Student Research | Uncovering unwritten law and a history of mariticide

Isabella Ko/Staff

Editor’s note: This is part of a continuing series highlighting the research being carried out by undergraduates at UC Berkeley across a variety of disciplines. You can find all the stories in the series here.

Starting in the late 1800s, Chicago began encountering an unusual phenomenon: Hundreds of women in the Windy City were killing their husbands and getting away with it. Cherry Than, a campus senior who recently conducted research through the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program, or URAP, shed a light on these untold stories.

Over the past two semesters, Than has worked closely with professor Marianne Constable of the UC Berkeley Department of Rhetoric, assisting with research for Constable’s upcoming book “The New Unwritten Law.” Focusing on the intersections of women, law and history, the project’s broad scope was particularly appealing to Than, who was able to apply her quantitative research skills to analyze trial records.

The book’s title, and the subject of Than’s research, refers to a term first adopted in legal vernacular in the early 1900s. Than explained in an interview, “The unwritten law was this term used before things like self defense and battered women’s syndrome came into play. It was a term used to exonerate women for the act of killing.”

Before 1931, accused women were systematically excluded from the trial process that would ultimately decide their fate. Than’s research focused on a key period between the 1860s and 1931, examining about 275 cases in Chicago in which women, charged with killing their partners, were exculpated of all charges by all-male juries.

“These women were not just women…They were women of color, society women, women of lower socioeconomic statuses.” — Cherry Than

Of particular interest to professor Constable and Than was a notable uptick in the total number of defendants that were acquitted between 1920 and 1930. Part of Than’s research included trying to determine whether this increase was due to an overall population increase or whether any favoring or bias was also at play.

“Prior to the 1930s, the coroner and grand jury and everyone on trial board were all male, and so some of the issues that arose were ‘Oh, are you exonerating these women just because they’re women?’ and the whole rhetoric around women being defenseless,” Than explained.

As she delved into the stories of these women, Than’s research also unearthed the added complexities of their cases. “These women were not just women,” Than remarked. “They were women of color, society women, women of lower socioeconomic statuses.” She continued to note that race and class often influenced the quantity and accuracy of courtroom records.

Reflecting on her experience as a whole, Than commented that participating in this URAP project was one of the most meaningful and transformative experiences of her academic career, particularly because of the opportunity to synthesize both of her academic passions.

“I’m an environmental econ and rhetoric double major. It’s an unusual combination,” she said. “What I was most surprised about was that I could contribute my quantitative background to this … seemingly qualitative work for archival research. And so what was most valuable to me was that I started being able to connect the dots in what I’m learning in the classroom and how I can apply that to my research and then vice versa.”

After completing an internship this past summer at an investment management group, Than credits her URAP research for inspiring a new nexus in her academic pursuits between economics, rhetoric, finance and law.

“It’s been a very transformative experience for me,” she added. “I’m actually doing my senior thesis with (professor Constable).”

Embarking on the final leg of her academic journey, Than plans to write a senior thesis comparing the rhetorical strategies companies use to market themselves as environmentally friendly with their actual business policies. For post-graduation, Than is still considering all her options, but she is grateful that her experience as a researcher helped her find an area of junction among her diverse interests — one that will help guide her career path going into the future.

Contact Anna Tseselsky at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Anna_Tseselsky.