In Savage Spawn, Jonathan Kellerman states that male psychopaths outnumber females approximately eight to one. Yet the voluminous literature on psychopathy focuses primarily on males, so little can really be said on the subject until assessment levels are more comparable. Childhood psychopaths (males) get far more attention than female psychopaths.
Basically, psychopaths exhibit callousness, impulsivity, shallow emotions, superficial charm, and no remorse for what they do. They're narcissistic and manipulative, and tend to seek stimulating activities like crime. They fail to learn from punishment, so they're well-represented among repeat offenders. When intelligent, they're generally persuasive and charismatic, and they can get people do to almost anything. They have no regard for truth, although they can evince complete sincerity, and they're looking out only for themselves. They generally form no long-range plans and fail to take responsibility for their deeds. Robert D. Hare's Without Conscience offers a comprehensive description of his work among male psychopaths in prisons.
In a study by Nesca, Dalby, and Baskerville, published in 1999, they attempted to profile a female psychopath, and their conclusions about female psychopaths in general are based on this one case. "Ms. X" had murdered her cellmate while serving a four-year sentence for armed robbery, and they felt that she showed many of the classic symptoms of psychopathy.
The authors claim that recent estimates indicate that "severe" psychopathy among women is rare, about one-third of the estimated prevalence for men. Relying on the social history and personality profile of 30-year-old "Ms. X," the authors found among her symptoms an early onset of antisocial behavior, evidence of sexual aggression, multiple substance abuse, and sexual perversion. She also showed fluctuating levels of reality testing when emotional, but no problem with impulsivity—considered a central trait of psychopathy.
She had suffered sexual abuse in her family home, was removed at the age of six, and put into foster homes over the next three years. At age nine, she joined a street gang. She had numerous short-term relationships, showed sadomasochistic tendencies, and only completed school through the ninth grade. She acknowledged a history of mutilating animals. Half of her life has been spent in prison, and all of her immediate family members have been incarcerated at some point.
Since she showed more theatrical acting out than narcissism, the authors decided that female psychopaths are more inclined to be paranoid and hysterical than arrogant and egotistical.
Deborah Schurman-Kaufman undertook a lengthy analysis of what little material there is on female offenders, and found that male and female offenders share a common background of neglect and abuse. In The New Predator: Women Who Kill, she finds only seven women guilty of multiple murder to interview—a sample far too small to draw any conclusions. At best, she can say they shared an introverted family life and sense of isolation. She also indicates that, as with men, killing for females is largely about control and power. Yet much of what she has to say about psychopathy, sadism, murder, and violent aggression is based on studies done with males.
No wonder people assume that what drives women to kill is a mystery---in particular, those women who assume the role of caretakers of the most vulnerable among us. It's striking that among nurses and midwives, there have been so many killers, but even more striking are those who have motives other than mercy for their deeds.
Most data about violent crime and criminal types has centered on males, and that's attributed to the idea that males are more aggressive, violent, and criminally versatile than females. However, it may also have something to do with the fact that most of the researchers and criminologists have been male. Traditionally, it's been more difficult for men to admit to violence in women than to dissect the methods and motives of their own gender. As British philanthropist Lord Astor put it, "Everyone starts out totally dependent on a woman. The idea that she could turn out to be your enemy is terribly frightening."
Yet fear and bias should have no place in research. From a review of the literature, it's clear that we have a long way to go to understand violence in females.
"Violence is still universally considered to be the province of the male," says crime researcher Patricia Pearson. "Violence is masculine. Men are the cause of it, and women and children the ones who suffer. The sole explanation offered up by criminologists for violence committed by women is that it is involuntary."
Women are often viewed as "soft" and vulnerable: They're not really equipped for violence and usually end up being accomplices. One male writer even thought it was too cruel to allow a (beautiful) woman who'd killed 20 people in agonizing ways to choke to death on a hangman's noose. Would he have said the same for a male? That's doubtful. While it's true that male murderers far outnumber women, it's also true that all of our conclusions about violence are based on those who have been caught.
Who's to say how many female killers and violent offenders there really are?
While researchers repeat one another in pointing out how even in violence, women are still the gentler sex, there are times when a female shows more spunk. Instead of poison, she may grab an ax, even a gun. Instead of killing a customer who failed to pay for drugs, she might bear and kill children one at a time. (In fact, women outnumber men in the deaths of children and come equal to them in killing siblings and parents.)
Some females are just as cold-blooded as males, but female psychopathy is an understudied subject. The feeble attempts to assess a female psychopath—psychopaths being the most criminally versatile and most likely to repeat an offense among all violent offenders ── base conclusions on samples far too small to make any assertions. It's clear that many interpretations about female violence are framed by social projections about what women are supposed to be like, rather than on what they really are like, and there's little acknowledgment of how changing social conditions affect personality. During the 1970s, however, after women were "liberated," there was a surge in violent crime by women. They may not go on a rampage killing, but the lower visibility of their crimes does not discount the lethality of their motives or their viciousness.
Even so, it's clear that the motives for women show a range as diverse as that of males:
- monetary gain
- ridding themselves of a burden
- pressure from a gang
- seeking power
- following orders
- acting out from a history of abuse
- sexual compulsion
- team chemistry
- misplaced mercy
Of the 62 female serial killers in Eric Hickey's study for Serial Murderers and Their Victims, they accounted for between 400 and 600 victims. Some were nurses, some black widows, others were part of a team, and a few were predators. Three-fourths of them began their careers since the 1950s. The average age in the group was 30, and the longest period of killing without apprehension was 34 years. Some were grandmothers. In more recent years, females have turned increasingly toward strangers as victims, but they generally choose easy targets among vulnerable populations. They don't mutilate corpses, which is common to a certain type of male serial killer.
While people are appalled by women who kill their own children, it's more common than we think. Maternal instinct is sometimes no match for deadened emotions or personal ambition. Similarly, people are shocked when a woman who has professed love for her husband poisons his food or hires someone to kill him, but a woman is just as capable as a man of these crimes. Perhaps we don't recognize them as quickly, allowing women to get away with serial crimes for longer periods, because we don't want to. Yet Hickey's analysis showed that women were involved in serial crimes in some way 38 percent of the time.
SOME FEMALE PSYCHOPATHS WHO HAVE COMMITTED MURDER:
Nanny Doss - the lonely hearts husband killer
Aileen Wuornos - killer who prey on truck drivers
Karla Fay Tucker - Texas' Controversial Killer
Sante Kimes - Mother in Mother & Son Murder Duo
Karla Holmolka - Sex slayings with then-husband Paul Bernardo
Claudine Longet - Killer of Spider Sabitch or Accident?
Susan Smith - Child Killer say she was Controlled by her Boyfriend.
Lila Gladys Young - Black market babies