Battered Woman Syndrome

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About 40 years ago domestic violence was a rare event. At this time it was conventional wisdom that a man would “occasionally” hit his wife or significant other as a means of discipline. In fact English common law sanctioned wife beating was justified under the infamous "rule of thumb," which decreed that a man might use a "rod not thicker than his thumb" with which to chastise his wife. Women rarely opposed their husbands and remained passive throughout the many physical, verbal and emotional assaults. However some women lashed out against their abusive partners, some going as far as murdering the significant other. In the 1970’s a psychologist Dr. Lenore Walker coined the term “Battered Woman Syndrome” which she deems as psychological phenomenon to explain why some women do not leave long term abusive relationships and to justify the murders of men who systematically abused their significant others. This paper will seek to discuss define and explain as well as discuss the origin of Walker’s “Battered Woman Syndrome”, as well as explore the validity of its use in legal defenses for homicide and excuse in failure to protect a child from abuse.

Origin of the Battered Woman Syndrome:

From latter part of the 1950’s to beginning part of the 1960’s the woman’s movement became a strong presence in the United States as feminist proactively sought to attain equal rights for women particularly in the workforce. Many scholars and organizations actively invoked women’s rights laws to change women’s status from simply the chattel of men to equal citizens. One major contributor Betty Friedan argued that society defined women’s purpose as "finding a husband and bearing children"(197). Friedan encouraged readers to seek new roles and responsibilities, to seek their own personal and professional identities rather than have them defined by the outside, patriarchal society.

Throughout this period, women gained great strides in attaining equal rights and opportunities in many different aspects of life. The status of women increased not only at work and in the home, but also in the criminal justice system. How women were being treated on the stand became an important issue of the woman’s movement. Traditionally, women who killed their abusers were defended with insanity pleas. A mental illness excuse was the only comprehensible explanation for why women kill. Advocates of women’s rights attempted to dispel the insanity excuse and redefine the act as justified self-defense. Battered Woman Syndrome was one outcome that was successfully implemented and incorporated with self- defense plea.

In 1979 Dr. Lenore Walker a renowned psychologist published a book called The Battered Woman. In this book she hoped to disseminate legitimate research that could be used as a legal defense to excuse the actions of woman who had been systematically abused by their significant other. Dr. Walker was very interested in examining society’s perception of battered woman, particularly when they stepped out of their gender roles and opposed their husbands. After reviewing over four hundred cases of systematically abused woman injuring or killing their significant others, she noted that there was a common factor in each of the cases, this was that each of the women suffered from Learned Helplessness. She used this theory to explain why some women never leave abusive relationships and see murdering the abuser as the only way out. Battered Woman Syndrome was developed with a notion that battered women defendants deserved equal protection and treatment under the law, such that their history of abuse deserved consideration as part of their defense. However labeling women’s actions to kill as a syndrome perpetuated the conception of women as irrational and unreasonable. Both support and disapproval for BWS emerged. The leading debates focused on whether BWS would allow women’s perceptions to be acknowledged without the label of mental illness, more...
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