In the early days of the United States, colonists imported from England a set of regulations that were ostensibly meant to maintain the public peace. They were called, collectively, “common scold” laws, and they targeted women—it was almost always women—who had a habit of quarreling, too loudly, with their neighbors.
A woman who found herself on the wrong side of a scold law might be made to wear, as punishment, a scold’s bridle—an iron mask that fit over the head and depressed the tongue, to prevent her from further speech; more commonly, though, she would be dunked, ceremonially, into cold water (the better “to cool her immoderate heat”). She would be, as one 18th-century summary stipulated,
sentenced to be placed in a certain engine of correction called the trebucket, castigatory, or cucking stool, which in the Saxon language signifies the scolding stool; though now it is frequently corrupted into ducking stool, because the residue of the judgment is, that, when she is so placed therein, she shall be plunged in the water for her punishment.
It’s easy to shake our heads, today, at this relic of monstrous legalism. How awful things were back then! People were so barbaric! It’s less easy to do that, though, when you consider how common the “common scold” mentality still is, even in our current age of relative enlightenment and egalitarianism. The Puritanical discomfort with the “troublesome woman” manifests, in miasmic form, in American culture’s continued policing of women’s voices, figurative and literal: in every panicked discussion of vocal fry and up-speak, in every dismissal of Hillary Clinton’s feminine timbre as “scolding” and “shrill.” It stays with us, too, in the policing of women’s bodies, and clothing choices, and sexual practices. It’s with us every time a woman’s behavior is dismissed as “slutty,” every time her emotions are dismissed as “crazy,” every time a guy suggests that she would be so much more pleasing if she smiled. It is with us every time the man who might become the next president of the United States refers to a woman as a “pig,” or a “dog,” or, when specificity fails, a “disgusting animal.” And every time his comments are met with feverish applause.
The “common scold” of the 17th century is present, in other words, every time a woman of the 21st is punished for asserting herself in the public sphere: every time she—whether running for president or simply running her life—is dismissed for being too brash, and too ambitious, and too inconvenient, and above all too loud. As the journalist Sady Doyle argues in her fantastic debut book, Trainwreck: “A woman must be perfect, or not be anything at all, to encounter fame without being shamed or scarred.”