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Ellie Butler murder: are the female partners of abusive men responsible for their crimes?

Jennie Gray, mother of Ellie Butler, has been widely condemned for her “evil” part in her daughter’s death. But Gray was also a victim of Ben Butler.

On Tuesday Ben Butler was sentenced to a minimum of 23 years in prison for the murder of his six-year-old daughter Ellie. It’s a death that is particularly tragic because not only was it predictable, but it was predicted, again and again.

Ben Butler was a violent man, with prior convictions for assaulting an ex-girlfriend and two strangers. He was jailed for attacking Ellie when she was six weeks old, but this conviction was later quashed. He and Ellie’s mother, Jennie Gray, won back custody of Ellie in 2012, despite Gray’s grandfather protesting that this would lead to the little girl’s death. It took just eleven months for this prediction to come true.   

Gray was not present when her daughter died, but she later helped Butler in his attempt to make the death appear to have been an accident. She has been sentenced to 42 months’ imprisonment for child cruelty. The Daily Mail describes her as “the twisted mother who sooner saw [Ellie] die than turn against the savage thug who beat her to death,” while according to the Mirror she is “evil” and “scheming”. But Gray was also a victim of Ben Butler. Despite her own protestations to the contrary, the physical suffering and mental torment endured by Gray – who wrote secret “letters of prayer” begging for Butler to “stop being angry, hateful and violent” – should not be in any doubt.

Gray was gaslighted by Butler, who told her to “please try harder with your mouth as it’s a trigger for me”. The judge who awarded custody of Ellie to her parents ignored the concerns of a junior doctor, who said he had seen Butler pushing and poking his partner. A police officer involved in the case described Butler’s treatment of Gray as “completely abnormal”: “And for her to tolerate it in the way that she does is not normal either.”

But Gray was an adult, Ellie a child. Gray is still alive, but Ellie is not. And I am aware that just by mentioning Butler’s abuse of Gray I may be accused of making excuses for her, of indulging in a kind of “victim feminism” which denies women agency and assumes they can do no wrong. Romantic love is, after all, a selfish indulgence compared to its mundane, frequently unrewarding maternal counterpart. Gray will be seen by some to have chosen the former over the latter, even if it happened to be with a man who treated her and their children appallingly.

In 2003, when Ian Huntley was sentence to life imprisonment for the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, a female friend of mine expressed the view that Huntley’s ex-partner, Maxine Carr, had “got away with murder”. Yet Carr had not killed anyone.  She was found guilty of providing Huntley with a false alibi, although the court did not believe Carr knew of Huntley’s guilt when she did so. Since her release from prison in 2004 Carr has had to take on an entirely new identity due to threats to her safety.  It has always seemed to me that the anger directed at Carr is disproportionate to her actual involvement in the Soham murders. Yet as far as my friend was concerned, Carr might as well have been a killer, too.

I am suspicious of this urge to present the female partners of men who kill children as sharing in their guilt. While both Jennie Gray and Mareid Phillpot, sentenced to 17 years in prison for the deaths of her children in the fire orchestrated by her husband Mick, are more deserving of condemnation than Carr, I think something else is going on when we decide these women are morally no different to the men who abused them. It stops us having to consider the way in which male violence is not just tolerated, but seen as a necessary price to pay for order.

We may hate the harm male violence does but far from challenging it, our response is to look for ways of accommodating it. In particular, the responsibility of mitigating its worst effects– either by tending to the wounded or taking on the role of punch bag – falls on the women closest to violent men. Men create the shocks, women absorb them. Hence if male violence gets out of hand, it is not the fault of men alone. Some woman, somewhere, has not been doing her job.

We know that women are not held to the same standards as men. Our economies and social structures are absolutely reliant on the belief that women, as “natural” carers, will not only do the work of nurturing, but that of neutralising the most unwelcome aspects of male aggression, which is also “natural” and hence cannot be eradicated. There will, we tell ourselves, always be another Ben Butler out there, just as there will always be “some nutter” who’s  intending to rape you, or “some bigot” who wants to beat you up for wearing the wrong clothes. It is the role of women to prevent this from happening: why don’t you leave him? why don’t you stay in? why don’t you provide a safe space for those more marginalised than you? It is not considered unnatural for men to pose a threat; it is considered unnatural for women to do nothing to counteract it.  

Yet as most victims of abuse know, there is no safe way of responding to male violence. Women are most at risk from a violent partner when attempting to leave the relationship.  In a 2014 report for Buzzfeed, Alex Campbell identified 28 mothers in the US who had been sentenced to more than 10 years’ imprisonment for failing to prevent their partners from harming their children: “In every one of these cases, there was evidence the mother herself had been battered by the man.” Moreover, as Campbell explains, what outsiders may see as tolerance or complicity is frequently a woman trying her hardest not to provoke further attacks. “Any time I interfered,” says Victoria, currently serving 20 years for “permitting” the abuse and murder of her daughter Aubriana, “it would just make the situation worse.”

One could argue that Gray was not attempting to protect Ellie by staying with Butler, and I would agree.  However, she had bought into the narrative that it is down to women to limit male violence. She thought she could make him stop, not least because Butler himself was reading from the same script, suggesting that as long as Gray did not “trigger” him all would be well.

Both Ben Butler and Victoria’s husband, Daniel Pedraza, physically abused the women in their lives. It strange how often beating girlfriends and wives, so often the precursor to violence further afield, is not seen as a red flag. Perhaps it is assumed that as long as men stick to hitting the women they sleep with, male aggression has been managed and order maintained. Perhaps in some not-too-distant dystopian future, as well as being able to pay for women to penetrate and women to gestate their offspring, men will be able to pay for women to beat. Why don’t we make it all legal and see if we have offered men sufficient outlets for their natural male rage? If all else fails, we can blame the women for failing to be accommodating enough.

I know that at times like these one is expected to do the whole “as a mother” routine. And yes, as a mother I cannot tolerate the idea of anyone hurting my children. But when  I say I wish to protect them from the big bad world, I do not mean from wolves or monsters, nor even from people. I mean men. The biggest threat to my children’s safety comes from the violence of men.

The world does not have to be like this. As Joan Smith once pointed out, it doesn’t even matter if one believes there is a natural, biological basis for male violence. The pertinent question is “are you happy with this state of affairs?” I am not and nor should you be. The best of all possible worlds is not a world in which Ellie Butler would have suffered and died the way she did. But to see Jennie Gray as just as guilty as Ben Butler is to treat abuse as a relationship to be managed, not something one person does to another.  It is to accept the abuser’s own logic. For the sake of the women and children still out there, absorbing the blows we don’t see, we need to do better than this.

As Andrea Dworkin once asked a men’s group in 1983, “have you ever wondered why we are not all in armed combat against you?”:

It’s not because there’s a shortage of kitchen knives in this country. It is because we believe in your humanity, against all the evidence.

Some women believe too much, but there’s a point in believing just enough to keep demanding real social change. We cannot leave this to those who are already too trapped and worn down to protect those closest to them. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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