The Story of Wanrow: The Reasonable Woman and the Law of Self-Defense

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Criminal Law Stories



The Washington State Supreme Court decision in State v. Wanrow is often described as one of the first “women’s self-defense case.” The Wanrow decision marked the first time that a state’s highest court determined that gender was part of the “context” from which a jury should determine the reasonableness of a defendant’s self-defense claim. Yvonne Wanrow was not a battered woman, but the analysis of self-defense doctrine and the defense strategies that grew from her case would become the underpinning for many self-defense cases that would follow on behalf of battered women.

My analysis of the social and procedural history of the case relies on interviews with key players, including Yvonne Wanrow, her lawyers, the prosecutors in her case, AIM and feminist activists, and the former Washington State Supreme Court Justice Utter.

Yvonne (Swan) Wanrow, a Native American woman, stood five foot four inches tall, weighed 120 pounds, and was wearing a cast on her foot when she shot and killed William Wesler, an intoxicated 60 year old white man and accused child molester who towered more than six feet tall. Yvonne was convicted of second degree murder. In a landmark opinion, the Washington State Supreme Court reversed her conviction. The court concluded that the trial court’s instructions encouraged jurors to apply a self-defense standard “applicable to an altercation between two men[,]” rather than one appropriate for a woman who was unschooled in the use of physical force and facing a larger man, and that this error violated Yvonne’s right to equal protection under the law.

Wanrow enters law school textbooks on the issue of what constitutes a fair trial for women. But race and racism were as important to the fair trial question in Wanrow as were gender and sexism. Though a stunning success, the Wanrow decision demonstrates the limits to which courts were willing to go to ensure fair trial rights. The court ruled that the trial court instructions were sex biased and thus violated Yvonne’s right to equal protection, but despite the strong likelihood of juror anti-Indian bias, the court found no error in the trial court’s refusal to allow expert testimony on Native American culture.

Wanrow emerges from the crossroads of feminist activism and American Indian activism. AIM members organized for her defense and Yvonne later herself became involved in Native American activism. Her appellate lawyers, Elizabeth Schneider and Nancy Stearns, were part of the emergent movement-oriented feminist lawyering at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). (Schneider is now a leading feminist scholar and author of the acclaimed book, Battered Women & Feminist Lawmaking.)

The chapter provides a rich historical understanding of activism for fair trial rights and demonstrates the ways in which attorneys and community activists can work together on behalf of criminal defendants. The chapter develops the concept of “reasonableness,” central to self-defense doctrine, important in criminal law courses. The chapter’s description of the “women’s self-defense” movement is useful for courses regarding domestic violence. The treatment of feminist theory, description of 1970s feminist lawyering, and AIM activism will prove useful for courses in social justice or cause lawyering, feminist theory, gender studies, critical race feminism, social justice lawyering, and women and the law.



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Foundation Press/ThomsonReuters

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