Women on death row:

John Hult

John Hult

The author of two books about women on death row gave a lecture at SDSU last week as part of the celebration of Women’s History Month.

Nearly 40 people were in attendance for the lecture of Sister Kathleen O’Shea last Thursday, which was sponsored by Quest For Equity Fund. The Fund sponsors programs for education on many women’s issues, SDSU Women’s Studies Program Director April Brooks said.

Sister O’Shea’s talk covered her initiation into the study of women on death row, her troubles in dealing with wardens and prisons and how she came to write her both her reference book, “Women and the Death Penalty in the United States, 1900-1998,” and her recent book, “Women On The Row.”

She began researching the topic while studying for her master’s degree in Women’s Studies at the University of Oklahoma. A professor there had invited her to participate in a three-week study of women in the general prison population.

“Someone asked if any of us were going to talk to the women on death row, and I didn’t even know that there were women on death row,” O’Shea said.

“Then I found out that the warden didn’t want us talking to them, so I became very curious and wanted to find out more.”

She soon found that Oklahoma had more women on death row than any other state at the time.

“I thought it would be a good place to start,” she said.

In the four years that followed, she complied information form law reports, court reports and newspapers about women on death row over the last century.

Her resulting reference book includes a chapter on every state that has ever executed a woman and a breakdown of their names, offenses, years of incarceration and execution, and the number of women each state has executed.

O’Shea’s new book tells the stories of 10 women currently on death row in her words and the words of the prisoners themselves. The book puts faces to the names of the women, whose stories she feels accent the human rights abuses present, particular to death row women.

In addition to the books, Sister O’Shea has started a newsletter, also called “Women On The Row.” Many of the women on death row weren’t aware that there were other women there, she said.

The newsletter has grown to a circulation of 160, including all 54 of the women currently on death row and several activist groups who report abuses to the public.

Because of public backlash, most of the time when something like a prisoner going without soap or going without food for an entire weekend are made public, the situation changes, she said. The pressure is not welcome everywhere, however.

“I was rather proud that my newsletter was banned in Texas,” O’Shea said.

O’Shea was also pleased about the many positives that have come from her work.

“Women who never had anyone contact them before are now receiving letters,” she said. “There have been lawyers that have come forth and taken women’s cases basically for free. So there have been many blessings for these women.”