Gender, Race, and Sexuality in Legal Discourse: Emotion Narratives in Battered Women’s Homicide Cases

By Michelle VanNatta.

Published by The Diversity Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

This research maps complex processes of institutionalized discrimination against women of color and lesbians in the U.S. criminal legal system rooted in culturally biased emotion norms. This paper examines how social ideologies about gender, race, and sexuality shape legal cases through the practice of “emotional inferencing.” Based on interviews with attorneys, legal advocates, and abuse survivors about cases of battered women who kill their abusers, the research demonstrates how cultural stereotypes, such as, for example, depictions of African American and lesbian women as “angry,” affect whether judges and juries find claims of self-defense believable in specific homicide cases. This research supports prior claims by some feminist legal scholars that while particular laws create institutionalized barriers to justice for battered women defendants, factfinders’ biases about marginalized communities, including cultural stereotypes about emotion, can sometimes be more problematic than the assumptions encoded in statutes.

Keywords: Battered Women, Racism, Domestic Violence, Homophobia, Emotion, Crime, Self-Defense

International Journal of Diversity in Organizations, Communities and Nations, Volume 10, Issue 3, pp.163-174. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 617.824KB).

Dr. Michelle VanNatta

Assistant Professor, Sociology, Criminology, Dominican University, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Dr. VanNatta holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Northwestern University. She is currently the Director of Criminology at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, where she also advises the student group Domestic Abuse Stops Here (DASH). Dr. VanNatta has been involved in antiviolence work for the past fifteen years. Her research has examined street harassment, domestic violence shelters, prosecution of battered women in self-defense cases, sexual assault in prisons, and community-based responses to violence. Her community work has included involvement with the Illinois Clemency Project for Battered Women, Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers, the Community Accountability Planning Group of Women and Girls Can, and the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network. She is currently interested in pursuing community work and research on transformative justice.


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