Last night, after cocktails with a friend who’s a bit of a radical feminist, I watched a documentary about Lizzie Borden and was struck by the feminist overtones of Lizzie’s (alleged) crime. In the past I’d always believed the genesis of the Borden murder to be rooted in avarice, much like the Menendez or Ewell family murders; but in reality Lizzie wasn’t acting out of greed, she was simply struggling to create an identity in a society that had written her off as worthless. Rather than being financially motivated, the crime could almost be viewed as an act of self-defense by a desperate woman locked in a life-or-death struggle with male hegemony.
Bovine in appearance and saddled with a father too frugal to provide a decent dowry, Lizzie seemed doomed to a life of spinsterhood, bereft of intimacy, social standing and financial stability. After her beloved mother’s death Lizzie’s father Andrew married a much younger woman; Lizzie despised her stepmother Abby, and was horrified to learn that Abby stood to inherit Andrew’s entire estate—after her father’s death Lizzie could be cast from the Borden home much like the contents of a particularly odiferous chamber pot (Andrew, alas, was too miserly to install indoor plumbing). Lizzie had absolutely no control over her life or future—until she (allegedly) picked up the hatchet, that is.
I wonder when the first thoughts of murder crept into Lizzie’s psyche, flittered at the edge of her consciousness. At first the concept of homicide must have seemed overwhelming—Lizzie was a well-bred young woman, and acts of violence were as foreign to women of that era as edible panties or space travel. And the consequences of murder at that time could be dire—if she were found guilty Lizzie would likely dance at the end of a rope. How long did Lizzie ruminate, rehearsing the crime in her mind, looking for flaws in her plan?
To me, the iconic photo of Andrew Borden’s ravaged corpse, his face a stew of blood, brains and battered flesh, perfectly embodies the essence of the crime. From the neck down Andrew is attired as a perfect nineteenth century gentleman, but his face has been obliterated, much as he (as the embodiment of patriarchy) strove to erase Lizzie’s identity, to strip her of her individuality and power, to render her helpless.
Well-bred women in Lizzie’s era were not permitted to work outside the home; therefore the only means of generating income was through marriage. Brides’ families at that time, however, were expected to provide a dowry, and Andrew’s failure to comply with this tradition (despite his vast wealth) essentially sentenced Lizzie to a life of spinsterhood and poverty. Leaving his entire estate to his new wife and failing to provide for Lizzie’s future was unconscionable; I find it fitting that when Andrew signed this inequitable, unjust will he may have signed his own death warrant.
Although I can’t condone the slaughter of two human beings, I must admit that I admire Lizzie’s refusal to meekly surrender to victimhood. May her story serve as a cautionary tale for societal oppressors in perpetuity:
Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks.
And when she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty one.
Close your door, lock and latch it—
‘Cause here comes Lizzie with her hatchet.
Rest in peace, Lizzie.