Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Female Mass Murderers: Major Cases and Motives

What about Women?

Special agent Gregg McCrary
Special agent Gregg McCrary

In Flash Point: The American Mass Murderer, a sociology text, author Michael Kelleher mentions a couple of female mass murderers and notes a lack of attention to them. The author, however, does not delve into a psychological analysis of these women. 

That may be due, at least in part, to an American myth about "female virtue," as Patricia Pearson hypothesizes in her book, When She Was Bad: How and Why Women Get Away With Murder. Pearson points out that while people in general tend to view women as non-aggressive, in fact, "women commit the majority of child homicides in the United States, a greater share of physical child abuse, an equal rate of sibling violence and assaults on the elderly, about a quarter of child sexual abuse, an overwhelming share of the killing of newborns, and a fair preponderance of spousal assaults."

She believes it's easier to envision men committing violence because of their larger, more muscular builds, and criminologists tend to define violence in primarily masculine ways — hitting someone rather than manipulating the demise of their career, or shooting instead of poisoning a victim. Pearson points out that "the capacity of women to use masculine violence emerges very clearly in those societies that sanction its expression," and offers numerous examples from the field of anthropology to support this.

In short, the way a culture defines gender and violence has an impact on how well the phenomenon is studied in females.  In American society, young females are routinely regarded as "less criminal" than young males, and their crimes less serious.  Former FBI special agent Gregg McCrary says he has observed this bias and its effect. "We have an overall sense that females are the nurturers in society and males the combatants," he said.  "We carry that stereotype into our perceptions and fail to see that women are equally capable of aggression."

Yet as society offers more role models for women who exhibit aggression, we've seen a concomitant rise in episodes of female violence.  We've got new role models like kick-boxing Buffy and Lara Croft.   As society evolves in its appreciation for strong females, the FBI's National Incident-Based Reporting System indicates that one in four juvenile arrests involves a female, and arrest rates since 1987 have risen and even surpassed the rate for males.  In the past decade, the population of incarcerated females has tripled.  It turns out that aggressive behavior for both genders develops in similar ways, and shifting social influences are affecting these trends.

While the female brain appears better equipped to constrain violent impulses, aggression is not just rooted in the amygdales and frontal lobes.  It's also about the society in which children are raised.  Aggression is a good barometer of social values, because those values are expressed all around us, suggesting and reinforcing how to behave. Decades of violence research indicates that biology and environment act together. 

Add aggressive images, which prime aggressive thoughts, making them easily accessible in situations that call for action.  This endorses physical aggression, and repeated exposure to these images only strengthens the priming effect.  One study indicates that children who strongly identify with aggressive television characters are more apt to utilize aggression as the preferred method of solving problems.  Violence in the home or problems in school such as bullying attunes them to such characters.

Girls may watch female characters kickbox the world into shape, but they don't learn from these poised warriors the difference between standing up for themselves and being just plain forceful.  Images give people ideas, and that's apparently behind some of the mass murders we've seen among females.


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