Death penalty defies female equality

Women have come a long way in history when it comes to gender equality, but there is still one aspect in which women are vastly unequal to men – the death penalty.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there were 61 women on death row as of Jan. 1. These women make up less than 2 percent of inmates currently on death row. The first female execution occurred in 1632, and since then there have been only 569 documented cases. While this number seems high, it constitutes less than 3 percent of all documented cases of execution since 1608.

A few weeks ago, Theresa Lewis was executed in Virginia for the murders of her husband and stepson in 2002. Her case caused controversy for a few reasons, especially her gender.

Throughout history, cases of women being sentenced to the death penalty have always received a lot of attention and scrutiny. But why? When it comes to murder, and the penalty for murder, why do women cause so much more controversy than men?

"We're not used to seeing women even being guilty of these kinds of crimes. It's outside of what our persona is of women, so that it shocks people," said Dolly Mullen, an associate professor of political science at UNC Asheville.

Even in modern society, some women are still fighting to obtain equal rights as men. Case in point, the National Committee on Pay Equity and the Equal Pay for an Equal Day campaign. It is unlikely, however, that people will argue for gender equality when it comes to the death penalty.
The issue of the death penalty itself has always stirred up controversy, but cases involving women seem to evoke even stronger opinions against it.

"My opinion on the death sentence put aside, this ‘favoring' of a specific gender when it comes to the legal execution of people is a good example of gender roles expected in society and our long history of gender inequalities," said Dylan Cipkowski, a junior environmental studies student.

Whether people support or oppose the death penalty, society's view of women does not sustain the notion that a woman would be capable of murder. In looking at the individual cases of women sentenced to death, there is almost a trend.
These women were not usually executed for random homicides. In the 12 cases of women executed in the past few decades, only one-fourth were for the murders of strangers.

"There is a certain cunning and devious and, really, gifted and awful criminal activity that we don't associate with women," Mullen said about the Lewis case.

"That a woman would kill two men, a mother would kill two men, there is no place for that in our social imagination."
Many cases of women committing murder and being executed for it involve the deaths of people close to them, such as a husband or child. These cases, especially those involving children, evoke more outrage in people than other murder cases.

"I think that children's lives are protected in ways that perhaps adults' aren't because they're defenseless," Mullen said. "So the state has to step in and make the lesson out of the people who do this. All the more reason for a woman to be considered incurable who would do something like that."

The fight for total gender equality may never be resolved. There may always be cases in which women feel men have the upper hand, but the death penalty is not one of these cases. There will probably never be an instance where someone will decide that it is unfair for so many more men to be executed than women. This controversy, however, does raise questions about the way society views women.

Women are still seen as the weaker sex in many aspects. They have come a long way in gaining equality to men. Looking back only 50 years ago, it would have been unusual for a woman to hold a position of power. Now, however, women can be seen going so far as to run for president of the United States. Yet, the absolute evil in the ability to commit murder is not generally associated with women.

Is it likely that women in general are just incapable of such an evil act, or is it society's idea of women that accounts for the large gap in death penalty statistics between genders? Maybe so many more men than women have been executed because less women commit crimes that lead to execution. Or, maybe, it is possible women are less likely to be sentenced to death because society just does not believe them to be capable of murder.