From the very beginning of the country, women on the raveling edge have outlined and made plain the fabric of society.""...



From the very beginning of the country, women on the raveling edge have outlined and made plain the fabric of society."" With a winning directness, Ann Jones (Uncle Tom's Campus) sees women accused of murdering their infants, lovers, and husbands as not totally different from other women; they are simply women ""who find extreme solutions to problems that thousands of women cope with in more peaceable ways. . . ."" She then proceeds--via rich and fascinating individual stories--to trace the links between cases which touched social nerves throughout our history and the social attitudes and forces that gave rise to them. Thus, in the Colonial era--when men far outnumbered women and servants, forbidden to marry, had their terms of service extended for producing a bastard child--infanticide was the leading woman's crime and its punishment certain death. For while women were not granted social equality, they did stand equal to men in the eyes of church and civic authorities. But in the post-revolutionary era, as the doctrine of separate spheres relegated women to the home, the woman became ""a nonentity, a mere appendage of the father or husband whose name she bore, a name that had to be protected at all costs."" Once again, the crimes fit the social setting: women, confined to the home, took to poisoning their husbands and lovers within the home (indeed, one enterprising Norwegian immigrant made marriage quite literally her business by advertising for prospects and then murdering them as soon as they had made the down payment). Throughout, Jones is careful to point out differences by class and race--between, most graphically, the fates of Bridget Durgan, an Irish domestic who hung for a crime she probably didn't commit, and Fall River's moneyed Lizzie Borden, who ended her days in a splendid hilltop house bought shortly after her acquittal. Nineteenth-century patriarchal thinking also provided the stereotype of the despoiled malden: tales of seduction, betrayal, and revenge were acted out in the courtroom, where the young woman involved was usually let go free. But in the post-WW I era, ""social fathers"" had second thoughts about a female sexual liberation that put demands for autonomy in place of pleas of innocence. ""A promiscuous Cinderella mocked the whole patriarchal fairy tale""; and so Ruth Snyder, a working-class woman who conspired with her lover to kill her evil-tempered husband, was transformed by the papers, once her guilt was suspected, from a ""pretty, soft, smiling"" female into ""Ruthless Ruth, the Viking Ice Maiden of Queens Village."" Today, Jones rightly sees the battered wife or rape victim who ""murders"" her tormentor as the touchstone case in which social forces--particularly the backlash against feminism--again reveal the ""profound cultural deformities"" of our society. An effective, well-argued, engrossing social history, one that speaks both of crimes by and against women.

Pub Date: Oct. 6, 1980

ISBN: 1558616071

Page Count: -

Publisher: Holt, Rinehart & Winston

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1980