Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life of Gladys Towles Root

Root's Beliefs on Sex Offenders

Root held opinions about sex crimes that were always controversial, even more so when the feminist movement emerged in the 1970s. There were three types of rape, she maintained: the brutal attack, the under-age copulation, and the invited attack. The under-age copulations she referred to were statutory rape cases in which girls under the legal age of consent had willingly had sex.

The brutal attack was, in Roots view, the rarest type of rape. At different times, she estimated it as accounting for one in 10,000 or or one in a 100. Here the woman has to be knocked unconscious or forcibly seduced, perhaps by a gang, and spread-eagled. The attacks usually occur late at night and are generally perpetrated by groups of boys ranging in years from 17 to their mid-20s who prowl the streets in cars. When they spot an intended victim they force her into their car at the point of a knife or gun.

The invited rape, according to Root, begins with the fashion designers who started the style for capris, bikinis, and tight slacks. Into these articles of clothing that either expose or accentuate the bodily curves and bulges, steps a woman who has forgotten she is a lady. . . . Lady is a common word tossed about in everyday usage, but the literal meaning has been destroyed by bad conduct. Its meaning has been neglected in her appearance, her manners, her way of speaking, the places she goes and people she goes with. Her code of propriety, if she had one, has been discarded. . . . Women should not enter bars, even with a girlfriend. A girlfriend is no protection. If a woman is lonesome, there are other diversions. She can affiliate with an organization, a church, a social club. If she is a spiritually, educationally, physically, and mentally well-adjusted woman, she will have no time to waste in a drinking place. Whats more, Root held that the discerning person could tell by looking at a woman if she was potentially a victim of a sex crime. Watch her, observe her actions, Root stated, and it will be immediately apparent whether or not there is a possibility she may someday be molested, raped, assaulted, even kidnapped.

Gladys Towles Root with clients (CORBIS)
Gladys Towles Root with clients
While calling tight slacks an invitation to rape, Root routinely wore skin-tight gowns into the courtroom. Her enjoyment of off-the-shoulder and low-necked apparel makes her condemnation of clothing that either expose or accentuate the bodily curves and bulges ironic in the extreme.

In rape cases, Root also sold juries on the shibboleth that a conscious woman couldnt be raped because she could simply keep moving. She told a large male juror in a rape case who had expressed skepticism that, If you still believe its possible for a man to rape a conscious woman, youre at liberty anytime after this trial to step into my office and Ill show you that it cannot be done! This confidence, coming from a woman, had a powerful impact on juries. Then, to illustrate this point, she held up a sheet of cardboard with a hole in it and handed a pencil to this same husky male juror. She told him to try to push the pencil through the hole as she moved the cardboard around. He was unable to do it, always hitting the tip of the pencil against the board itself. Of course, the analogy was flawed since the male body is usually both stronger and heavier than the female and can easily pin a womans pelvis down so she cannot move. Additionally, he can threaten her with injury even without a weapon. However, Root appeared convinced that a woman could thwart rape if she just kept moving.  

In child molestation cases, Root believed that the youngster was usually lying or was an active participant in the sex act. A child possesses an imagination rivaling Alfred Hitchcocks, and often just as macabre, she maintained. Contrary to what many people think, even children are capable of being the aggressor in a perverted relationship with an adult. And there is a shocking number of disturbed youngsters who will frame an adult.

Root did recognize that genuine child molesters existed. She also knew that an attack on a child can leave deep emotional scars that can change the course of his or her life. Unlike most people, however, she did not regard those who perpetrated these crimes against children as brute monsters. Rather, she called the true child molester a disturbed man who can be either married with family, or single. In a way, he is to be pitied. He has strong guilt feelings and lives in a private hell with himself. He suffers the torments of the damned and caries a heavy burden of shame. Not all molesters are furtive and scheming and feel triumph when not apprehended by the law. Some have a strong compulsion to be caught . . . they subconsciously want to pay for their deviate thoughts and actions.

Root believed that a psychiatrist should examine any individual who claims to have been the victim of a sex crime. When she made this suggestion on a television talk show, the program received an unusually heavy volume of mail in response, the overwhelming majority of which were negative.

Whenever she defended an accused sex criminal, Root made it a point to walk into and out of the courtroom with him, arm-in-arm.

In evaluating the career of Gladys Towles Root, it is important to remember that the attorneys code of ethics requires a lawyer to defend his or her client with zeal. It is also worth noting that many women find a certain comfort or reassurance in she asked for it myths about rape because they take them to mean that this crime certainly couldnt happen to them. While Root is not known to have preferred women jurors in rape cases, some attorneys have the theory that they will be more likely to harshly judge another womans behavior. Another theory is that male jurors, who actually possess the male sex drive, are more apt to realize that it is not uncontrollable and know they would not have run roughshod over a womans wishes as a defendant is alleged to have done.

While Root certainly exploited the contradictions at the heart of the traditional female role often shaming and traumatizing other, already victimized women in the process she was certainly not responsible for the existence of those contradictions. For example, a normal woman is supposed to want to be attractive to men. However, a woman who arouses male desire is also considered somehow guilty. Thus, even the mention of stockings, a standard item of female dress in this culture, is enough, under the obvious tension of testifying in court, to intimidate a woman into a discomfited silence.



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