Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hold your tongue: Historic ways of keeping women from speaking up

The next time someone urges you to hold your tongue or refers to a female colleague as "shrill" or a "scold," get ready to get medieval--because that's where those terms come from, and they refer exclusively to talkative women. Back in the day, women who were considered to be talking too much were punished in a variety of ways, not just by name-calling. The device at right, a "scold's bridle," is described this way in Wikipedia:
A scold's bridle, sometimes called a branks, was a punishment device for women, also used as a mild form of torture. It was an iron muzzle or cage for the head with an iron curb-plate projecting into the mouth and pressing down on top of the tongue. The "curb-plate" was frequently studded with spikes, so that if the tongue remained lying calmly in place, it inflicted a minimum of pain.
And if you spoke, well, heaven help you. The scold's bridle was mostly used in England and Scotland; in German and Austria, the shrew's fiddle was used as a yoke to lock around the neck and hold the hands of a woman considered to be bickering too much. Wearing any of these devices would be accompanied by public shaming (some versions of the bridle feature a bell on the top, to get onlookers' attention) and the calling of names, labeling women as shrill, scolds, gossips and worse. "By condemning the expressive woman, these names enjoin her sisters to silence," wrote Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Today, you'll hear this expressed in more subtle ways, as in those instances when people say that women talk more than men do, when in fact they speak almost identical numbers of words in a day. (See more myths about women and public speaking here.)

And that's just a sampling. Women in history have been bound, gagged, imprisoned, dunked and drowned for public speaking. Read chapter 4 of Jamieson's Eloquence in an Electronic Age for a good, focused review of the history of women's speaking--and why it is so short. Or as she says: "History has many themes. One of them is that women should be quiet."

In Women's History Month, what does this bit of history make you think about women and public speaking--and your own speaking?

(Photo of a 16th century Scottish brank or scold's bridle, made of iron. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, Scotland.)

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