THE October murder of Carol Stuart, apparently by her husband, has highlighted the growing number of women being murdered by their partners. Mrs. Stuart's case received extraordinary national attention. So did the case of Helle Crafts, a Connecticut flight attendant - and that of Zameena Baksh, a Virginia woman under police protection. Mrs. Crafts's husband was convicted of murder; Mrs. Baksh's husband was arrested in connection with his wife's death.
Fully 31 percent of female homicide victims in 1988 were killed by a husband or boyfriend, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). That percentage has remained steady for a decade, the bureau says. But because murders of all types have increased, so has the number of women killed by male partners.
Between 1975 and 1985, there was a nearly 30 percent increase in murders of white females by their white male partners, according to a study by Angela Browne. Dr. Browne is a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester whose research was recently published in Law and Society Review. Her studies also suggest that FBI statistics are too low, and that more than 50 percent of women murdered are killed by their partners.
The rise she has helped document frustrates experts on domestic violence, because it is occurring despite progress in developing services for battered women and strong laws against domestic violence.
In 1975, the situation was bleak, Browne says. Women did not talk about being abused for fear of not being believed. There were few places for them to go. In many states, battering was a misdemeanor and marital rape was excluded from criminal statutes. If a woman killed the man abusing her, it was difficult for her to successfully plead self-defense.
But in part because of the women's movement, shelters for battered women began to pop up in the mid-'70s. By 1980, 48 states had passed some kind of domestic violence legislation. Today, in 12 states, the law requires police to arrest when there is probable cause that domestic violence has occurred. Women also obtain protective orders against abusive partners. News media coverage has also increased.
``I think we're uncovering the problem [of domestic violence],'' says Anne Menard, of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. ``Our perception of it as more serious is a positive result of more accurate press coverage. It's being treated as something that's not a fluke and not without social implications.''
Since shelters became available, the numbers of women killing their partners have decreased 25 percent, Browne says. And yet the numbers of men killing their partners have increased. Why?
``It could indicate a number of things: a desperate reaction to [men's]losing control of women,'' says Ann Jones, author of ``Women Who Kill.'' ``It could be part of a general cultural devaluing of women, which we're seeing in great increases in pornographic magazines, videos, and cable TV.''
Others say it may be part of a backlash resulting from a changing status quo. Some experts believe the potential for homicide is greatest at the point when a woman in a male-dominated relationship takes a big step toward asserting independence - becoming pregnant, filing for a divorce, calling the police. ``What men often say is, `If I can't have her, nobody can,''' Jones says.
``I think we're in that period where it's more dangerous,'' says Ms. Menard. ``Should we turn around and go back? No. Should we recognize the risks? Yes. We may need to protect women more during this time.''
States are starting to provide that protection. Connecticut passed a beefed-up mandatory arrest law in 1986, after Tracey Thurman, who was severely injured in an attack by her ex-husband, sued the Torrington, Conn., police department and won $1.9 million. That law requires that cases be heard within 24 hours, and that a woman be given police protection and an advocate in court. Since the law went into effect, there has been a tripling of arrests in Connecticut, from 9,000 to 27,000.
``Without question, the size of the settlement, the brutality of the attack, and new studies which suggested that arrest was a more appropriate response than mediation, all came together'' to put the law in place, Menard says.
As more states pass mandatory arrest laws, and judges order counseling for offenders, the number of groups offering counseling to male batterers has increased. Between 100 and 150 groups have organized in the last five years. In states that pass mandatory arrest laws, they often appear overnight, says David Adams, program director of Emerge, the first men's counseling service on domestic violence.
But while more men are going to these groups, there is only a 25 percent success rate, says Mr. Adams. That is comparable to alcohol and drug programs. What is most needed now, say advocates for abused women, is a change in the public culture that tacitly condones such behavior.
``We've now got the victims, the police, and the courts, saying, `What you're doing is wrong,''' Menard says. ``But we don't have the brothers of these guys, the bartenders, clergy, and bosses saying, `That's not cool. What are you treating her that way for?'''
Menard suggests a national campaign against violence toward women, similar to the one against drinking and driving. That campaign, Menard says, has resulted not only in stiffer penalties against drunk drivers and penalties for bartenders who serve them, but more important - a change in social consequences. Getting people to choose designated-driver status or refusing to allow a friend to drive drunk is a shift in public awareness not thought possible even five years ago.
Ann Jones sees a glimmer of hope because a new generation of women is more aware of family violence.
``Younger women are exercising greater care in who they date, and being more closely observant, looking for signs of potential violence and control,'' she says.
``At the root of all this is a very distorted concept of masculinity and manhood,'' says Edward Gondolf, author of a book on male violence toward women. It is ``the notion that a man has to be in charge, tough, scared of intimacy - and one that degrades females as weak and vulnerable.''
``Overcontrol comes out of distorted notions about manhood that can be changed,'' he says.