Women Writers as Scolds, Again

by Jeff Biggers

Brand her a “common scold.”

That, in a nutshell, has been the “enough already” sentiment cast at Hillary Clinton’s new memoir, What Happened, by everyone from late night TV hosts to newspaper columnists. An ancient common-law crime applicable only to women, “common scold” once referred to “angry” and “troublesome” females who supposedly sought to “break the public peace, increase discord, and become a public nuisance.” Communis rixatrix, as a federal judge explained in 1829, “for our law-latin confines it to the feminine gender.” Two centuries ago, the court was bound to “inflict the punishment of ducking” in a river on a common scold.

The reaction to Hillary Clinton’s “angry” book on the 2016 election, as Fox News reported, reminds us that while the attitude behind such an archaic law is alive and well, today we prefer to plunge “scolds” into the pool of social media and late night mockery. Not that Clinton has cornered the market of ridicule.

While Sen. John McCain, another former presidential candidate, was revered as a bold “maverick” on last month’s health care vote in the Senate, dissenting Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins were castigated for bucking party leadership. Nevertheless, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren was famously lectured by Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, they persisted. Meryl Streep became “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood,” according to President Trump after her Golden Globe speech criticized him earlier this year.

As a pioneering satirist, journalist and “women politico,” Anne Royall learned in 1829 that the “common scold” branding of women reflected the double standard for social critics and politicos, especially those of a “certain age.” A newspaper publisher in Washington, DC until her death at the age of 85, Royall was routinely called an “old hag,” or “crazy old woman,” as if older women were unreliable and mad, and not allowed to laugh—just be laughed at.

A half-century after her death, the Washington Post ran a headline that served as a cautionary tale for any woman who offered a dissenting opinion: “She was a Holy Terror: Her Pen was as Venomous as a Rattlesnakes’ Fangs; Former Washington Editress: How Ann Royall Made Life a Burden to the Public Men of Her Day.” A generation before the suffrage movement launched its call for women’s rights at the historic convention in Seneca Falls in 1848, Royall breached the accepted place of women in the halls of Congress, elbowed her way into the back rooms of political deals at the White House, and dominated the discussion of the latest news among her peers in the corridors of the national press. Royall roasted the wags on the Washington scene for three decades and, remained an unavoidable female symbol—and target—in an era when women were “gross counterparts” in American humor. “She could always say something,” declared one competing editor, “which would set the ungodly in a roar of laughter.”

In a bizarre and often hilarious federal trial in Washington, DC, the 60-year-old Royall was convicted for “being an evil-disposed person as aforesaid, and a common scold and disturber of the peace.” The charges had been drawn up by government officials and religious fanatics offended by her writings, amid the political machinations of a new Andrew Jackson administration. In effect: Royall was a nasty woman.

Royall dismissed the carnivalesque proceedings as an American inquisition. They had less to do with her “respectable” behavior and were instead aimed at her journalistic right to free speech as a woman. Why had no man, among many other equally abrasive journalists, ever been put on trial?

With the “vituperative powers of this giantess of literature,” according to the New York Observer, Royall had been a groundbreaking travel writer, introducing the “redneck” term to our American lexicon and a free-thinking Southern and frontier view to an emerging national identity. More so, Royall challenged the prevailing mores of “respectable” people. She published a series of “Black Books” replete with satirical and often devastating portraits of corruption, incompetence, religious hypocrisy and political hijinks.

As Clinton’s memoir makes clear, the enduring issues that Royall challenged in her time still resonate today—the polarization of politics and the fragmentation of national unity, the unending debates over freedom of speech, the role of anti-intellectual mediums to disenfranchise the powerless from public participation, and the shifting and historic role of women in the public arena and media. Whether you agree with her assessment or not, Hillary Clinton should not have to go on trial, in a manner of speaking, to gain permission to write her memoirs or analysis of the 2016 election. Her story is history. But, like Royall, her place in history has not been crafted by her own prolific pen, but by the largely scolding interpretation of others.

Nearly two hundred years ago, Royall’s life served as a cautionary tale of the price paid by one woman for the right to dissent; of the historical use of ridicule and satire in leveling the patriarchal claims of frightened men in power; of the small wonder of reinvention in a state of desperation; of an older woman who repeatedly rose from mishaps and refused to be silenced.

That cautionary tale, alas, is still a book in progress

JEFF BIGGERS is an American Book Award-winning journalist, cultural historian and playwright. He is the author of several works of memoir and history, including Reckoning at Eagle Creek, which was the recipient of the David Brower Award for Environmental Reporting. His award-winning stories have appeared in The New York TimesWashington PostThe Atlantic, and on National Public Radio. Biggers is a regulator contributor to Al Jazeera AmericaHuffington Post, and Salon.

Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Contemporary History, Modern History

The History Reader Newsletter