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Andrea Yates, NOW, and feminist jurisprudence

By Wendy McElroy
web posted March 4, 2002

NOW hasn't lost interest in the murdering mother who confessed to methodically drowning her five children. The Houston Area chapter, HANOW, keeps in close touch with George Parnham, one of Yates' defense attorneys.

Deborah Bell � president of the Texas state NOW and moderator of HANOW's e-group HoustonNOW � posted a message Feb. 20 on that forum from Winnie Howard, identified in the header as "Mr. Parnham's assistant." In message #175, Howard provided instructions on how members of HANOW could obtain a pass for seats in the Yates courtroom, perhaps avoiding the public lines. She ended, "It would be great if Andrea's supporters could fill the courtroom."

Andrea Yates listening to evidence in court during her trial in this artist's drawing
Andrea Yates listening to evidence in court during her trial in this artist's drawing

At NOW's 2001 national conference last summer, then-President Patricia Ireland declared that Yates revealed America as a "patriarchal society" where "women are imprisoned at home with their children." Yet as of Feb. 23, NOW's front page features stories about mammograms, an "anti-gay" judge, Mike Tyson's boxing license, and a lesbian couple in Montana. No Yates. A site search under "Andrea Yates" reveals one item: A Sept. 6, 2001, press release from President Kim Gandy, which states NOW "is speaking out on the Andrea Yates case." The press release seems to have been NOW's final word.

Could NOW's silence be related to the avalanche of bad press it received for portraying Yates as a sympathetic martyr symbolizing the plight of stay-at-home moms? NOW is sensitive to bad PR. In the press release, Gandy vigorously denied the charge that NOW had set up a legal defense fund for Yates � something the media jumped on heavily. She stated, "The Houston Area NOW chapter leaders have [only] directed concerned people to a fund already set up by Yates' lawyers." In the Q&A of a speech to the National Press Club, Gandy explicitly blamed Fox News for launching the "misinformation" about a NOW-created legal fund.

The exact wording of the Aug. 27, 2001, Fox commentary that broke the alleged "misinformation" about the fund was, "HANOW has announced a Support Coalition to raise funds and sympathy for Yates who they say was driven to murder by postpartum depression."

The announcement on FEMNET, another e-group on which HANOW posts, had been placed by Bell.

Moreover, on Aug. 22 Bell posted on FEMNET: "Deborah Bell of NOW has formed a support coalition for Andrea called the Andrea Pia Yates Support Coalition. Thi coalition has had two meetings. At the meeting last night, Andrea's defense attorneys, George Parnham and Wendell Odom, described the status of the case ..." Both attorneys, as well as Ms. Howard, were and are under a court-imposed gag order intended to prevent a media circus.

Having been caught in the headlights of a critical press, Gandy misrepresented Fox's commentary and deflected criticism from the real question: NOW's support of Yates.

But the issue of "feminist jurisprudence" � the politically correct corruption of the judicial system � is too important to sideline. PC feminism has weakened the basic structure of justice. It has redefined the legal system in North America through court precedents, like the repressed memory syndrome defense, and the creation of legal categories, like sexual harassment.

Consider the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). In 1999, the Supreme Court struck down an aspect of the act that allowed victims of rape and other violence "motivated by gender" to sue for civil damages in federal court. Rape is traditionally viewed as a criminal matter. Those unfamiliar with PC feminist tactics might wonder why feminists embraced a "lesser" civil charge.

Let me explain.

In 1995, Christy Brzonkala accused two fellow university students of rape. The men were cleared by both a university judicial committee and a criminal grand jury. The evidence could not sustain a criminal charge.

Brzonkala used the VAWA to bring a civil case in federal court. The advantages to a civil court were clear: Civil courts require only a preponderance of the evidence (51%) rather than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" (99%) standard of criminal court to convict. The standards and procedures are looser � for example, there is no presumption of innocence, no right against self-incrimination. In short, the evidence required to ruin a man's life was watered down. True, a civil court cannot imprison a defendant. But he might lose his business, his life savings, his reputation, his marriage, and family. Many people prefer imprisonment.

Stuffed animals and flowers decorate the Yates children's headstone on February 26
Stuffed animals and flowers decorate the Yates children's headstone on February 26

In my opinion, NOW was setting the stage to launch another crusade for "feminist jurisprudence" over the corpses of the five Yates children. It was stopped short. But even so, copycat defenses are springing up, such as the Louisville mother whose murder charges were recently dismissed when the court found that depression had caused her to stab her 2-year-old son about thirty times.

The Yates trial is about five murdered children, not politics. When Bell posted at HoustonNOW, "The candlelight vigil [for Yates] is sure to bring another flurry of media coverage and we need to work that to our advantage," she reveals the heartless, opportunistic soul of NOW itself. Or does the national NOW continue to claim that it is woefully � or willfully? � ignorant of, and so not responsible for, anything its chapters do?

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the forthcoming anthology Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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