“Abominations of the Female Sex”. Five cases of Late Nineteenth Century Criminal Women.

Tucker, Katherine (2013) “Abominations of the Female Sex”. Five cases of Late Nineteenth Century Criminal Women. Masters thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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This thesis focuses upon media and legal representations of five case studies of women who kill taken from the decade 1870-1880. All of the five women, Mary Ann Cotton, Mary Ann Barry, Frances Stewart, Selina Wadge and Kate Webster through their murderous acts, challenged the ideal of Victorian femininity. The women were ‘othered’ due to their failed gendered performance and cast as double failures, or ‘doubly deviant’, failures to the laws of gender and failure to abide by the laws of the land.

This research is a work of passion. Upon reading media and legal texts it became apparent that criminal women (both within my chosen decade and also, today) were both tried and represented as essentially different to ‘normal’ women. The woman who kills is either ‘mad’ or ‘bad’ with the main purpose of this categorisation to deny her agency. If she does not have the tools to communicate through the dominant mode of expression, then her experience will also remain muted. Within this thesis, I highlight the discursive undercurrent of the media and the law and emphasise the need for women who kill to be given their own agency; I also question the application of Victorian ‘justice’.

Legal and media discourse are dominant knowledge’s, dominant discourses, which are readily available to the masses and due to their power can be regarded as ‘truth’ over lower ranking, subjugated knowledges such as personal experience. However, there are competing discourses: The petitions within this thesis are alternative truths and important examples of subjugated knowledge’s, which serve to challenge the dominant discourses surrounding the five cases.

I undertook this research utilising both relevant literature (contemporary and historical) and original historical documentation analysed using critical discourse analysis. The documents were sourced from both The National Media Library (newspapers), which then led me to The National Archives (petitions, transcripts and depositions) in London. These documents provided an essential view of the five women and allowed for their discursive construction or ‘abnormality’ to be highlighted.

The aim is to draw upon the theoretical position of standpoint feminism and by applying Foucault to prioritise experience over patriarchal (or dominant) knowledge (such as the law and media). Utilising the above documentation this thesis aims to allow criminal women their agency; not to relate to these women or condone their actions, but to give these women the same legal standards, which are afforded to men.

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