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The Crimes of Womanhood

The Crimes of Womanhood: Defining Femininity in a Court of Law

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 200
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    The Crimes of Womanhood
    Book Description:

    Cultural views of femininity exerted a powerful influence on the courtroom arguments used to defend or condemn notable women on trial in nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century America. By examining the colorful rhetorical strategies employed by lawyers and reporters of women's trials in newspaper articles, trial transcriptions, and popular accounts, A. Cheree Carlson argues that the men in charge of these communication avenues were able to transform their own values and morals into believable narratives that persuaded judges, juries, and the general public of a woman's guilt or innocence._x000B__x000B_Carlson analyzes the situations of several women of varying historical stature, from the insanity trials of Mary Todd Lincoln and Lizzie Borden's trial for the brutal slaying of her father and stepmother, to lesser-known trials involving insanity, infidelity, murder, abortion, and interracial marriage. The insanity trial of Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard, the wife of a minister, resulted from her attempts to change her own religion, while a jury acquitted Mary Harris for killing her married lover, suggesting that loss of virginity to an adulterous man was justifiable grounds for homicide. The popular conception of abortion as a "woman's crime" came to the fore in the case of Ann Loman (also known as Madame Restell), who performed abortions in New York both before and after it became a crime. Finally, Alice Rhinelander was sued for fraud by her new husband Leonard for "passing" as white, but the jury was more moved by the notion of Alice being betrayed as a woman by her litigious husband than by the supposed defrauding of Leonard as a white male. Alice won the case, but the image of womanhood as in need of sympathy and protection won out as well._x000B__x000B_At the heart of these cases, Carlson reveals clearly just how narrow was the line that women had to walk, since the same womanly virtues that were expected of them--passivity, frailty, and purity--could be turned against them at any time. These trials of popular status are especially significant because they reflect the attitudes of the broad audience, indicate which forms of knowledge are easily manipulated, and allow us to analyze how the verdict is argued outside the courtroom in the public and press. With gripping retellings and incisive analysis of these scandalous criminal and civil cases, this book will appeal to historians, rhetoricians, feminist researchers, and anyone who enjoys courtroom drama.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09076-9
    Subjects: Sociology, History, Law

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Womanhood on Trial
    (pp. 1-14)

    This is a book about stories. More precisely, it is about stories told by white male lawyers to white male juries concerning women of all kinds. One might even consider them “morality tales” recast for their contemporary, and presumably more sophisticated, audiences. In these stories, virtuous women are betrayed by libertines, and innocent men are seduced by fallen women. Insane women threaten the safety of the community and sane women are exploited by greedy physicians. The odd fact that sometimes all these things occur simultaneously to the same characters is mainly due to conflicting goals of the narrators. Lawyers tell...

  5. 1. Narrative Intersections in Popular Trials
    (pp. 15-20)

    In the introduction, I argued that the ideal way to explore the power of literary icons of womanhood is to investigate cases where definite decisions were made, in arenas where the reasoning process is still relatively available to the researcher. Trials are especially good starting points for such an investigation.

    In addition to the obvious benefit of having individuals “vote,” trials are also mirrors of attitudes in the public realm. Trials serve as “a form of social knowledge in that it is the means by which we hold what we know. It is a symbolic container allowing symbolic material to...

  6. 2. Framing Madness in the Sanity Trial of Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard
    (pp. 21-38)

    Emily Dickinson, a figure known almost as well for her eccentricity as for her poetry, has encapsulated in these lines a dilemma that plagued both law and medicine in the nineteenth century. At what point does nonconformity cross the line into madness? And when does it become necessary to attach that chain?

    This chapter explores that shifting line by analyzing the case of a woman who was actually tried for insanity in Illinois during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Due to an unusual set of circumstances, Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard, a woman who appeared destined for quiet disappearance,...

  7. 3. The Mad Doctors Meet McNaughton: The Battle for Narrative Supremacy in the Trial of Mary Harris
    (pp. 39-68)

    The narrative elements of a popular trial can be manipulated by either side in an attempt to persuade juries that a particular woman is a criminal or a victim. The Packard case is a simple example. It is easy for the modern reader to dismiss the antiquated notion that failing to obey one’s husband is either a crime or a sure indication of madness. But it is also easy to dismiss the case on another basis. The judge in the case deliberately refused to delay the trial until an “expert” on insanity could arrive to testify. Thus, the rhetors and...

  8. 4. “True Womanhood” and Perfect Madness: The Sanity Trial of Mary Todd Lincoln
    (pp. 69-84)

    If one were to use the jury decisions we have seen so far, it could be inferred that in the nineteenth century, women of gentle birth were expected to be demure, picture-perfect icons of domesticity. To violate social norms was to face penalties ranging from social ostracism to legal action. Women who stood out too far from the crowd were often ruined socially, slandered by the press, or, worst of all, declared insane and locked away. This could lead one to believe that women who stay with the prescribed limits would be safe. Surely there was no reason to prosecute...

  9. 5. Womanhood as Asset and Liability: Lizzie Andrew Borden
    (pp. 85-110)

    Nearly every study of the Borden case includes this verse, and there is no reason for this chapter to stray from convention. That this bit of schoolyard doggerel can still occasionally be heard on the playground attests to the staying power of the legend of this woman. That it got the details completely wrong attests to the power of a narrative to survive despite its contradiction of the facts.

    The presupposition of the rhyme is that Lizzie was guilty. A common presupposition of later research on her trial is that she “got off” because she was a woman. Both assumptions...

  10. 6. Bodies at the Crossroads: The Rise and Fall of Madame Restell
    (pp. 111-135)

    Up to this point, the principals involved in the legal cases this volume has covered have been accused of only one crime. Their cases rose to prominence rapidly and were as rapidly forgotten. Ann Lohman, alias Madame Restell, was different. Her rise and fall took over thirty years and was documented carefully—by her adversaries. “Madame Restell” was a professional abortionist.

    Although she was repeatedly arrested and tried, she never once admitted that what she was doing was a crime. She was a businesswoman, she protested, supplying a much-needed service. The laws of the state of New York thought otherwise....

  11. 7. “You Know It When You See It”: The Rhetorical Embodiment of Race and Gender in Rhinelander v. Rhinelander
    (pp. 136-156)

    In the fall of 1925, a scion of one of the oldest, wealthiest families of New York publicly declared that his bride of barely a month had defrauded him. She was hiding the fact that she was “colored,” explained his lawyers, and had he known this he never would have married her. His wife’s lawyers found this claim disingenuous. He had spent the last three years in and out of her family’s home. He had seen all her relatives. More important, he had seenher; how could he not have known she was


    “Race” was, and still is, a...

  12. Conclusion: Womanhood as Narrative
    (pp. 157-166)

    In the search for a common thread uniting the use of gendered narratives in legal arguments, one eventually comes to the conclusion that the only surety is that there was no surety. The overarching narrative framework that dictated feminine roles was a clear as any rhetorical construction could be, yet that clarity provided no safe formula that could be used by an individual—female or male—to guarantee a particular outcome.

    In the courtroom, the evaluation of human behavior was made under strict rules of law and evidence created by males who maintained that the facts were “ungendered.” These rules...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 167-172)
  14. References
    (pp. 173-184)
  15. Index
    (pp. 185-189)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 190-190)