Murderous Madonna: Femininity, Violence, and the Myth of Postpartum Mental Disorder in Cases of Maternal Infanticide and Filicide

36 Pages Posted: 18 Nov 2008

Date Written: November 16, 2008


In June of 2001, Andrea Yates drowned all of her five children in a bathtub in her suburban Texas home. Andrea Yates has since become the modern day poster child for maternal killings, which are commonly classified as either infanticide (the killing of an infant) or filicide (the killing of a child over the age of one). In the wake of Yates's case, the use of postpartum psychosis as a legal defense in cases of maternal infanticide and filicide has received considerable attention. Postpartum psychosis refers to a rare and serious mental disorder thought to occur after childbirth in some women. Despite the rare nature of postpartum psychosis, recent discussion tends erroneously to conflate all maternal killings with the disorder. Many scholars argue that the postpartum psychosis defense, along with other postpartum mental disorder defenses, should apply even more expansively to protect violent mothers from undue punishment. Some argue for changes in current laws, such as the development of a gender-specific insanity standard that caters to the intricacies of postpartum psychosis. Others support the enactment of an American Infanticide Act, which would automatically mitigate sanctions for mothers who kill. This Note argues that recent proposals are both unnecessary and misplaced, as they reflect outdated notions about female violence.

Part I of this Note will explore the extent to which cultural values concerning femininity have influenced the societal response to infanticide and filicide. This section will provide an overview of feminist legal theory and its relation to cases involving mothers who kill. Part I will also address the role that traditional notions of femininity played in Yates's trials. Lastly, this section will describe the ways in which the American legal system has already incorporated popular misconceptions about female violence into its jurisprudence. Part II will outline the reasons why the states should avoid adopting an Infanticide Act. By critiquing existing Infanticide Acts in both England and Canada, this section will demonstrate that such statutes are not only premised upon the faulty presumption that all maternal killings result from the hormonal side effects of childbirth, but also reflect the misplaced belief that women should be treated lightly for violent crimes. Part III will argue that American jurisdictions should not develop gender-specific insanity standards for women suffering from postpartum psychosis because: (a) current gender-neutral insanity standards have proven effective in accommodating women who suffer from postpartum psychosis; (b) the use of a gender-specific standard promotes dangerous leniency toward female defendants; and (c) a gender-specific standard would embrace and perpetuate false ideas about women and violence.

Keywords: infanticide, filicide, violence, femininity, postpartum psychosis, Andrea Yates, gender, murder, feminist legal theory, insanity standard, Infanticide Act, maternal violence

Suggested Citation

Stangle, Heather Leigh, Murderous Madonna: Femininity, Violence, and the Myth of Postpartum Mental Disorder in Cases of Maternal Infanticide and Filicide (November 16, 2008). William & Mary Law Review, Vol. 50, p. 699, 2008, Available at SSRN:

Heather Leigh Stangle (Contact Author)

William & Mary Law School ( email )

Williamsburg, VA
United States

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