California History: A Topical Approach

By Gordon Morris Bakken | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
The Limits of Patriarchy:
The “Unwritten Law” in
California Legal History*

Gordon Morris Bakken

In 1995, Americans watched perhaps the best television drama ever aired: the trial of Orenthal James “O. J.” Simpson for the June 1994 murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman in the upscale Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. The prior spring, Simpson, the 1968 Heisman Trophy winner out of the University of Southern California, former star running back for the Buffalo Bills, and erstwhile television commentator and advertising pitchman, riveted the nation's attention as he led police on a slow-speed chase in a white sport utility vehicle—a scene captured by remote cameras, some of them on helicopters— immediately prior to his arrest for the crimes.

The trial that commenced the following January united sports and Court TV fans with the rest of a nation of spectators eager to see the California criminal justice system in action. Before and throughout the 133day trial, television reporters, some of whom trumpeted the event as the “trial of the century,” jammed downtown Los Angeles (site of the trial court) as well as the city's more-fashionable districts with camera equipment and remote broadcasting trucks, creating a three-ring media circus.

* A short version of this chapter was published as “The Limits of Patriarchy” in The Historian,
vol. 60 (Summer, 1998), pp. 703–16. The portions reprinted here are with the permission of
Phi Alpha Theta and Michigan State University Press. Hendrik Hartog, “Lawyering, Hus-
bands' Rights, and “the Unwritten Law” in Nineteenth-Century America,” 84 Journal of
American History
(June, 1997), pp. 67–96. Also see for recent work on the same type of issue
James D. Rice, “The Criminal Trial Before and After the Lawyers: Authority, Law, and Culture
in Maryland Jury Trials, 1681–1837,” 40 The American Journal of Legal History (October,
1996), pp. 455–75. Contrary to Hartog, Rice found that defense attorneys “exerted little or no
control” over “the more fundamental changes in cultural perceptions of men, women, and
African-Americans.” Ibid, p. 475. Earlier work on the subject includes Robert M. Ireland,
“Frenzied and Fallen Females: Women and Sexual Dishonor in the Nineteenth-Century United
States,” 3 Journal of Women's History (Winter, 1992), pp. 95–117. Also see Elizabeth Pleck,
“Feminist Responses to 'Crimes Against Women,' 1868–1896,” 8 Signs: Journal of Women in
Culture and Society
(Spring, 1983), pp. 451–70. Robert M. Ireland, “The Libertine Must Die:
Sexual Dishonor and the Unwritten Law in the Nineteenth-Century United States,” 23 Journal
of Social History
(Fall, 1989), pp. 27–44.

-84-

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