Andrea Pia Yates — the Houston woman who drowned her five children — has prompted stunned and public discussion of how a mother could possibly kill her own offspring. It has also inspired a particularly vicious new feminist line of reasoning.
It has been well documented for years that mothers are responsible for much, if not most, fatal child abuse in North America. A Bureau of Justice report entitled Murder in Families (NCJ 143498) surveyed murder cases tried in 1988 and discovered 55 percent of defendants charged with killing their own children were women. The Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-3, 1996) from the Department of Health and Human Services reported that mothers perpetrate 78 percent of fatal child abuse.
Even granting that women are usually the primary caregivers, these figures are high. So high that alarm bells should be ringing.
Instead, there is silence or worse. The "worse" is political correctness, which views women as victims, never as victimizers.
The mainstream media has accepted this feminist myth so completely it is scrambling to somehow soften the unmitigated evil of a mother murdering her five young children. Evil is not too strong a word.
Yates' videotaped confession to the police described drowning Mary, the 6-month-old, in the bathtub. As Yates was doing so, Noah, the eldest child at 7 years old, wandered into the bathroom and asked, "What's wrong with Mary?" Yates ran after the fleeing boy and drowned him next.
Yet, in newsprint and on airwaves, there are compassionate discussions of Yates' mental state. Blame is already shifting onto the shoulders of her husband and society for not recognizing the depth of her psychosis.
There are calls for greater funding of women's health issues. Yates is fast becoming a poster woman for post-partum depression.
Consider how a popular feminist news site, Women's Enews, is handling the story. On June 27, the site featured an article by Cheryl Meyer, co-author of the upcoming book, Mothers Who Kill Their Children: Understanding the Acts of Mothers From Susan Smith to the Prom Mom (August 2001, New York University Press).
Meyer begins by inferring that society is responsible for the murders. "People ... didn't pay attention when Andrea repeatedly voiced her symptoms of depression," Meyer writes. She concludes that, if Yates were in England instead of "relatively barbaric" America, she would be in a hospital receiving medical treatment instead of in jail.
In what seems to be the "moral message" section, Meyer discusses having researched several thousand cases of mothers killing their children in '90s, with approximately 10 percent of the cases involving the death of more than one child. She has made a startling discovery. These murderous moms are a sort of Every Woman because many mothers "almost snap."
Meyer appeals to us not to distance ourselves from Yates. "It frightens us that Andrea Yates could be any mother," she explains, so we focus on "making her different from us or ... on the legal technicalities of her case."
Instead, we should be focusing on the culpability of the medical community for not sufficiently recognizing post-partum syndromes. "Like many women's health issues and particularly women's mental health issues, they are discounted."
So goes the new PC feminist line. Even a woman who viciously murders babies is the true victim, a casualty of white male culture's indifference to the plight of women. Yates deserves our understanding, not distance.
The new feminist wrinkle, in part, is the myth that women are somehow superior to men and yet, strangely, not responsible for their own actions. Instead, Meyer asks us to consider "the responsibility we have toward our fellow human beings." A responsibility not to kill the weak and innocent doesn't seem to rank high.
There is one sense in which the Yates case is a step in the right direction. At least, PC feminists are acknowledging that women in the home are as violent as men.
They are being forced to admit what studies and governmental statistics have made obvious for years. But a unique spin is being applied to the information: Women's violence is the fault of men and male culture; the Amercian Medical Association doesn't listen; motherhood is conducted in a social isolation that makes women snap; the average mother empathizes with infanticide.
Yates must not be used to construct a psychological model of American motherhood. Statements such as Meyer's must be challenged. She writes, "Most mothers just seem to understand how a woman could kill her child." She concludes, "When we target certain cases and try to ascertain how this particular mother could have killed her child, we mask the more important question, why don't more mothers do this?"
Feminist sites are fond of reprinting a famous speech by the ex-slave Sojourner Truth, "Ain't I a Woman." There, Sojourner cried from a mother's heart, "I have borne 13 children and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?"
Where is the voice within PC feminism that cries out, "Wasn't baby Mary a female?" Where are the non-political tears over Noah, John, Paul, and Luke?
McElroy is the editor of www.ifeminists.com. She also edited Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Independent Institute, 1999) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women (McFarland, 1996). She lives with her husband in Canada.