A new article, “Gender Matters: Women on Death Row in the United States,” explores the cases of 48 women who were sentenced to death in the United States between 1990 and 2023. “We believe that women’s capital sentences are best explained by examining the events of their lives within a larger social context, and by analyzing how those experiences—and the women themselves—were treated within the legal system,” said the authors, who include Sandra Babcock (pictured left), a Clinical Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, Nathalie Greenfield (middle), an Adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, and Kathryn Adamson (right), a consultant with the Center on Gender and Extreme Sentencing.

Their article provides a holistic and intersectional study of the 48 women, finding that most were mothers at the time of their arrest (85%), survivors of gender-based violence (96%), experiencing mental health challenges related to intellectual or psychosocial disabilities (80%), and without prior violent convictions (90%). 71% had no prior convictions whatsoever before they were capitally charged. The study found that many of the women were also convicted of killing someone they knew, with nearly half convicted of killing a child in their care and a fifth convicted of killing an intimate partner. Co-defendants, almost always male, were present in nearly two-thirds of cases and 61% of women had an intimate partner, mostly abusive, per trial testimony, as their co-defendant. In one quarter of cases, the state identified the crime as being committed for financial gain as a death-qualifying aggravating factor. In addition, the women were largely defended by all-male defense teams (69%) and prosecuted under male district attorneys (96%) before male judges (88%). 

“Our research underscores the failure of current theoretical approaches on gender and the death penalty to capture the nuances of women’s capital cases,” the authors state. They identify and analyze two theories in particular: the “chivalry theory” and the “evil woman theory.” The first theory attempts to explain the rarity of women on death row, constituting only 2% of the entire death row population as of January 1, 2024, by arguing that women who are capitally tried are treated with leniency due to societal attitudes. “In our view, scholars’ failure to subject the chivalry theory to meaningful critique indicates a troubling readiness to accept scholarship that reaffirms societal biases regarding gender,” the authors conclude. The second theory asserts that women whose criminal behavior does not align with sex-stereotypical assumptions (e.g., unladylike behavior) do not receive the leniency of chivalry proposed in the first theory. The authors argue that this theory is oversimplistic and discounts a number of contributing factors. “[We] propose that researchers embrace the nuances of women’s stories and situate them in the larger context of the women’s death row population.”


Sandra Babcock, Nathalie Greenfield, and Kathryn Adamson, Gender Matters: Women on Death Row in the United States, Cardozo Law Review, Forthcoming, April 12024