Abused Women as Criminal Homicide Defendants in 20th-Century California

Friday, January 3, 2020: 2:30 PM
Empire Ballroom West (Sheraton New York)
Carolyn B. Ramsey, University of Colorado Law School
This paper derives from a book-in-progress analyzing the criminal law response to domestic assaults and homicides from 1880 to 1994, with a focus on California. My research challenges the assumption that an apathetic, even misogynistic state allowed men to beat or kill their spouses with impunity but treated women's violence against men as depraved and subversive. In California, the government intervened in the family to police masculinity a century before the Battered Women's Movement. Wife assaults were charged as misdemeanors or even felonies in the first half of the twentieth century. Although victims' reluctance to prosecute impeded convictions, some batterers had to pay fines and serve jail time. Wife killers went to prison or received capital punishment. Conversely, women who used lethal violence against abusive men were often found to have acted justifiably. Rather than signaling a commitment to women's rights, these flawed efforts to curb domestic violence perpetrated by men accorded with a general condemnation of male intemperance associated with excessive drinking, wife beating, indolence, and lack of self-control. By the eve of the Battered Women's Movement, things had changed. My paper compares cases of female murder defendants in California during the 1950s-1970s with cases from the earlier period to explore how anxiety and backlash sparked by women's bid for equality affected attitudes toward abused wives who killed their husbands. The manslaughter conviction of Rose Lucas for shooting her hard-drinking, police-officer husband in San Francisco in 1957, after being denied law enforcement protection, exemplifies a trend in similar cases. Before mid-century, California juries and judges may have been less mystified by the "Why didn't she leave?" question than after World War II. As women increasingly sought employment, easier access to divorce, and other liberation, battered wives encountered a harsher legal response precipitated by a decline in paternalistic values.
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