Portland State University. Department of History
David A. Johnson
Date of Award
Master of Arts (M.A.) in History
1 online resource (viii, 109 pages)
Analyzing the crimes of women murderers and how they fared in the criminal justice system demonstrates that though perceptions of gender evolved, resistance to sentencing women to death often persisted. The nature of homicides committed by women in Oregon set them apart from their male counterparts. Women were, and are, more likely to commit domestic homicides -- murders that involve a family member or partner. These crimes are typically not equated with crimes that warrant capital punishment. As a result, no woman has been subjected to the death penalty in the state.
This thesis analyzes the twenty-five women who were convicted of homicide in Oregon between 1854 and 1950. During these years the majority faced all-male court and penal systems. As such, they were handled differently in accordance with various social, cultural, and legislative shifts relating to women's roles as citizens. Through an examination of contemporary newspaper articles, inmate case files, and other Oregon State Penitentiary records, this thesis studies three distinct periods relating to these shifts: 1854-1900, 1901-1935 and 1936-1950.
The assumption that it was impossible for a woman to commit murder linked claims of insanity with criminality. The six women defendants between 1854 and 1900 were either deemed insane and transferred to the asylum or quickly released from prison to avoid potential controversy or additional expense. The twelve women convicted of homicide between 1901 and 1935 all received manslaughter convictions, an occurrence unique to this era. Following the Progressive Era, sentimental juries felt more comfortable convicting women of manslaughter. Many received indeterminate sentences of one to fifteen years and were released on parole.
The initial first-degree murder charges between 1936 and 1950 signaled a new period in the treatment of women charged with homicide. After gaining the right to vote and serve on juries, women began to be viewed more equally in the eyes of the law. During these years there was a more even distribution of manslaughter, second-degree murder, and first-degree murder convictions for the seven women defendants. This is due in part to women's growing presence in the public sphere.
In conclusion, the idea that women were submissive creatures that required the authority and protection of men in the courtroom began to fade by 1950. Each period of study demonstrates how the contemporary perception of women and their roles as citizens affected trial outcomes. However, even when women were charged with first-degree murder they were not sentenced to the death penalty -- likely due to the domestic nature of their crimes.
Barganski, Jenna Leigh, "Giving the Noose the Slip: An Analysis of Female Murderers in Oregon, 1854-1950" (2018). Dissertations and Theses. Paper 4542.