SAN FRANCISCO -- More than 2,000 men in American prisons are awaiting execution for one crime or another. By contrast, a mere handful of women are on death row 49, at last count. What is one to make of this disparity? To put the question bluntly: Are women less evil than men, less criminal, less dangerous?
A few weeks ago in Illinois, Guinevere Garcia was scheduled to be executed. As a teen-ager, Ms. Garcia had murdered her infant daughter. She was on death row for the murder of her second husband. Although she had asked the state of Illinois to execute her without further delay, Gov. Jim Edgar, days before her scheduled death, commuted her execution to a life sentence. The action led some to ask whether America views the woman criminal in a different way than the male.
From the most ancient times, men have insisted that women were responsible for male failure. Eve tempted Adam. Women distract men from higher things. Women must be robed or segregated from men at prayer. Women are unclean, their bodies closer to the cycles and secrets of nature that are withheld from the male. The woman can be a witch for that reason, though Satan, the truer actor in history, must be male.
Here, I think, is where the ancient distinction between male behavior and female gets made. The male has traditionally had the freedom of public life; therefore his actions were significant in a different way. They had consequence for the entire society.
Eve can only be a temptress, she is not the agent for sin. The role of the sinner belonged to the male alone.
Last year at the Beijing conference on women, Burma's opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, stood the argument on its head. For centuries, she said, women have dedicated themselves to the care of the young and the old. Now women must take the wisdom and experience gained at home to transform the corrupt male-dominated governments of the world. In other words, the long enclosure of women inside the house is what necessitates their entrance into public life.
It is still hard to name more than a few women villains in history or in the popular arts. Try to name as many as 10; it's not easy. Livia, the wife of Augustus; Lady Macbeth; Eve Harrington in "All About Eve;" Catherine DeMedici; the Wild West's Belle Starr; Gwen Verdon as Lola seducing Tab Hunter in "Damn Yankees" (and she was the agent of the devilish Mr. Applegate).
Poor Michael Douglas
In recent years, Hollywood has suddenly become preoccupied with evil women. What used to be the stuff of low-budget movies women behind bars, with guns and knives bad women has become a Hollywood cliche. The hapless male, usually portrayed by Michael Douglas, is pursued by a deranged Sharon Stone or Glenn Close.
Is Adam tempting Eve? As women have assumed public life, one senses a growing female willingness to confront evil, certainly to reject the role of the "good girl," to be as bad as the boys. Is there, after all, a male anywhere in the world as bad as Madonna?
In the West, the most famous woman has been the Virgin Mary. As a Roman Catholic and as a male, I suppose, I have always regarded her less as a symbol of womanhood than as a model of the feminine principle in history, an example for men as much as for women.
A number of women I know find her version of holiness too tender, too maternal. Hindu goddesses, by comparison (think of Kali, punisher of unfaithful husbands), while often as tender as Mary, are also fearsome beings.
Not coincidentally, a new interest is emerging among Christian feminist theologians in Mary Magdalene, the whore who was befriended by Christ, the street woman who becomes the first evangelist. It was she to whom Christ appeared first as the risen Lord.
There is still a tendency to see a woman's behavior simply as reaction to the male. Last year, when Susan Smith made headlines for driving her automobile into a lake and drowning her two infant sons, an argument in her defense was the claim of sexual abuse. "The male made her do it."
But as women routinely assume public life, as men accept women's right to leave the house, we will probably in some future be less inclined to romanticize female virtue. Curiously, a horrible measure of feminism's necessary success in America may some day end up being an equal number of women on death row.
Richard Rodriguez, author of "Days of Obligation," wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.
Pub Date: 3/12/96