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Literature Review on Women's Anger and Other Emotions

Anger and Abuse of Women

A study of women and anger must, of necessity involve a discussion of the social context within which women live their lives. As Greenspan (1993) notes, the diagnostic label Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is described as a "disorder" occurring when "the person has experienced an event that is outside the range of usual human experience and that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone..." (Desk Reference to the Diagnostic Criteria from the DSM-III-R, quoted in Greenspan, 1993, p. XXX). Greenspan contends this definition fails to recognize the physical and sexual trauma women endure is "very much inside" (p. XXX) the range of their usual experience. The high incidence of the violation, "cultural sexualization and devaluation" (Westkott, cited in Jack 1991 p. 15) of women constitutes a major component in their subsequent ability to cope with feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, anger, shame, and rage (Courtois, 1988; Davis, 1990; Estés, 1992; Herman, 1992; Kinzl & Biebl, 1992; Campbell, 1993; Valentis & Devane, 1994).

The empirical studies of women and anger fail to address the social reality of the domestic stresses women face both in battering relationships and as a consequence of childhood and adult sexual abuse. This complete absence constitutes a serious limitation. The clinical literature solidly recognizes the intense anger of those violated. Estés (1992) writes: "Rage corrodes our trust that anything good can occur. Something has happened to hope. And behind the loss of hope is usually anger; behind anger, pain; behind pain, usually torture of one sort or another, sometimes recent, but more often from long ago" (p. 353). Women have been trained to contain this anger at violation, fearing the retaliation of those more powerful (Campbell, 1993). In her assessment of the aggression of women who kill their abusive husbands, Campbell maintains that women who live under situations of intolerable stress in battering relationships are driven to aggressive action, the intensity of which is such that it is common for them to have little memory of the event (Katz, cited in Campbell, 1993). Campbell notes "it is as if the anger has been so deeply buried and the accommodation to the husbands' violence so complete that it has erased any belief in the power of their own capacity to retaliate" (p. 123). Hilberman agrees, stating that "passivity and denial of anger do not imply that the battered woman is adjusting to or likes her situation. These are the last desperate defenses against the homicidal rage" (quoted in Grumet, 1988, p. 60).

In comparing female and male aggression in intimate relationships, White & Kowalski (1994) remind us that "the motives of women and men for aggression differ. In self-reports of reasons for spousal homicide, the most frequently cited reason among women is self-defense, whereas among men the most common justification is sexual jealousy and/or the wife threatening to terminate the relationship....Women who initiate acts of violence frequently do so in anticipation of an abusive attack from their partner" (p. 495).

While much is known about the sexual and physical victimization of women, little research has been conducted concerning women who are themselves aggressive (Campbell, 1993). This is reflected in an absence of "specific treatments for forensic patients" (Hodgins, Hébert, & Baraldi, 1986, p. 213).

Such research is essential so women's aggression in situations of extreme stress is understood. The very conditioning women have had in containing their rage leaves them at a disadvantage within the current legal system. A charge of voluntary manslaughter which recognizes the intent to kill is "partially justified because it is committed under provocation from the victim and in the heat of passion" (Campbell, 1993, p. 145), is often rejected in favour of a murder charge because there is usually a delay between the most recent provocation and the killing. In failing to recognize the years of brutalization she has endured and to which she has become resigned, her motive is judged as revenge rather provocation. [ For an in depth analysis of battered women, murder, and the law see Campbell, 1993, pp. 144-152.] It is further noted that although the outcome of self-defense is acquittal, and even though 87% of convicted women (in the United States) believe they acted in self defense, many are still found guilty of murder or manslaughter (Gilleslie, cited in Campbell, 1993). The necessity of research concerning "women's distinct experience of anger and response" (Campbell, 1993, p. 151) is evident.