Venusa (route_venusa) wrote in feminist_101,
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Battered Woman Syndrome Questionnaire

I am researching the Battered Woman Syndrome for my Gender and Violence course. My professor suggested getting opinions from feminists on the matter. (I am also interested in the responses from non-feminists as I think comparisons would be interesting). If you are familiar with the subject, please feel free to jump the explanation and head straight for the questionnaire. I am putting excerpts from my essay behind the cut so those unfamiliar with BWS can get a gist of it.


The Battered Woman Syndrome (BWS) is a legal defense for women accused of murdering their intimate partners. Although not approved by the American Psychological Association as a true mental disorder, BWS has been both successfully and unsuccessfully used in court to defend battered women.

Lenore Walker coined the term “Battered Woman Syndrome” in the late 1970’s. Walker uses the Walker Cycle of Violence theory and the learned helplessness theory to explain BWS. Published in 1979, Walker’s The Battered Woman describes the cycle of battering. Walker explains the cycle has three phases: “the tension-building phase; the explosion or acute battering incident; and the calm, loving respite” (Battered Woman 55). In the tension-building stage, minor battering occurs. However, the woman will excuse her partner’s violence and see it as her responsibility to calm him (56). As the beatings become more frequent and the woman fails to placate her partner, she becomes tired and “usually withdraws from the batterer, fearing she will inadvertently set off an explosion. He begins to move more oppressively toward her as he observes her withdrawal… Tension between the two becomes unbearable” (59). This is when the battering progresses to the second stage which “is characterized by the uncontrollable discharge of the tensions that have built up during phase one” (59). Although this stage is shorter than the other phases, it is the one in which the beatings are the most severe and often result in serious injury (60). Eventually, whether it be due to police involvement or hospitalization, the man realizes he has gone too far and becomes apologetic. This is the third phase which is characterized by “extremely loving, kind, and contrite behavior by the batterer” (65). The woman frequently comes to believe the man is sincere and thus remains in the relationship (67). When the cycle restarts as tension begins to build yet again, the woman becomes frustrated and some are moved to kill; of those who killed, “none of them stated she intended to kill her man; each said she only wanted to stop him from hurting her more” (70).

Walker elaborates the learned helplessness component of the BWS defense in the 2000 The Battered Woman Syndrome. Walker reveals learned helplessness refers to “having lost the ability to predict that what you do will make a particular outcome occur” (Battered Woman Syndrome 116). Learned helplessness was first presented by psychologist Martin Seligman who “discovered that when laboratory animals were repeatedly and noncontingently shocked, they became unable to escape from a painful situation, even when escape was quite possible and apparent to animals that had not undergone helplessness training” (117). Walker stresses that this sort of helplessness is learned and has “cognitive, motivational, and behavioral components” that affect one’s perceptions (117). Supported by similar laboratory involving human subjects, Walker posits battered women are also in a state of learned helplessness. Walker argues that to unlearn learned helplessness, women must respond by “becoming angry rather than depressed and self-blaming; active rather than passive” (118). To support this assertion, Walker points to her study of battered women in which she asked women in and out of abusive relationships to describe their reactions to their “first, second, last, and ‘one of the worst” beatings (118). Walker reports that women out of abusive relationships reached a peak of “fear/anxiety/depression” that was followed by a surge in “anger/disgust/hostility” after their last beating (119). Thus, the last beating frustrated these women enough to unlearn helplessness.

Law professor David L. Faigman criticizes the BWS defense. Faigman begins by stating the seriousness and prevalence of domestic violence (619). However, Faigman asserts that the BWS defense as well as any other defense that relies on the self-defense argument is unsuitable for defending battered women who kill (621). Before delving into the invalidity of BWS; Faigman begins by debating the actions and intentions of Walker. Faigman criticizes Walker for her BWS expert testimony in a case concerning a woman who hired a hit-man to murder her ex-husband (632). Faigman argues “[t]hat the leading theoretician of battered woman syndrome would be willing to characterize [this case] as a case of legitimate self-defense seems to call into question the credibility of her testimony in other cases” (632). Faigman also asserts that because “Walker explicitly recognizes her sympathy for battered women,” her research might be unjustly biased (633).

Faigman finds five flaws in the Walker Cycle of Violence theory. First, Faigman accuses Walker of using “leading questions” in her questioning of battered woman such as “Would you call it…?” (637). Similarly, Faigman argues “Walker derives her evidence of ‘tension building and/or loving contrition’ not from subjects responses directly but instead from the interviewers’ evaluations of those responses” (637). Thirdly, Faigman is disturbed that the Walker Cycle of Violence theory lacks a time frame which is essential in determining whether a woman is in “a constant state of fear” (638). Fourthly, Faigman is concerned by Walker’s lack of control group and extrapolation of her findings (639). Finally, Faigman complains that Walker’s findings simply do not support her conclusion. Faigman cites Walker’s report that “[in] 65 percent of all cases…there was evidence of a tension-building phase prior to battering. In 58% of all cases there was evidence of loving contrition afterward” (qtd. in Walker 96-97). Faigman thus concludes “it is likely that only about thirty-eight percent of all women actually experienced the entire cycle” (640). Faigman also dismisses Walker’s use of the theory of learned helplessness because “[f]or a battered woman to realize that she alone has to protect herself is antithetical to the notion that she is unable to assert control over her environment” (641). Finally, Faigman proposes that battered woman need a better defense that looks at their individual circumstances rather than painting a broad (and inaccurate) pictured of the abused woman (646).

1. Do you identify as a feminist?

2. If yes, any particular sort?

3. What is your stance on battered woman who kill their abusers?

4. Do you believe The Battered Woman Syndrome defense is valid (scientifically or legally)? Why or why not?

5. Do you believe The Battered Woman Syndrome defense is successfully in lessening sentences for women? Why or why not?

6. Do you believe The Battered Woman Syndrome defense helps empower battered women? Why or why not?

7. Any other comments?

x-posted, i apologize if you get this twice. If you do not feel comfortable answering here, please e-mail me at agentmichi@gmail.com
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