Resisting Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex

Victoria Law is a long-time prison activist and author of the 2009 book Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (PM Press). Law's essay "Sick of the Abuse: Feminist Responses to Sexual Assault, Battering, and Self Defense" is featured in the new book The Hidden 1970s: Histories of Radicalism, edited by Dan Berger. Law is currently traveling with the Community and Resistance Tour.


Angola 3 News: In your essay "Sick of the Abuse," you write that "a woman's right to defend herself (and her children) from assault became a feminist rallying point throughout the 1970s." You focus on the four separate stories of Yvonne Wanrow, Inez Garcia, Joan Little, and Dessie Woods. Can you briefly explain their cases and why they were so important for the women's liberation movement of the 1970s?


Law: Yvonne Wanrow was an American Indian mother of two living in Washington State in the 1970s. In 1972, her 11-year-old son was grabbed from his bike by William Wesler, a known child molester. He escaped and fled to the house of a family friend named Shirley Hooper, whose 7-year-old daughter had been raped by Wesler earlier that year. When Hooper called the police, they refused to arrest Wesler.


Understandably shaken, Hooper called Yvonne Wanrow and asked her to spend the night. Wanrow, who was five foot four inches and had recently broken her leg, brought her gun. At five in the morning, Wesler came to the house. When he refused to leave, Wanrow went to the front door to yell for help. She turned around to find Wesler, who, at six foot two inches, was towering over her. She shot and killed him.


At her first trial, the judge instructed the jury to consider only what had happened at or immediately before the killing. This omitted (1) Wesler's record as a sex offender; (2) Wesler's assault on Hooper's daughter; (3) Wexler's attempted assault on Yvonne's son. Wanrow was convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years.


However, various groups and people involved in the women's and American Indian movements took up Wanrow's cause. They recognized that a woman had the right to defend herself and her family from assault. They held events that raised awareness, educated people, and tied her case to issues of violence against women and the systemic violence against native people in the U.S. They also raised funds for her legal defense, which enabled her to have a better defense than she might have been afforded otherwise.


As a result, in 1977, the Washington State Supreme Court granted her a new trial, partially on the basis that the jury should have considered all relevant facts when considering a self-defense plea. At her new trial in 1979, Wanrow pled guilty to reduced charges and received a suspended sentence, five years' probation, and one year of community service. The court decision also established that women's lack of access to self-defense training and to the "skills necessary to effectively repel a male assailant without resorting to the use of deadly weapons" made their circumstances different from men's.


Two years later, in 1974, Inez Garcia shot and killed the man who blocked her escape from being raped. She was arrested and charged with first degree (premeditated) murder. Like Wanrow, her cause was taken up by the women's movement, which organized teach-ins and fundraisers and galvanized popular support with the recognition that women have the right to defend themselves against rape. During Garcia's first trial, the judge did not allow testimony about the rape as part of the evidence. After her conviction, the women's movement continued to rally on her behalf and hired feminist attorney Susan Jordan to take over her defense. Two years later, an appeals court reversed her conviction because the trial judge had instructed the jury not to consider the rape.


During the re-trial, Susan Jordan challenged potential jurors about their preconceptions of rape, making the assault an integral part of the case from the beginning. Garcia was acquitted. The entire jury agreed that the rape and threat of further harm were adequate provocation for Garcia's action.


Protest against Joan Little's prosecution—photo from


That same year, Joan Little, a black woman and the only female prisoner in North Carolina's Beaufort County Jail, killed Clarence Alligood, a 62-year-old white male guard, after he had entered her cell, threatened her with an ice pick, and forced her to perform oral sex. Little was charged with first degree murder which, in North Carolina, carries a mandatory death sentence.


Again, there was a huge outpouring of support, including the women's and Black Liberation movements as well as more mainstream groups. During her trial, Little's defense exposed the chronic sexual abuse and harassment endured by women in the prison system. Countering the prosecution's argument that Little had enticed Alligood into her cell with promises of sex, the defense team called on women who had previously been held at the jail. They testified that Alligood had a history of sexually abusing women in his custody. And Little herself testified about Alligood's assault. After deliberating for 78 minutes, a jury acquitted Little, establishing a precedent for killing as a justified self-defense against rape.


Dessie Woods, a black woman from Georgia, shot and killed a man who tried to rape her and her friend while they were hitchhiking in 1975. She was sentenced to 22 years. Black nationalist women took up the case, framing it as colonial violence. Radical (white) feminists also took up her cause and challenged other white feminists to examine not only sexism and patriarchy, but also racism and colonialism.



Demonstration to free Dessie Woods led by the African People's Socialist Party—photo from

Even though she did not have the massive outpouring of support as the other three women, the prolonged support that she did have eventually won Woods her freedom in July 1981. A lawyer from the People's Law Center challenged the use of circumstantial evidence and of a special prosecutor (hired by the dead man's family). The U.S. Court of Appeals determined that there had been insufficient evidence to convict and imprison her.


