“Father of ‘Idyllic’ Family is Charged after Driving Tesla off Cliff.” “Utah Man Kills Wife, Five Children and Mother-in-Law, Police Say.” “Ana Walshe’s husband, Brian Walshe, is charged with murder.” As these January headlines attest, 2023 is on pace to top previous years’ rates of femicide — the crime of men, nearly always current or former intimate partners, killing women.
According to a September 2022 report by the Violence Policy Center, between 2014 (the lowest year on record) and 2020, the incidence of femicide in the United States has increased by 24 percent. In addition, intimate partner violence rose an estimated 8 percent during the coronavirus pandemic and does not appear to have subsided.
Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that, among our peer countries, the United States accounts for 70 percent of incidents of femicide and ranks 34th among all countries (in large part this is because of the accessibility of firearms in the United States).
But media reports have neglected to shine the light on this chilling reality, especially when Black women, Native American women and trans women are the targets of violence, which they overwhelmingly are.
Feminist activist Diana Russell began using the term “femicide” in 1976, at the first International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women, to describe the “killing of females by males because they are female.” Yet, in the United States, the term “femicide” is rarely used to describe the killings of women by men that take place on American soil. This isn’t just a media oversight. Textbooks also gloss over, at best, the role of gendered and sexual violence in our nation’s history. (The teaching of these topics is being further obstructed by state laws banning “critical race theory” and research-based discussions of sex.)
Yet to understand the current problem of femicide, we must put it in historical context — and in particular in the contexts of white supremacy, U.S. expansion and coverture.
Under the system of British common law that governed American states well into the 19th century, wives were considered an appendage of their husbands and a woman’s legal identity was covered by that of her husband, hence the term coverture. “Mrs. John Smith” meant that, after marriage, the courts did not care about a woman’s maiden name or identity; all that mattered was her marital status.
Until the late 1800s, married women had no legal right to their own earnings, to any property they may have inherited or even to the children they had borne from their own bodies. Under coverture, it was also basically inconceivable for a husband to be prosecuted for assaulting his wife or children — they were, essentially, his to do with as he saw fit.
At the same time, gendered and sexual violence were used as tools to extend White settlers’ control of land and of enslaved people.