4 Misconceptions About Female Mass Murderers, Debunked
On Wednesday, the deadliest mass shooting on U.S. soil since Sandy Hook took place, as two shooters opened fire at a San Bernardino center for disabled adults, leaving 14 dead and at least 17 injured. The details were sadly similar to many other recent mass shooting incidents in the U.S., except for one: one of the shooters was a woman. There's not yet much information available about 27-year-old Tashfeen Malik, the suspected female San Bernardino shooter, who was killed during a shootout with police — though law enforcement believes that she was in a relationship with the other San Bernardino shooter, Syed Farook, and some evidence implies that they may have been married and/or parenting a small child together.
But the very fact that she was a woman makes Malik an object of fascination: though they have become sickeningly common in this country over the past decade, mass shootings are rarely perpetrated by women. There's no denying that most violent crimes in the United States are committed by men; according to Time, 90 percent of violent offenders are male. Because of this, there has been much discussion in recent years about the relationship between violent crimes and toxic masculinity, and how mass shootings often seem to target female victims — whether through specific intention to target women, like Isla Vista killer Elliot Rodger, or by making female loved ones or relatives the first victims of a killing spree. And Malik is the only woman reportedly involved in a mass shooting incident this calendar year. As criminologist James Alan Fox told CNN, "Murder is a man's crime."
Examining our misconceptions about the motives of female mass killers doesn't contradict this, or mean that we shouldn't examine the role toxic masculinity plays in violence and mass shooting culture. Rather, discarding our misconceptions about female mass killers help us understand the phenomenon more carefully, relying on facts rather than stereotypes. Read on for four misconceptions about female mass killers, debunked.
Misconception #1: They Don't Exist
Though there is no denying that the majority of large-scale violent crimes are committed by men, female killers of every stripe exist. A mass murderer is defined as someone who kills four or more people at a single location; a spree killer kills two or more people at more than one location over a very short period of time; and a serial killer kills three or more people over a sustained period of time. Throughout history, women have of course committed all three crimes — though they have committed mass murder and spree killing far less often than serial murder.
Before Malik, the last woman to be involved in a major U.S. shooting incident was Amanda Miller, who along with her husband Jerad entered a Las Vegas restaurant in 2014 yelling "This is the start of a revolution!" and opened fire, killing two police officers, before going on to kill a civilian who tried to confront them at a Walmart — which makes her a spree killer. When confronted by police, Amanda shot her husband and then herself, later dying from her self-inflicted wound.
There are also women who seem primed to attempt mass murder, but don't succeed. In December of 2014, attempted murderer Julia Shields drove through a Chattanooga, Tennessee neighborhood, dressed in body armor and shooting at cars with passengers in them. Shields did not wound anyone, but was charged with attempted first degree murder, among other crimes. Similarly, Laurie Dann killed one child and injured five others before killing herself in a 1988 failed attempt at spree killing which included poisoned snacks served to acquaintances and arson; and Sylvia Seegrist opened fire in a shopping mall in 1985, killing two and wounding eight.
Dann's and Seegrist's crimes doesn't show up on lists of female mass and spree killers, because while their intentions seemed to have been for mass or spree crime, they only successfully murdered one or two people, respectively; however, their attacks show that these crimes are not the absolute rarity that they may seem.
Misconception #2: They Only Work With Male Partners
Many recent female mass murderers have worked in tandem with male partners — like the Millers, noted above — leading some to believe that women only commit mass violence when they're working with men, or perhaps even when they are threatened or forced to by male partners.
This isn't a line of thinking with no precedent — for instance, according to an NBC News report, a friend of Amanda Miller's claimed that Amanda was unhappy with her husband's interest in anti-government ideology, and that Jerad Miller was "a very controlling person." And Caril Ann Fugate (pictured above), the 14-year-old accomplice of notorious spree murderer Charles Starkweather, maintained throughout her murder trial that she was Starkweather's hostage on his 1958 multi-state killing spree, rather than his co-conspirator (Fugate was convicted of murder, but due to her age and other factors, was released from prison after 18 years).
