Undergrad Research Shows Self-Defense May Not Be a Fixed Concept

The right of self-defense in Virginia courts has been fluid, defined by the culture, gender and the times, according to research by a University of Virginia fourth-year student.

Amelia K. Nemitz, 21, of Potomac Falls, an Echols Scholar and distinguished history and Spanish double major in the College of Arts & Sciences, used her 2012 Harrison Undergraduate Research grant to examine the doctrine of self-defense and some of its implications.

“My project focuses on the way in which the socio-cultural construct of gender influences the right of self-defense and the outcome of self-defense cases, particularly in the state of Virginia,” she said.

A student of United States history and law, Nemitz said the courts have viewed self-defense differently based upon the gender of the defendant.

“Associating the right of self-defense with an aggressive, dominant masculine identity, Virginia courts often have had difficulty understanding the actions of women who kill their abusive husbands, boyfriends or significant others as self-defense,” she said. “While Virginia courts appear to have readily considered self-defense the actions of men who aggressively defend themselves and their homes against attacks by other males – an act which constitutes an affirmation of existing gender roles – Virginia courts seem to have struggled to interpret similar situations in which women attempted to justify killing an abusive but dominant male figure in their life as self-defense.”

Her project on the connection between gender and self-defense actually lies at the crossroads of her life's greatest passions: American legal history, women's rights and self-defense.

“Since 2009, I have been studying the art of self-defense with a retired police veteran and have had the honor to achieve the rank of instructor within his program at the Reston Institute for Self-Defense,” she said. “As both a practitioner of self-defense and a student of American legal history, I was instinctively curious about why there existed such variation between the self-defense laws maintained by the various states and the historical circumstances under which these laws arose.”

Nemitz examined appellate-level cases of men defending themselves against men and women who used a self-defense argument for killing a man.

“Virginia judges conceived of the right of self-defense as masculine right,” she said. “Consequently, when these women attempted to claim self-defense after killing the  dominant male figure in their lives – an act which inverted the existing gender power dynamic and threatened the very masculine gender construct on which the right of self-defense was based – Virginia courts struggled to understand the actions of these women as self-defense.”

Nemitz said her research, while focusing on how gender influences the right of self-defense, examines ways in which social and cultural beliefs may influence the legal system. Understanding these influences may allow for the legal system to compensate and produce a fairer and more equitable experience.

“The research I have done to this point opens the door for a great deal of future research,” she said. “Though my thesis focuses primarily on the relationship between gender and the right of self-defense, my conclusion that the right of self-defense can be – and often is – influenced by social and cultural forces could lead to a wealth of research concerning the connection between the right of self-defense and other socio-cultural constructs, including race and class.”

Nemitz said investigating the way in which gender in particular affects Virginia’s conceptualization of the right of self-defense is a reflection of her commitment to women’s rights and ending gender violence.

“As the current president of Sexual Assault Peer Advocacy – an organization at U.Va. which seeks to create a community of support for survivors of sexual violence and to raise awareness about the issue – and a member since the first semester of my first year, the issues of sexual violence, gender constructs and women's rights have long been issues that are close to my heart,” she said.

U.Va. history professor Charles W. McCurdy said Nemitz was asking a question not posed before. He also said it was unusual for an undergraduate to delve into historical and legal records this way.

“She is investigating an important question that not even professional legal historians have investigated before,” he said. “The quality of the work thus far is very high.”

The research has given her insight into the workings of the legal system and prepared her to enter U.Va.’s School of Law in the fall. She plans to eventually work as a prosecutor.

“More than anything else, this research has given me great confidence in my research skills and has confirmed my passion both for law and the art of self-defense,” said Nemitz, a Lawn resident, one of the chairs for the Vigil Committee for Take Back the Night, member of Sexual Assault Peer Advocacy, Cavalier Marching Band, Phi Eta Sigma, Golden Key Society, Sigma Alpha Lambda and the National Society of College Scholars.

“This project reaffirms the depth of my commitment to the issues of self-defense, gender, women’s rights and the law.”

The research awards support students who present detailed plans for research projects that have been endorsed by a faculty mentor. A Faculty Senate committee selected the winners, who receive up to $3,000. Faculty mentors who oversee the projects receive $1,000.

More than half of U.Va.'s undergraduates are engaged in some form of research, including classroom and independent work. Students who conduct research make better candidates for fellowships, graduate and professional school admissions, and career placement, according to Katherine Walters, assistant director of the Center for Undergraduate Excellence.

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