How the planned execution of Teresa Lewis challenges our views on gender and capital punishment.
The reason it's so hard to separate capital punishment from gender bias is that the whole capital punishment machine is hugely gender-biased, and always has been. Capital punishment has to be one of the most sexist systems left in America. Since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977, only 11 of the 1,224 people executed have been women. Victor Streib, a professor of law at Ohio Northern University and an expert on gender bias, noted in 1996 that while women comprise 13 percent of arrests for murder, they receive only 2 percent of the death sentences. "It's like there's something more valuable about women's lives," he has said. "Women are also treated differently when they're victims."
But who's really going to argue for gender parity in state-sanctioned execution? Is anyone out there celebrating Lewis' shattering of another glass ceiling this week? Hard to imagine even the staunchest feminist insisting that if women commit 10 percent of the murders, they should compose 10 percent of those executed for it. * The better feminist response to the infrequency of capital punishment for women should probably be to fight to see that it's equally rare for men.
That's because gender bias cuts both ways in the criminal justice system. While women are sentenced to death far less frequently than men, often the offenses for which they are sentenced are also rooted in antiquated gender stereotypes. When women are sentenced to die, say experts, it tends to be for the most sexist reasons. Often, their crimes involve the murder of a spouse or a child, which comes with the assumption that they are bad mothers or unnatural wives. Experts say that men on death row, by comparison, have more often than not killed a stranger and done so in the commission of another crime. Why the double standard? Maybe it's because, from the days of the Puritans, Americans have thrilled to stories of fiendish and beastly women who killed their loved ones. The culture expected white women to be "kindly, passive, virtuous caretakers," writes Phyllis Goldfarb, a professor of law at George Washington University. When they committed murder instead, she writes, "execution seemed utterly appropriate."
In the event you are still doubtful that Teresa Lewis' entire story has been about nothing but gender all along, here's one last gender-freighted argument that has greatly moved her supporters: Lewis has reportedly been a model prisoner and has a "calming influence" on her fellow inmates, even though she is in solitary confinement and cannot see them. Lewis evidently sings to them and counsels them and has become a model of ministering to the Christian inmates. Of course this also plays into gender stereotypes: Lewis as a nurturing mommy figure, complete with soothing songs and tender caregiving. She has reverted back to the "natural woman" Phyllis Goldfarb described. When a man on death row is said to be "reformed" and thus undeserving of capital punishment, "calming" and "nurturing" are not usually the adjectives used to describe him.
It's impossible for me to see any value in killing Teresa Lewis Thursday morning. While the facts of her crime are hideous, she is not the kind of incorrigible monster often presented as the best argument for capital punishment. At the same time, those of us who are so quick to see her as a loving, nurturing, transformed creature might also want to stop and consider how we'd credit such a redemption if she were a man.
Clarification, Sept. 22, 2010: This sentence originally read, "Hard to imagine even the staunchest feminist insisting that if women commit 10 percent of the murders, they should die 10 percent of the time for it." ( Return to the revised sentence.)
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph by Mike Simons/Getty Images.