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Diana E. H. Russell, Ph.D.
Femicide: Power of a Name


October 5, 2011


Sociologist Diana Russell has researched, authored, and edited numerous groundbreaking books, and organized actions for decades to end violence against women and girls as well as child sexual abuse. Here she argues that labeling the most extreme form of such violence is essential to combating it.[1]

 “The first good-looking girl I see tonight is going to die.” — Edward Kemper, serial killer



Public awareness about violence against women has increased dramatically over the last four decades in the United States, thanks to women’s multi-faceted activism.  However, despite extensive media coverage on male-perpetrated murders of women—including what appear to be increasing numbers of serial killers who target women and girls—few people seem to register that most of these murders are extreme manifestations of male dominance and sexism.  In contrast, many individuals recognize that some of the murders of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color are racist, that some of the murders of Jews are anti-Semitic, and that some of the murders of lesbians and gay men are homophobic.

As long ago as 1976, I chose the new term femicide to refer to the killing of females by males because they are female.  I cited numerous examples of these lethal forms of male violence against women and girls in my testimony on femicide at the first International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women that took place in Belgium that year.  I hoped that introducing this new concept would facilitate people’s recognition of the misogynistic motivation of such crimes.

Since then, I have engaged in many different strategies in the hope that one or other of them would inspire feminists in the United States to adopt this term instead of the gender-neutral words murder or homicide.  However, most American feminists, including those who have focused their efforts on combating violence against women, continue to use terms—such as domestic homicides—that obscure the misogynist factor in virtually all these crimes.

Although women’s male partners are by far the most frequent perpetrators of femicides (about 40 to 50 percent), it is vital to recognize that femicides are also perpetrated by strangers, acquaintances, dates, friends, colleagues, johns, and other family members.  Thousands of men who murder women every year in this country are motivated by misogyny.  Indeed, the vast majority of all murders of women are femicides.  In contrast, the relatively few women who murder men are usually motivated by self-defense.  Thus, the eradication of sexism—what feminists have been striving for since our beginning—would eliminate this most powerful motive, and few men would murder women.

In contrast to the continuing failure of efforts to get U.S. feminists to adopt the term femicide, the concept is now widely used in many Latin American countries.  Sometimes referred to as feminicide in these countries, feminists in Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Chile, El Salvador, Brazil, Uruguay, Peru, Nicaragua, and Honduras have adopted one or other of these terms.  Anti-femicide organizations have also been formed, eight of which have so far succeeded in getting their governments to pass laws against femicide.

What accounts for the differences in the responses of U.S. and Latin American feminists to the term femicide—and the activism that it has inspired—is a total mystery to me.

Of the few researchers who study femicide in the United States, a team led by feminist Jacquelyn Campbell reported the disheartening finding that of all the femicides perpetrated each year, the percentage of what they call “intimate partner” femicides (committed by husbands, lovers, ex-husbands or ex-lovers) increased from 54 to 72 percent between 1976 and 1996.[2] That span of years included intense periods of feminist activity, suggesting that women’s growing independence has resulted in some men reacting with lethal violence.  Feeling their power threatened or challenged, these men appear to feel entitled to use whatever force is necessary to maintain dominance over those they consider their inferiors.  Male supremacy continues to render all women chronically and profoundly unsafe.  In Campbell’s words, “all women are at risk of femicide.” The fear of being murdered by a man is probably felt by most women at some time in their lives.

Femicides are frequently trivialized and depoliticized by the claim that the perpetrators are “crazy.”  In contrast, it is generally accepted that the lynching of African Americans and the torture and murder of concentration camp inmates were political hate crimes, the goals of which were to preserve white dominance and Aryan/Nazi supremacy, regardless of the psychopathology of the perpetrators.  In any case, being mentally ill does not free men from their misogyny or racism.

Femicides are lethal hate crimes.  While the Federal Hate Crime Law includes crimes motivated by actual or perceived gender, and 28 states have statutes that include gender, the only gender-based hate murder (femicide) that I have located was charged by the U.S. Justice Department in 2002.  The perpetrator had bound, gagged, and slit the throats of two lesbians while they were camping in a National Park.  “They deserved to die because they were lesbian whores,” he said, revealing that his hate crime was based on lesbiphobia as well as misogyny.  It’s clear that other strategies are needed to combat femicides in this country.

In the post-9/11 era, terrorism has become a major preoccupation of the U.S. government.  However, there is no recognition of the fact that women have been living with male terrorism—manifesting in high magnitudes of rape, beatings, and femicides, as well as threats of these acts—hanging over our heads on a daily basis for eons. Unlike victims of national terrorism, victims of male terror are often blamed for their deaths—while having no way to identify which men are a danger to them.  Worse still, those who kill their would-be perpetrators in self-defense are frequently accused of murder and incarcerated for many years.

Despite the fact that most women are also in denial about this reality, I am hoping that increasing numbers of U.S. feminists will soon embrace the concept of femicide, and organize to combat it.  And were my hope not realized, I am optimistic that the term femicide, and the activism it usually inspires, will eventually spread from Latin America to the United States and the rest of the world.


Image: Women's Terror Is Not "Just a Movie" image by the late graffiti artist, photographer, and anti-femicide activist Chris Domingo, of Berkeley, California.

[2]Jacquelyn C. Campbell et al., “Risk-factors for Femicide in Abusive Relationships: Results from a Multisite Case Control Study,” American Journal of Public Health, 93 (2003): 1089-1097. 

*This article was originally published online by the Women’s Media Center (WMC). The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. 


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