Shout It Out Monday – Common Scold Laws

Currently my lunchtime reading at work is Trainwreck: the women we love to hate, mock, fear…and why by Sady Doyle. It is a most excellent book of nonfiction about why we gleefully love to rip women celebrities apart and make fun of them for their mistakes, addictions, emotional breakdowns, relationship break-ups, cellulite and generally being human. There are all sorts of reasons that we do this and all of them are very specific to the fact that they are women and not men.

One of the things we don’t like is that these women dare first to be public and then to speak in public! *Gasp!* And if a public woman has the nerve to criticize anything perceived as masculine, then she is likely to be attacked for it. Much blame gets placed on culture, but did you know there were laws too?

 In Europe and the United States, there were crimes of speech — like being a ‘common scold,’ an ‘angry woman who, by brawling and wrangling amongst her neighbours, disturbs the public peace’ — that only women could commit. Common scolds were punished by being made to wear a gag called a ‘scold’s bridle’ in public; it was made of metal, and sometimes lined with blades or spikes, so that moving one’s tongue at all would cause injury. For those who felt that the bridle was too cruel, there was also ‘ducking’ —repeatedly submerging a woman in a lake or river, or (if all else failed) a horse trough, to simulate the feeling of drowning — which, as you may have already noticed, is basically identical to the punishment we call ‘waterboarding,’ and regard as a form of torture, in the present day. Don’t worry, though, Common scold laws in the United States were ruled unconstitutional. After a New Jersey woman was successfully convicted of the offense in 1972.

Yup, you read that right. Common scold laws were not declared unconstitutional in the US until 1972. So much for our proud freedom of speech! Britain abolished the law in 1967, so things weren’t much better there.

Here’s a short bit of history with pictures of a scold’s bridle for your personal edification:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.