... and ain't i a woman?: No, not Medea

November 23, 1994

No, not Medea

There's no denying that 23-year old Susan Smith, the South Carolina mother who claimed her two young sons were kidnapped then a week later confessed to their murder, committed a terrible crime.

Unfortunately, the media and an outraged public have overlooked the possibility that Smith herself was a victim, suffering under a harsh system that does not recognise the incredible pressure and hardship faced by single mothers.

Perhaps her actions were not as calculating and evil as the media have suggested but a desperate reaction to the fear and helplessness felt by a young woman with unsolvable financial problems, a broken marriage and a lack of genuine support and understanding from those around her.

Women in smaller towns, more than their urban sisters, are expected to adhere to a strict tradition of standing strong and keeping silent under all circumstances, be it domestic violence, rape, divorce or simply an inability to cope. Most smaller towns do not provide the support networks to assist women mentally and emotionally.

Any act of violence against her family by a mother under pressure is seen as unnatural, incomprehensible and unforgivable.

The media played on this theme with references to the Greek mythological figure Medea who killed her sons to gain revenge on her unfaithful husband. They featured photos and interviews with other young mothers clutching protectively at their children and stating, "I would have taken those babies in a heartbeat".

Smith has a history of instability. Her father shot himself when she was eight, and Smith herself has reportedly attempted suicide twice.

There is also the lack of financial support. Her ex-husband paid child maintenance yet, without the option of any form of welfare from the US government, she was on her own.

She earned $1096 a month from her secretarial job. Mortgage, day care, car payments and living expenses added up to nearly $1300. She still owed money to the doctor who delivered her youngest son 14 months ago.

She fell pregnant to her boyfriend Michael Smith at the age of 20 and married straight away. In a religious and morally staunch town, that was probably the only option.

The marriage fell apart one year after the birth of their second child, and the divorce papers were filed in September.

Many single mothers may feel desperate for the emotional and financial support provided by a partner, even if it is only a facade. For a young mother under so much financial and personal pressure, her new boyfriend Tom Finders must have seemed like an answer to her prayers.

Yet Finders did not want to take on Smith's responsibilities and backed out with a typed letter saying he cared for her but could not deal with the burden of a ready-made family.

Smith claimed in her police statement that as she sat in the car at the edge of the lake into which she drove her sons, she was battling with the idea of suicide.

Yet the media painted the image of a cold, calculating murderer. Journalist Jerry Adler stated in an article in the Bulletin, "The question we are left with is not just why Susan Smith killed her children. It is how could she have strapped them so carefully into those car seats, for that last terrible ride?"

Instead of analysis of psychological disorders to explain such murders, the media should cast their attention to a wider social injustice. When he gave his sympathy to the residents of the town, no one questioned President Clinton about his feelings on the plight of single mothers such as Smith.

An article in Time shouted: "She betrayed her children and the entire country". Susan Smith is an example of how a country, a government and a society betray women.

By Melinda Jollie

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