By Barbara Lewis, Womens Feature Service
Candy was 17 when she killed Henry. She got him drunk, tied him up with sticky tape, glued his eyes and lips shut and stabbed him repeatedly over the course of three days. Nearly 70 years earlier, a group of government officials met in a villa near a major European capital and discussed how to kill an entire sub-group of the population.
The question is who was the more evil – the government officials, assumed to be Nazis, or Candy, who subjected another human being to a lingering death?
For Dr Gwen Adshead, a consultant psychotherapist at Broadmoor high security psychiatric hospital in Britain, there is little difference. The real issue is the need to confront the potential within us all – women as well as men – to entertain evil, if society is to deal with it. “There is a natural capacity in all of us to get into evil states of mind. I believe this capacity is not well recognised in women,” Adshead told an audience in Gateshead, northern England, as part of the BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking ideas festival. “It’s only by understanding this aspect of ourselves that we can learn to manage it,” she said.
In Britain, the issue has been raised to prominence by two shocking cases of women allowing children to suffer appalling abuse and cruelty. In early 2009, Vanessa George, a nursery worker and mother of two from Plymouth, southwestern England, pleaded guilty to a string of child sex offences. Two other people she met online, Angela Allen from Nottingham in eastern England and Colin Blanchard from Rochdale in northern England, also admitted to carrying out sexual assaults on children and distributing indecent images.
The other horrific case is that of Baby P, a winsome-looking, blond, blue-eyed boy, found dead in his cot in August 2007 with more than 50 injuries, including a broken back. His mother Tracey Connelly is serving a prison sentence for causing or allowing the death of Baby P, whose identity was revealed to be Peter Connelly. Her boyfriend Steven Barker and the couple’s lodger Jason Owen were also jailed for “causing or allowing the death of a child or vulnerable person”.
The tragedy caused outrage not just because of the horrific treatment of a helpless child, but because of the systematic failure by the local authorities to take Baby P out of harm’s way, even though he was on a child protection register and was visited scores of times by doctors and other welfare workers. One of the reasons Tracey Connelly managed to persuade them not to take away her child might have been society’s difficulty in believing that women are not necessarily maternal and kind. “Baby Peter’s mother’s capacity for cruelty was simply not seen or understood by the people who met her,” Adshead said as part of her lecture.
Other academics have also highlighted the dangers of gender stereotyping. Laura J. Shepherd of the University of Birmingham, central England, is the editor of ‘Gender Matters in Global Politics’ (published in 2009) and ‘Gender, Violence and Security: Discourse as Practice’ (published in 2008). She looks not just at the implications of making the wrong gender assumptions for individuals and society, but for the wider arena of global affairs and asks what are the implications of “talking and writing about violence as though women are eternally bound to be victims of violence, men the inevitable perpetrators”?
Like Adshead, she raises the risk that “the association of femininity with nurturing qualities” can mean women are wrongly assumed to be innocent of perpetrating violence. She also suggests male victims may feel “feminised”, “less manly” and unable to speak out.
“If we wish to formulate and implement sensitive policies of violence prevention, we must first understand how our ideas about gender determine which acts of violence – and which victims – are deemed worthy of our attention,” Shepherd concludes. Her research could make a difference, but so far a sometimes disastrous willingness to give women and especially mothers the benefit of the doubt has proved resilient.
It has persisted in spite of the media vilifying the few acknowledged to be guilty of extreme cruelty. Tabloid newspapers branded Tracey Connelly the “evil mother” and Vanessa George a “nursery monster”. More intellectually, a hefty body of literature has explored women’s capacity for harm, stretching back to Greek tragedy and Euripides’ tragic heroine Medea, who kills her children to avenge her husband’s infidelity. A millennium later, it is Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play, ‘Macbeth’, who goads her husband to kill. Her descent into murderousness is associated in the play with an abandonment of her woman-hood. She famously urges the spirits to “unsex me here” and fill her with “direst cruelty”.
It remains true men are far more likely than women to commit violence. Adshead quoted a well-established statistic that there is “no society world-wide where men don’t account for 80 per cent of the perpetrators of violence”. But the problem that needs to be recognised is that when women do resort to violence, it is just as bad as male violence and society urgently needs to understand that.