Equal Time

February 19, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: There are today over 2,000 men in American prisons awaiting execution for one crime or another. By contrast, a relative handful of women, 49 at last count, are on Death Row. How is one to account for this astonishing disparity? To put the question bluntly: Are women less evil than men, less criminal, less dangerous?

A few weeks ago in Illinois, Guinivere Garcia was scheduled to be executed. As a teenager, Ms. Garcia had murdered her infant daughter. She was on Death Row for the murder of her second husband. She had asked the state of Illinois to execute her without further delay, but days before her scheduled death, her execution was commuted to a life sentence by Gov. Jim Edgar. The governor’s commutation has led some to ask whether or not America views the woman criminal in a very different way than the male.

From the most ancient times, we have believed that women were responsible for male failure. Eve, after all, tempted Adam. Women tempt men, 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 true rector in history, must be male.

Here I think is how the ethical distinction between male and female behavior got made. The male traditionally had access to public life. His actions are significant in a different way. They have consequence for the public society. But Eve can only be a temptress. She is not the agent for sin. The role of the sinner alone belongs to the male.

Even when one thinks of a modern day villainess, Eva Braun, for example, it is her male companion, Adolf Hitler, one is remembering. It is still hard to name more than a few women villains in history or in the popular arts, Livia, the wife of Augustus, Lady Macbeth, Even Harrington in “All About Eve,” Catherine De Medici, the Wild West’s Belle Starr, Gwen Verdon seducing Tab Hunter in “Damn Yankees.”

Last year, at the Beijing Conference on Women, Burmese opposition leader Aun San Su Chi 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.

In the West, the most famous woman in history has been the Virgin Mary. As a Catholic and as a male, I suppose I’ve always regarded Mary less as a symbol of womanhood than as a model of the feminine principle in history, an example to men as much as to women. A number of women I know, however, find Mary’s version of holiness too tender, only maternal.

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 me do it.” 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. As women routinely assume public life, as men assume the woman’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 someday end up being an equal number of women as men on Death Row.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.