The Battered Women’s Syndrome: A History and Interpretation of the Law of Self-Defense as it Pertains to Battered Women who Kill their Husbands

Christina L England


This paper seeks to address the role of the battered women’s syndrome in criminal court cases where battered women have killed their husbands in self-defense. A historical analysis of law pertaining to domestic relationships and violence reveals the male biases imbedded in the law and the obstacles women face in seeking equality and justice in the legal system.
After a brief description of the development of self-defense law and Lenore Walker’s “battered women’s syndrome”, court cases starting mostly from the mid-1970’s during the second wave of the women’s movement are examined. Legal criteria for self-defense are then analyzed along with important precedents that trace the emergence through a series of court cases of legal opportunities to use this psychological condition to support pleas for self-defense. In addition, important precedents are studied that have been made over the past few decades permitting expert witness testimony in the courtroom to explain this psychological theory as it pertains to the case.
The latter part of the paper deals mostly with controversies surrounding the use of the battered women’s syndrome in the courtroom and the current state of self-defense law. I conclude with a proposal for reformation of expert witness testimony and for redefining legal terms in the criteria for self-defense.


Women's Rights, Domestic Violence Law, Battered Women's Syndrome

Full Text:



Vanderbilt Undergraduate Research Journal is sponsored by the Office of the Provost, the Jean and Alexander Heard Library System, and the Office of Innovation through Technology.