Victim or Vamp? Images of Violent Women in the Criminal Justice System

51 Pages Posted: 4 Oct 2006 Last revised: 13 Nov 2012

Chimène Keitner

University of California Hastings College of the Law

Date Written: March 27, 2010


This article investigates elements of sex-role stereotyping and gender bias in capital punishment, and how these play themselves out in broader societal understandings and practices surrounding the use of violence by women. Part I describes the violent acts and criminal trials of the four women who were on Florida's death row in August 2000. A survey of the trial transcripts, appellate opinions, and media reports in these cases illustrates the ways in which stereotypes of appropriate female behavior are used by lawyers, judges, and journalists to portray violence by women as particularly threatening to the social order, and thus particularly deserving of censure. Part II draws out the implications of these observations. First, it addresses the contention that women receive more lenient treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system than men, and suggests that this so-called "chivalry thesis" exemplifies a societal preoccupation with controlling women. Second, it examines the battered women's defense as a contemporary manifestation of chivalry, exploring the broader societal implications of excusing women by denying their moral agency. Part III hypothesizes a connection between social attitudes towards violence by women and the subordination of women through the internalization of fear. The refusal to empower women as equal participants in the legitimate use of force to protect the state, the construction of self-defense laws that fail to recognize the circumstances and types of force that women are likely to use to protect themselves, and the persistent and pervasive contrast between female helplessness and male aggression in popular imagery and rhetoric, all have profound and disturbing implications for a society that envisages itself as moving towards gender equality. In the longer term, normalizing some uses of violence by women might be one way to help reduce the incidence of violence against us.

Keywords: women, criminal law, death penalty, sentencing, gender, stereotypes

Suggested Citation

Keitner, Chimène, Victim or Vamp? Images of Violent Women in the Criminal Justice System (March 27, 2010). Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, Vol. 11, No. 1, p. 38, 2002. Available at SSRN:

Chimène Keitner (Contact Author)

University of California Hastings College of the Law ( email )

200 McAllister Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
United States

Register to support our free research


Paper statistics

Abstract Views