing a pipe bomb to her lab supervisor, during a visit to an IHOP she punched a woman in the head over a booster seat while yelling, "I am Dr. Amy Bishop." Many of her "publications" also indicate a certain instability, as she lists her young children as co-authors. She also had an enormously difficult time working with (male or female) graduate students in the lab, which was part of the reason she was denied tenure. A lab can't function without grad students, and hers kept quitting or being fired.

The basis of the gender-discrimination suit was that a colleague referred to her as "crazy." As a historian, I am well-aware that "crazy" is a label often reserved for women who don't know their place, but in this situation it meant that she is, as one student put it, "bat-shit crazy." (That's a quote that didn't get into the paper.) When a colleague here in the history department heard that there had been a shooting in the science building, her first thought was, "Amy's lost it." The shooting was a horrible surprise, but nobody was surprised it was Amy.

The larger issue, however, is that by linking Amy Bishop's insanity to workplace frustration, you are implicitly pathologizing all women. If the shooting were simply an extreme reaction to a common frustration (as opposed to the most deadly spasm of violence from a severely unbalanced individual), the logical conclusion is that all women are capable of (or even prone to) this kind of violence. Given that, why in God's name would I ever hire so unbalanced a creature as a woman? On the Gabfest, John Dickerson joked that Amy had "gone academic," but based on your formulation, it would be more accurate to say that she had "gone female." I would also point out that your assertion is problematic because, while we can agree that workplace discrimination is pervasive, Amy Bishop's reaction is (as nearly as I can tell) unique. Workplace shooters are overwhelmingly male.

Yes, Amy was frustrated, and perhaps that led to murder. But she was also nuts. There is no evidence that: 1) Gender was a factor in her denial of tenure; or 2) she thought in gendered terms when she started killing. She murdered those who had supported her case for tenure and shot the department secretary in the face. She put the pistol to the head of her (female) mentor, and pulled the trigger. The gun jammed. Thelma & Louise, she ain't.

I hope you take the time to rethink your position on this.

Sam

From: Emily
To: Sam

Hi Sam,

Yes, I have been rethinking, based on the news that's come out since last week. You probably knew many of the details earlier, but I didn't. Now it does seem clear that you're right (though I doubt "nuts" means mentally ill in a way that would support an insanity defense, as her lawyer seems poised to argue), and that the content of the discrimination suit is bogus. So she's not a good example of a woman frustrated by unequal treatment gone wild. She went wild for different, deeply embedded reasons, it seems clear.

But I don't think what I said pathologized all women. You can be an extreme awful example of an emotion a lot of other people share, and that doesn't make the emotion or the other people awful or potentially violent. Right?

From: Sam
To: Emily

Emily,

I take your point and am reconsidering my own position. I actually started this afternoon after reading about violent women in today's NYT. (I would really like to go 24 hours without seeing that picture of Amy Bishop being put in a police car!)

But for the moment, let's say that your original premise was correct, and that Bishop was driven in part by workplace frustration. I would argue that such an extreme example is so far beyond the norm that it has no particular relevance for society as a whole, and it thus loses its significance. Until more women start killing their co-workers out of frustration with gender inequality, it's difficult to connect the actions of one homicidal woman to the problems all women face in the workplace.

OK, after rereading that, I may have changed my mind. We happily allow Lorena Bobbit or Joe Stack to represent broader frustrations with domestic abuse or the IRS, even though few individuals go to the extreme that they did. Maybe you're right. It wouldn't be the first time.

To: Sam
From: Emily

Actually, you know, I'm starting to come over to your side (even as you potentially abandon it). Bishop's discrimination suit sounds like a red herring now, and she looks like the kind of outlier who doesn't symbolize much of anything. Women rarely kill, and it's even more rare for them to go on rampages like this. It's important not to lose sight of that—as I was verging toward—when an exception like this one rears up, overwhelming as it can seem.

To: Emily
From: Sam

Actually, after sending my last e-mail, I went to bed, and while going to sleep, I decided I might have been right in the first place.

To: Sam
From: Emily

Good, because you have the better of this argument. I'm struck by what Joyce Carol Oates said in the NYT story by Sam Tanenhaus you mentioned: "She is a sociopath and has been enabled through her life by individuals around her who shielded her from punishment."

Thanks for all of this,
Emily

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Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

Sam Thomas is a historian of gender and medicine in early modern Europe at the University of Alabama-Huntsville.

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