But many of the most deadly female mass killers work alone. Brenda Spencer, one of the first modern school mass murderers, opened fire on a San Diego elementary school on January 29, 1979, when she was only 16 years old. Spencer killed two adults, the school principal and custodian, and wounded eight students as well as a police officer.
Similarly, a Vice article on female rampage killers noted a number of female mass killers who worked alone, including Czech murderer Olga Hepnarova, who purposely drove a car into a crowd on a Prague street in 1973, killing eight, as well as Nasra Yussef Mohammed al-Enezi, a young Kuwaiti woman who set an intentional fire at her ex-husband's wedding in 2009, dousing a tent where guests waited in gasoline and killing 57.
And in 2006, Jennifer San Marco killed a former neighbor before going on to kill six employees and herself at a postal facility in Goleta, California, making her the deadliest female American spree murderer of this century.
And just because a female killer worked with a male partner, doesn't mean that she didn't act of her own accord. Though some have claimed that Amanda Miller was forced to participate against her will, Miller made statements on her Facebook page before her crimes that implied that she was actively interested in perpetrating violence, including "[T]o the people in the world...your[sic] lucky i can't kill you now but remember one day one day i will get you because one day all hell will break lose and i'll be standing in the middle of it with a shot gun in one hand and a pistol in the other."
Misconception #3: They Are All Probably Victims Of Abuse
When we do hear about a female murderer, many of us immediately summon up an image of Aileen Wuornos, the character Charlize Theron portrayed in Monster — a woman who has been abused so badly that she has lost touch with reality, and may even be killing in self-defense (though some have taken issue with how accurately Monster actually portrayed Wuornos' life).
Though many serial and mass murderers, male and female, do report being victims of mental, physical, and sexual abuse — according to the Daily Beast, school shooter Brenda Spencer "submitted a written statement in which she alleged that her father had begun fondling her when she was 9 and had sexually assaulted her virtually every night" while she was in the process of seeking parole — there is no documented evidence that all or most female mass murderers (or murderers of any sort) are victims of abuse.
Misconception #4: Women Only Get Violent When Provoked
A sister misconception to the one listed above, some people believe that women only get involved in or plan mass murders as some kind of "reprisal" — but that they don't perpetrate the kind of random mass shootings we deal with today. As an example, people often hold up cases like that of Cherie Lash Rhoades (above), who killed four and wounded two in a 2014 gun and knife attack that occurred in a meeting discussing whether Rhoades would be evicted from her home.
While it is true that women rarely fit the psychological profile of the "pseudocommando" that many male shooters do, it is a myth that women only "snap" and harm those close to them. Numerous women have engaged in acts of mass murder involving people not close to them, with no clear motivation. Spencer allegedly claimed that she committed murder because "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day." The previously noted San Marco also took aim at victims unknown to her.
The Bottom Line
None of this is to excuse the often gender-biased objectives of male shooters, or to say that there is not a tie between the culture of American masculinity and our mass shooting epidemic.
Bob Herbert reported in the New York Times in 2009 that former prison psychiatrist and Harvard professor Dr. James Gilligan claimed, based on years of working with murderers and other violent criminals, “that an underlying factor that is virtually always present to one degree or another is a feeling that one has to prove one’s manhood, and that the way to do that, to gain the respect that has been lost, is to commit a violent act.” To ignore the gender-based motives of murderers like Rodger, Sodini, or any number of others is not only disrespectful to their victims, but harmful to the greater cause of understanding what has created our mass shooting culture. Malik's actions — or Spencer's, or San Marco's — hardly erase the fact that 98 percent of mass killings are perpetrated by men.
However, when women do act out violently, it's important to not fall into easy cliches and misconceptions about how women "only become dangerous when pushed." Though we don't know the story of why Malik allegedly opeedn fire on those people in San Bernardino, we do know that sometimes women, just like men, commit unspeakably evil acts for unbearably pointless reasons.