Not Another Brick in the Wall

While I have always loved a good chat, I used to dread the thought of speaking in public. My voice and my hands would shake. My mouth would go dry. The page before me would go blank. I would wither with fear. Then, in my forties, I started going to Toastmasters and finally learned to overcome my terror. I still prefer to sit behind a pen than up in front of a microphone, but if I have to, I can.

And yet, its only in recent times, that women have been allowed to take centre stage.

The use of language to constrict women’s speech (ironic, isn’t it?) has been a bone of contention for more years than I can count. Back in the 19th century, our very own South Australian activist, Catherine Helen Spence, complained that society has long ‘put a bridle on the tongues of women, and of the innumerable proverbs relating to the sex, the most cynical are those relating to her use of language.’ In case you haven’t met her, Catherine is my heroine, remembered on Australia’s $5 note for her life as novelist and journalist, public speaker, preacher, teacher, politician and philanthropist. She was on government boards, and she took care of neglected children, helping to found the first fostering service. She led the way for women’s rights. Born in 1825, she broke down barriers in a world where men held dominion. She made her voice heard. She refused to be silenced.

Women in power have always had to cop a lot of flak. So have men, to be fair. But there is a special vocabulary reserved for women, whether in positions of power or working at home. We’ve all read tales of feminists who want to outlaw the word ‘bossy’ from our vocabulary. And it’s a fair call, in my opinion, a valid complaint about the misuse of language. As a word generally reserved for girls – mostly older sisters, if the truth be known – it puts us in our place. Back in the corner. A dusty, dark spot I’ve never liked vising. Unless there’s a bookshelf to hand.

Call a little girl “bossy” and she starts to avoid leadership roles because she’s afraid of being seen as unlikeable. People are already wary of assertive women at work, but call a woman “aggressive” out loud and they will probably like her less. Call a female politician a ballbuster enough times, and people may actually be less likely to vote for her. Words tell us something about the way our culture perceives women in power, and whether we believe they’re supposed to be there. ~ Jessica Bennett, 2014.

Let’s face it, adults can be tyrannical about controlling children. Use any critical word on a child often enough and they will come to believe it, and all its connotations, and spend their life trying to avoid it. All children. Girls and boys. But for women, the age old maxim ‘children should be seen and not heard’ went on being applied throughout their lives.

A Scold’s Bridle from the Science Museum

Have you ever seen one of these? Pretty isn’t it? Wikipedia describes it in all it’s glory: A scold’s bridle, sometimes called a witch’s bridle, a gossip’s bridle, a brank’s bridle, or simply branks, was an instrument of punishment, as a form of public humiliation. It was an iron muzzle in an iron framework that enclosed the head.

This joyful contraption was used for women (very occasionally for men) who were disturbing the peace; whose speech or behaviour was considered disrespectful or wayward. Some images depict a metal protrusion that was inserted in the mouth and flattened the tongue. It was not only humiliating, but extremely painful, not to mention psychologically traumatic. One story tells of a woman forced to wear it for eight hours for preaching in the marketplace. I guess public speaking was not considered ladylike! Invented in Britain in the sixteenth century, the bridle was still being used in the mid-19th century, and the crime of being a ‘scold’ was not dropped from the books in Britain until 1967. Honestly, the lengths to which they would go, to keep us quiet.

Compare this gruesome contraption with the word ‘bossy,’ and it is reassuring to think we’ve moved on since those days of physically muzzling women to shut them up. And many of the appalling synonyms for bossy have long gone out of fashion, too, thank heavens. I don’t mean to revive them by mentioning them here, but seriously, listen to some of these. An outspoken woman was a scold, a nag, a fishwife, a gorgon, a battle-axe, a dragon lady, a fury, a harpy, a harridan, a shrew, a termagant, a virago, a vixen. Words never used on a man, you may note, who might more amusingly be decried as nitpicker, pettifogger or quibbler.

As we see a surge in the revival of feminism through the ‘Me Too’ movement, it is good to reflect that in some areas, we have come a long way since the days when the scolds bridle was a popular tool for suppressing women’s voices. In Australia, at least. And we are lucky. We can vote, own property, get an education and health care, and speak out in public. But that’s not yet true for every woman in the world. So let’s not stop trying to pull down that wall, brick by brick.

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