Sexual Profiling and Mothers Who Kill

By Michèle Alexandre

Sexual profiling is alive and well in our society. It thrives not only because of pervasive gender discrimination, but also because of subtle perpetuation of toxic assumptions regarding gender roles and behaviors.  

In previous works, I have defined sexual profiling as the persistent patterns of punishment and legal sanctions levied against individuals who fail to conform to accepted gender norms.  Destructive stereotypes associated with these pervasive norms and gender biases perpetuate inequities in the enforcement of laws against non-conforming women.

Such inequities, unfortunately, have remained unchecked. Though some might be aware of the ongoing occurrence of gender discrimination, few of us question our daily assumptions regarding gender.  Take for example, the Casey Anthony case as it relates to societal views of women who commit infanticide. These cases present an agglomeration of the sort of profiling trappings that often render our society incapable of equitable evaluations.  From the Andrea Yates case, to the Casey Anthony drama, to, more recently, the Shakara Dickens case, infanticide cases showcase front and center our deep-seated stereotypes about women and motherhood.  Moreover, they highlight the complex hierarchical nature of maternal stereotypes.  

These biases are based on assumptions that women are inherently sacrificing and virtuous mothers at the expense of all other aspects of their identity.  As such, they place insurmountable burdens on women, particularly those who undergo such illnesses as postpartum depression.  Saddled by impossible expectations that they handle all caretaking alone, these women tend to suffer in silence.  Judged severely when these infanticide cases come to light, little attention is paid to the disproportionate burdens placed on those mothers. Instead, they are viewed as either "bad" or, if lucky, "mad".  These women are then routinely labeled as "bad breeders" and/or as "monsters".

The case of Andrea Yates is one such case.  Well before the tragedy, signs of depression and mental instability were present in Yates's life. She began to suffer from postpartum depression after her earlier pregnancies, but never received adequate assistance.  Despite a medical diagnosis of instability, pressure for maternal perfection overtook Yates.  Striving to hold herself to the standard of the ideal mother, Yates's condition worsened. Thus, despite being overwhelmed by her earlier pregnancies, she continued to have children. 

In light of society's attitudes toward women who don't conform to the ideal of motherhood, it is not surprising that a jury of her peers harshly convicted Andrea Yates.  She only escaped a lengthy prison sentence by a miraculous reversal on appeal.

Controversy aside, the Casey Anthony case presents similar patterns of profiling.  Casey Anthony seemed to be a terrible mother.  She was seen partying and behaving recklessly as her child was missing. What more, her stories were so inconsistent that she had no credibility.  As such, Casey Anthony represented the prototype of the deviant woman; one who completely abdicates her responsibility as a mother, and by such acts, becomes unworthy of any protections.  

As the case evolved, however, the facts did not lend themselves to a legal determination that Anthony had killed her child.  That realization angered many. Called "Tot Mom" or "Baby Killer" by some, Anthony's case divided the country.  As reported by the Huffington Post on July 5, 2011, upon the announcement of the verdict, "outside the courthouse, many in the crowd of 500 reacted with anger, chanting, "Justice for Caylee!" One man yelled, "Baby killer!"  No matter the facts, it seemed unfair to many that such a bad mother would escape a long jail sentence.  Wherever you go in America today, the name Casey Anthony continues to spark controversy and trigger intense anger.  

Still, Anthony was luckier than many women of color stereotyped as "deviant".  Unlike these women, in Anthony's case, a jury of her peers decided to dutifully apply the "beyond a reasonable doubt standard" of criminal prosecution. Unfortunately, many women of color are often not afforded that basic consideration. Moreover, women of color are confronted with the added stereotype of being promiscuous baby killers. Such stereotype has fueled the impulse to prosecute disproportionately pregnant women of color suffering from addiction.  It also underlies the uneven approach and treatment of black women who commit infanticide compared to their white counterparts.  In a world that treats imperfect mothers harshly, Anthony's case, compared to those of some black women, exemplifies the relative privilege that exists even in these restrictive contexts.

Consider the case of Shakara Dickens, an African-American woman in Memphis, TN.  Like Anthony, the disappearance of Dickens's daughter was first surrounded with uncertainty and incredibility as to what really happened. Dickens claimed that she gave her 9-month-old daughter to a friend of the baby's father.  Like Anthony, Dickens went to a nightclub and bought new clothes days after her daughter's disappearance.  Similarly, she did not report her daughter missing for a week.  After a trial in 2012, in which she was convicted, Dickens was sentenced in June 2012 to 19 years without parole.  

Unlike Yates, Shakara Dickens was not viewed as suffering from a debilitating illness warranting treatment.  Like Anthony, she exemplified the prototype of bad motherhood deserving of punishment, but unlike Anthony, she did not receive the benefit of the doubt from her jury.

This contrast in treatment is a harsh reminder to check any narrative that paints women in one-dimensional terms.  Tendencies to simply criminalize non-conforming behaviors by women must be constantly denounced if the effects of sexual profiling are ever to be stymied.  Furthermore, in denouncing sexual profiling, close attention must be paid to the ways in which privilege and oppression can intersect in the gender context.  Doing so, will ensure that efforts to reform these problematic laws and practices remain inclusionary and non-hierarchical.  

Professor Michèle Alexandre is an Associate Professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law. She is a graduate of Colgate University and Harvard Law School. Her teaching areas include international law, civil rights law, disability law, gender and the law and constitutional law.


This blog does not necessarily reflect the views of Rights Working Group.

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