The first three cases were groundbreaking in that they established legal precedents stating that women had a right to defend themselves (and their children) from sexual assault. In the case of Inez Garcia, her lawyer Susan Jordan extended the legal interpretation of "imminent danger" beyond the immediate time period, thus laying the groundwork for battered women's defense—that a woman who kills her abuser is acting in self-defense even if she is not under attack at that time.


What impact did activism have in these four cases?


The activism and organizing around those four cases enabled the women to have better legal defenses than they would have otherwise been afforded. For example, $250,000 was raised for Joan Little's defense. Almost $39,000 was spent on social scientists who devised an "attitude profile survey" designed to detect patterns of (racial) prejudice. The defense used their findings to win a change of venue from conservative/racist Beaufort County to Raleigh, which was key in her acquittal. Without the money garnered by supporters, Little would never have been able to have that kind of legal support. Instead, she would have been convicted and executed.


How are things different today?


We don't see the same outpouring of support for women arrested for self-defense. We can look at the case of the New Jersey Four, black lesbians arrested and incarcerated for defending themselves against a homophobic attack. Their case has garnered support from groups working around incarcerated women's issues and queer issues, but it hasn't been taken up as widely as the case of Joan Little or even Dessie Woods.


What do radical activists identify as the "root causes" of violence against women?


Radical activists identified society's misogyny and patriarchy as root causes of violence against women. They pointed out that women are most often the ones who are attacked and abused because they are often the ones with less power (both physically and in terms of resources). I strongly agree with this analysis and feel that only when we radically transform societal attitudes around gender and power will we be able to have a world without gendered violence.


The number of battered women's shelters grew (by 1982, there were an estimated 300-700 shelters nationally), but you write that "the increased interest in the issue by those who did not identify with the women's liberation movement resulted in a watering down of the radical feminist analyses that led to the first refuges for battered women. These emerging institutions emphasized providing services without analyzing the political context in which abuse occurred. There was a shift from calling for broad social transformation to focusing on individual problems and demanding greater state intervention." How did this watering down and shift towards greater state intervention play out in later decades?


Today, abuse is treated as an individual pathology rather than a broader social issue rooted in centuries of patriarchy and misogyny. Viewing abuse as an individual problem has meant that the solution becomes intervening in and punishing individual abusers without looking at the overall conditions that allow abuse to go unchallenged and also allows the state to begin to co-opt concerns about gendered violence. For example, 29 states have some form of mandatory arrest policy in a domestic violence call. There is also the possibility of dual arrests (in which both parties are arrested). In addition, many states now have "no-drop prosecution" in which the District Attorney subpoenas the battered spouse to testify with threats of prosecution if she recants or refuses.


The shift towards greater state intervention has also resulted in resources such as battered women's shelters mirroring some of these same abusive practices, such as isolating the survivor. It also ignores ways in which the state inflicts violence upon women. I would greatly recommend the INCITE! anthology The Color of Violence, which explores various aspects of violence against women.


What do you think is the best way to reduce and prevent violence against women both inside and outside prisons?


The threat of imprisonment does not deter abuse, it simply drives it further underground. Remember that there are many forms of abuse and violence and not all are illegal. It also sets up a false dichotomy in which the survivor has to choose between personal safety and imprisoning a loved one. Imprisonment does not reduce, let alone prevent, violence. Building structures and networks to address the lack of options and resources available to women is more effective. Challenging patriarchy and male supremacy is a much more effective solution—although not one that funders and the state want to see.


Are there recent cases of women who are facing charges or have been wrongly convicted for defending themselves?


There's the case of the New Jersey Four, whom I mentioned. There's also Sara Kruzan, a 31-year-old woman incarcerated at the California Institution for Women. When Sara was 11, she met a 31-year-old man named G.G. who molested her and began grooming her to become a prostitute. By age 13, she began working as a child prostitute for G.G. and he repeatedly molested her. At age 16, Kruzan was convicted of killing him. She was sentenced to prison for life despite her background and a finding by the California Youth Authority that she was amenable to treatment offered in the juvenile system.



There's been a letter-writing campaign to the governor urging clemency. Kruzan is up for resentencing and needs letters of support. The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth and the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) are working on publicizing and garnering support for her case. However, we're not seeing a fraction of the support from women's or other non-prison groups that the cases of Wanrow, Garcia, and Little received in the 1970s, even though you would think that her story would provoke widespread outrage and calls for release.


Also, I recently received an e-mail from CCWP about Mary Shields, a domestic violence survivor incarcerated for 19 years on a 7-to-life sentence for attempted murder. This past September, Shields was found suitable for release by the Board of Parole Hearings. In 2006, the Parole Board had also found Shields "suitable for release," but rescinded its decision after Governor Schwarzenegger recommended against it. This time around, the governor has until January (when his term will be up) to either let the Board's decision stand or recommend reversal. So CCWP is calling for people to send letters supporting Shields's release.


Anything else to add?


I want to remind readers that if we're not coming up with solutions to gender violence, then the fall-back becomes relying on prisons and policing to keep women (and other vulnerable people) safe. It is also imperative to support women incarcerated for killing their abusers as well as to support battered women on the outside and to remember that abuse isolates people. We should be working to end violence against women without strengthening government control over women's lives or promoting incarceration as a solution to social problems.


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