The Myth of the She-Devil: Why we Judge Female Criminals More Harshly

A man who kills is a murderer, but a woman guilty of violent crime becomes a proxy for all that is evil. Helena Kennedy, who once represented Myra Hindley, asks why?

In almost every culture and every period of history, a she-devil emerges as an example of all that is rotten in the female sex. This Medusa draws together the many forms of female perversion: a woman whose sexuality is debauched and foul, pornographic and possibly bisexual; a woman who knows none of the fine and noble instincts when it comes to men and children; a woman who lies and deceives, manipulates and corrupts. A woman who is clever and powerful. This is a woman who is far deadlier than any male, in fact not a woman at all.

The perversion of the human spirit that underlies crimes of desperate cruelty invokes an atavistic desire to punish till the end of time those who inflict such pain on their victims, and on the scarred families who are left to mourn. It is tempting to characterise all women criminals as victims, because so many of those who go through the system have themselves been on the receiving end of criminal behaviour. There has been a tendency, in fighting the women’s corner, for feminists to go into denial about women’s capacity for cruelty and wickedness. But there are women who commit crimes as terrible as any committed by men. They just happen to be the outliers.

Men enter the pantheon of monsters more often than women; but convicted killers who do not belong to the dominant culture are more likely to be mythologised. The imprisonment of Myra Hindley came to stand for more than simple punishment for an abhorrent crime; her long incarceration symbolised our fear of returning to a more primitive past. In an increasingly secular world, a woman like Hindley is the vessel into which society pours its dark secrets; like a war criminal, such a “she-devil” is a reminder of what is horribly possible.

Read more: Guardian,

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