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Amy Bishop is a Feminist Issue

March 11, 2010

Image via Slate

When Amy Bishop was arrested for murdering 3 of her colleagues and wounding 3 others with a handgun during a Biology faculty meeting, people were understandably shocked—and that shock gave way, as it often does, to questions about how such a terrible thing could have happened and what “we” might have done to prevent it.  For a time, it seemed that the killings were “about” the vagaries and injustices of the Tenure Process or the Culture of Academia.  Then it seemed that Bishop’s rampage was attributable to the pressures of being a woman and trying to have it all—and finally, that Amy Bishop represented nothing, since, as Emily Bazelon at Slate put it, “she looks like the kind of outlier who doesn’t symbolize much of anything. Women rarely kill, and it’s even more rare for them to go on rampages like this. It’s important not to lose sight of that—as I was verging toward—when an exception like this one rears up, overwhelming as it can seem.”

While I’m certainly unwilling to suggest that Bishop’s alleged triple-murder was the inevitable result of either gender discrimination or the pressure-cooker of tenure review, it seems both dismissive and wrongheaded to me to suggest that she represents nothing, or that her “outlier” status suggests that we not pay attention to what her case does highlight.  As a woman in an academic discipline dominated by men, my first reaction was to assume that Bishop’s case was connected to the demonstrated bias against women in such an environment.  But, as more information emerges, it is evident that the gendered—and racialized—components of this story are in need of deeper feminist investigation.  With that in mind, here’s what I think we can learn from Amy Bishop:

1. The assumption that women are incapable of premeditated violence is pervasive and dangerous.  We don’t have a lot of information on why Bishop was not charged in the 1986 killing of her brother, but it seems clear that the claim that his shooting was an accident was believable—even after Bishop fled the scene and allegedly attempted to steal a car with the same shotgun—was at least in part related to the fact that she didn’t look like a killer: she was a twenty-year-old middle-class white woman.

As Sam Tanenhaus pointed out in an article for the New York Times, this assumption gains traction through popular portrayals of women’s violence as solely reactionary, the result of victimization:

… the landscape of unprovoked but premeditated female violence remains strangely unexplored. Women who kill are “relegated to an ‘exceptional case’ status that rests upon some exceptional, or untoward killing circumstance: the battered wife who kills her abusive husband; the postpartum psychotic mother who kills her newborn infant,” Candice Skrapec, a professor of criminology, noted in “The Female Serial Killer,” an essay included in the anthology “Moving Targets: Women, Murder and Representation” (1994).

Ms. Skrapec was writing at a time when Hollywood seemed preoccupied with women who commit crimes — in productions like “The Burning Bed,” the 1984 television film in which a battered wife finally sets her sleeping husband aflame, and “Thelma & Louise” (1991), in which a pair of women go on a outlaw spree after one of them is threatened with rape.

Both are essentially exculpatory parables of empowerment, anchored in feminist ideology. Their heroines originate as victims, pushed to criminal excesses by injustices done to them. The true aggressors are the men who mistreat and objectify them. So too with “Monster” (2003), in which Charlize Theron, in a virtuosic instance of empathy (and cosmetic makeover) re-enacted the story of Aileen Wuornos, a real-life prostitute who, after years of sexual abuse, began murdering her clients.

Ironically, the assumption that women just don’t do these sorts of things—because we’re too nurturing, or too passive, or to gentle—doesn’t just put others at risk, it serves to de-humanize us by reducing us to the “truth” of our gender.  This is not to say that violence is a good thing; it is rather to point out that there’s something deeply wrong in our ability to conceptualize men as a diverse group in which some are killers and some are not, while we steadfastly refuse to believe (at least, if our art and law enforcement decisions are indicative of anything) that “women” operate as a homogenous group based on our shared internal plumbing.

2. Bourgeois white people are still privileged. This is actually connected to the first claim, in that there was something about Amy Bishop as a person that lent credibility to the claim she was not responsible for her brother’s killing (or, for that matter, the attempted pipe-bombing of another colleague, or the assault of another woman in an IHOP over a booster seat).  As Laurie Essig, a professor of sociology and women’s studies puts it at the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Bishop’s case should make us think more about gun control and white privilege. Why was she let go after her brother’s death? How did she get a gun a second time? Why were her victims disproportionately of color?

We might just as well ask, how many people of color get probation and recommendations for anger-management classes for assaulting strangers unprovoked in public?  Amy Bishop’s 2002 assault resulted in no meaningful consequences for her, as is all-too-often the case for bourgeois white people who commit violent or drug-related offenses.  Bishop’s own self-aggrandizing Do you know who I AM-esque statement that preceded the assault—“I am Dr. Amy Bishop!”—implicitly acknowledged the truth of her privilege.  She was entitled to the last booster seat, just as she was entitled not to be charged for assaulting another woman in public.

3. Women in academia still face a hard road.  Regardless of whether Bishop was wrongfully denied tenure (and it seems clear that she was not), the process that led up to that denial was seriously flawed.  For starters, a member of the tenure review committee’s statement that she was “crazy” (based at that time primarily on the fact that she apparently got angry when someone turned in her grant paperwork late, which is hardly the conclusive evidence that this anonymously-sourced, gossipy piece at the Chronicle implies) is exactly the sort of undermining, dismissive characterization that many of us who don’t go on to murder our colleagues hear on a regular basis.  Typically, such remarks are—at least on paper—discouraged, out of concerns that they’ll trigger just the sort of EEOC complaints that Bishop filed.  But this certainly does not mean that they don’t still happen, especially for women who fail to honor the stiff academic rules of Holding Your Tongue Till Tenure.

Moreover, the process of getting tenure—or for that matter, getting an academic job—in itself is in many cases totally unreasonable, presuming a model academic who has no familial obligations: one must be able to move anywhere (since there are often only 5 or so jobs in the country for which one is truly qualified), work without real breaks for anywhere from 5 to 10 years, and attend faculty meetings and conferences at all times of day or year (where childcare is very infrequently available).  At many institutions, moreover, the tenure “clock” (i.e., the time limit under which one has to produce enough research to prove that s/he should keep their job) does not necessarily stop for substantially life-altering events like pregnancy.  In short, it is assumed that the ideal scholar is a bachelor or a male head-of-household with someone at home whose career may take second place and who will shoulder all home-related responsibilities.  I have no idea whether Dr. Bishop’s inabilities to meet her tenure requirements were connected to her parenting responsibilities, but this remains a problem, and it needs to be addressed.

The point here is not that Amy Bishop was a powerless dupe of a corrupt system.  Amy Bishop murdered her colleagues in a calculated act of unprovoked violence.  What is important to recognize, however, is the extent to which that violence was enabled by a failure to interrogate deeply-embedded gender stereotypes, as well as racial and class-based privilege.  And this fact, coupled with an academic social context that is disproportionately unfavorable to the success of women, was a recipe for disaster.

No one pulled the trigger but Amy Bishop.  But Amy Bishop’s actions not only “symbolize” something, they shed a light on serious problems that feminists and academics need to work seriously to counter.

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