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  • Sloane Barbre

Battered Woman Syndrome: The Correlation Between Two Short Stories from the 1910s and the 1984 State

On July 24, 1984, Gladys Kelly stood on trial in front of the New Jersey Supreme Court. She had come to appeal what she felt to be unlawful sentencing for the murder of her husband. The court reached a decision that significantly altered the odds for women standing trial during this time and in years to come.

Gladys Kelly was initially brought to trial after stabbing her husband to death with a pair of scissors. Kelly alleged that the murder was accidental and solely in self-defense. To support this, expert witness Dr. Lois Veronen gave testimony on Kelly’s behalf, citing Battered Woman Syndrome as a reasonable cause for the offense. The court ruled this evidence inadmissible, thus convicting Kelly of reckless manslaughter.

This is what would have happened in Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers” (1917) and what did happen in Edith Wharton’s Kerfol (1916). Both of these stories were progressive social commentaries during the women’s suffrage movement. Each story negotiates themes of domestic abuse and the unfair trial system that existed for women.

Book cover for “A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell via Amazon.

In "A Jury of Her Peers," two women accompany their husbands to a crime scene. A woman by the name of Mrs. Wright has killed her husband and is currently sitting in jail. At the crime scene, the male investigators try to piece together the events leading up to the murder. Their primary goal is to establish a motive behind the wife killing her husband. They neglect to consider everyday aspects of Mrs. Wright’s life and instead only inspect the bedroom where the murder was committed. Meanwhile, the two women at the crime scene investigate the kitchen and parlor. They are able to piece together the motive behind Mrs. Wright killing her husband: she was suffering from spousal abuse. The women make the decision to hide the evidence that they found and not report their theory to the investigators, as they know that Mrs. Wright will not receive a fair trial in court. Women were not allowed to serve on juries during this time, and knowing that, the two women decided to take the law into their own hands. They protected Mrs. Wright from an unfair system that wouldn’t have recognized emotional (or even physical) abuse as a plausible reason behind the murder.

Book cover for “Kerfol” by Edith Wharton via Walmart.

The female protagonist of "Kerfol," however, was not so lucky. Unable to be tried against a symbolic jury of women, Anne de Cornault is convicted of the murder of her husband. She had suffered emotional abuse in her home, Kerfol, where she was immensely lonely. She was not permitted to leave the house even to go for a walk. She kept a series of dogs as her only comfort, but her husband strangled each one and laid their dead bodies on her pillow without explanation. When her husband is found dead, lacerated with bloody wounds, Anne de Cornault is put on trial for her husband’s murder. The men at her trial frequently laugh at her and her testimonies of emotional abuse. Despite maintaining her innocence throughout the court proceedings, the judge and jury find her guilty of murder and dismiss her as crazy. Thus, Anne de Cornault avoids prison, but is forced to live out the rest of her life in confinement within the stony basement of Kerfol.

Edith Wharton and Susan Glaspell argued that victims of emotional abuse. Despite the crimes they committed, are still victims that deserve to be heard. Now, they can be. On July 24th, 1984, the New Jersey Supreme Court made history by ruling that evidence of emotional abuse and subsequent Battered Woman Syndrome could be used in court. This case brought justice to women who suffered similar fates as our two short story heroines. Nearly seventy years after publication, the message behind “A Jury of Her Peers” and “Kerfol” was finally realized.


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