Killer Women



Course begins 7pm, Tuesday 25 October

Lady Macbeth. Elizabeth Bathory. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Ruth Ellis. Villanelle. Whether fictional or real, society has a peculiar obsession with women who kill, and it is an obsession with a rich history. The roots of which can be found in the ancient world – from biblical notions of Eve and original sin to mythological figures such as Medusa, Medea and the Siren.

This four-week course investigates the evolution of the female killer in Britain from the 16th century to now. Participants will explore the history of witchcraft, medicine, infanticide, the birth of the novel and the printed press, insanity laws, public punishment and popular culture. A core theme throughout the course will be the interplay between literary depictions and real-life crime and participants will be asked to consider: why does society have such an insatiable interest in women who kill? How close is the myth to the reality?

Delivery, timings and dates

The four-week course includes a series of 4 video lectures and Q&As (YouTube and Zoom), as well as a reading list, course literature, activities and the opportunity to submit queries to the course tutor. Links and details will be sent to participants a few days before the course begins. Lectures will run on Tuesdays for four weeks from 7pm to 8pm (GMT), beginning on Tuesday 25 October 2022 and ending on Tuesday 15th November 2022. After they are released, lectures and reading materials can be accessed at any time, up until 20th Dec 2022.

Accessibility: All lectures will have closed captions. The live Q&As will be recorded and fully captioned within 48 hours of their first being streamed. If you have any additional access requirements, please get in touch via

Course fee: £37.50 (+ booking fee)


Course Breakdown

Week One – The Discovery of Witches: In week one, participants will focus on the period 1500–1700 to look at how witchcraft laws heralded a new phase in the history of women and those convicted of violent crime. Focusing on characters such as Lady Macbeth (1606), Alice Arden in Arden of Faversham (1592) and Elizabeth Bathory, participants will investigate how religion and science converged to create a stereotype of womanhood: the temptress, driven by cold galenic humours and a calculating demeanour, who was more frequently charged with murder than manslaughter. At the same time, an uncomfortable story of infanticide is brought into focus.

Week Two – The Jilted Lover: In week two, participants travel to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries where we find a shift in the way female killers are perceived. During this time, there was a strengthening of gendered roles and we find the emergence of the literary stereotype of the ‘murderess’ who is taken advantage of by men and driven by ‘natural weakness’. Reinforcing this stereotype was a boom in fictional literature focusing on inter-class love affairs, with gentleman seducing female servants – from Samuel Fielding’s Pamela (1740) to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1892). Using the literary depictions as a starting point, participants will interrogate real life crime and punishment.

Week Three – To Plead Insanity: In week three, participants discover how the introduction of the insanity plea into British law in 1843, marked a new chapter in the history of women and violent crime. Disproportionately used as a plea for women, they were significantly more likely to be granted an acquittal on the basis of insanity than men – a real life case being that of the poisoner Christiana Edmunds. Participants will also explore how evolving attitudes to punishment brought about the end of public executions and how bloody histories of women were brought to the fore in penny dreadfuls and plays such as Oscar Wilde’s Salome.

Week Four – The Femme Fatale: In the final week, participants explore how the birth of television, film and rolling news, has fed public obsession with women murderers, with pivotal cases such as Ruth Ellis. All the while, participants will learn how the fictional ‘femme fatale’ entrenched the millennia-old stereotype that equated female beauty with deadly danger. Famous incarnations being Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, and, most recently, Jodie Comer in Killing Eve.

Course tutor: Rebecca Rideal is an early modern historian, TV and podcast producer and the author of the bestselling 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire. Her next book, God’s Throne, will be a history of the Stuart dynasty from 1603 to 1714. She has tutored at University College London and the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education.

If you have any queries about the course, please do not contact the tutors direct. Instead, contact where we will be happy to advise.