Murderesses

Gender and class relations at the turn of the century were complex, yet simple at the same time. Both men and women were expected to fit into narrow spheres of behavior, and there was no admittance that people could fall outside of those established norms. We can see these ideas clearly in The Strange Case of Lizzie Borden, a documentary about the murder trial of Lizzie Borden, and also in the play A Jury of her Peers. By comparing and contrasting these two works, we can see how nineteenth century ideas about gender roles, strict social codes, and empathy with those in one’s social class allow these women to get away with their crimes.

Nineteenth century ideas about gender and what women were capable of greatly affected public opinion of both accused murderesses Lizzie Borden and Minnie Foster. In the play A Jury of her Peers, Minnie Foster was thought to be incapable of being strong enough to strangle her husband, and because of these ideas, the male investigators did not do a very thorough job in examining her house. Although Minnie Foster undoubtedly benefitted from these ideas, Lizzie Borden was able to manipulate these ideas about gender especially well. Lizzie played up on her femininity completely during the trial. She spent most of the trial knitting, fainted away at the sight of her parents’ skulls, and played the upper class lady in all instances. By buying into the established norms of female behavior, Lizzie showed the world that she was also a woman who could not perform such a violent act as an axe murder. Lizzie played up these ideas more than Minnie Foster, but the results for the women were the same. At most it was admitted that a woman might poison a man, but an actual crime where a woman would have to be face to face with her victim was considered impossible for her to execute.

In both cases, we can also see the prevalent idea of manners helping the women to avoid a guilty verdict. At the turn of the century, it was considered extremely wrong, even perverted, for a man to go through a woman’s personal things. This undoubtedly contributed to the halfhearted search that both sets of detectives made of the murder scenes. We know that the detectives in the Lizzie Borden case never searched her bedroom or any of her personal things, and the detectives in the Minnie Foster case did not search her personal things either. There were strong social norms preventing the search of private items, but Minnie Foster’s sewing box would not necessarily been searched anyway. In addition to the taboo about touching a woman’s private possessions, women’s public possessions were considered completely unimportant by men. It would not have dawned on the two investigators to search Minnie Foster’s sewing box, as they would not have attached any importance to the item. We can clearly see how turn of the century manners helped these women to escape conviction.

Class also played a strong role in the acquittal of both Lizzie Borden and Minnie Foster. At the time, those who were upper class were considered incapable of immoral behavior. Add this belief to the belief in the moral superiority of women, and you end up with an even stronger public opinion that these women are innocent. In the idea of class is where we can see the biggest deviation between the stories of Minnie Foster and Lizzie Borden. Lizzie Borden was an upper class woman. When word that she had been accused of murdering her parents spread to the community, many rallied behind her and supported her, especially those at the church that she had been attending. All claimed that a churchgoing woman could not possibly have performed the murders. According to the narrator of the documentary, it was not only because Lizzie was a woman that evidence would have been suppressed. Neighbors were going in and out of the house all day and it would have been a common practice for them to take anything that would have implicated any of the family members, not just the female ones. Often, bad behavior was seen to be the result of bad company or bad upbringing. Neighbors of the Borden family would not have wanted to share in this stigma, so they had a strong reason to hush up any evidence. In the Minnie Foster case, Minnie is not an upper class woman. Although evidence of her crime is suppressed in much the same way as in the Lizzie Borden case, we understand from the play that it is because the women discovering the evidence empathize with her, and not because of class or status. In fact, it is hinted that Minnie is of a lower status than her neighbors. Still, the end result is the same, as vital evidence is suppressed. We know in the Lizzie Borden case that she was acquitted of the charges that she murdered her parents, but we do not know the outcome of the Minnie Foster case. This is perhaps another indication of class as the wealthy woman naturally goes free, but the poorer woman’s fate is not so certain.

In both of these cases, we can clearly see much of the attitudes and ideas of turn of the century America. As the cartoons in Puck Magazine from Through Women’s Eyes show, public opinion of women is that they are delicate and silly. The women in these cartoons are all upper class white women. Although some are sporty and active, unlike previous ages, there is the general impression that they are not serious about their pursuits. All the women are delicately dressed with perfect hair and all are engaged in traditional womanly pursuits. Through these pictures, we can clearly see the overwhelming impression that women are delicate creatures and incapable of seriousness. It is not too hard to jump from these images to the actual women of the time. If women cannot take boating seriously, it is easy to see how society would assume that women would also be incapable of being serious enough for murder.

Through The Strange Case of Lizzie Borden and A Jury of Her Peers, we can see how pigeon-holed people were during the turn of the century. Gender roles were so strict that it was impossible for detectives to take Lizzie Borden or Minnie Foster seriously enough that they would be convicted of murder. The codes of class, established gender roles, and empathy for those in one’s social situation allowed both women to get away with their crimes. Although these codes worked to the women’s advantage in one way, we can also see that it was the social code in the first place that made these women want to get out of the situations they were in. The greater gender equality women of the first wave of feminism fought for was undoubtedly worth it.

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