Readings — From the January 2017 issue

The Shaming of The Shrew

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By Dubravka Ugrešic, from an essay that was published in the September/October issue of World Literature Today. Ugrešic is the author of more than a dozen books. She was the winner of the 2016 Neustadt Prize. Translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac.

Between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries, in England, Wales, Scotland, and Germany, the scold’s bridle, an iron muzzle that enclosed a woman’s head and forced a bit into her mouth, was used to punish women with sharp tongues. The first scold’s bridle was made in Scotland in 1567; it was still in active use in Bolton-le-Moors, Lancashire, as late as 1856. In Walton-on-Thames, a scold’s bridle is displayed in a church, with the inscription to curb women’s tongues that talk too idle. The bridle was used to punish chatterboxes, gossips, busybodies, yentas, yakety-yaks, nags, harpies, shrews, and vixens. It silenced quibblers, spitfires, hags, magpies, blabbermouths, loudmouths, prattlers, tattletales, hawkers, fussbudgets, floozies.

In classical mythology, Lucretia was permitted to accuse her rapist publicly, but only if her suicide immediately followed the denunciation; Philomela’s tongue was cut off by her rapist to prevent her from testifying against him; Io was turned by Jupiter into a cow (cows don’t speak); Echo was forced by Hera to give voice only to the words of others; Penelope was upset by the songs a street bard was singing, and when she called for a happier subject, her son Telemachus stopped her: “Mother, go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff. . . . Speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all.” The law of Telemachus would seem still to apply. Women are being sent back to their quarters. We find today’s distaffs and looms in nonprofit organizations, in the quiet, hermetic circles of academia, in women’s organizations that tackle “women’s subjects.”

Women have not relinquished self-humiliation and self-injury, it should be said. Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, who voluntarily gives up her ability to speak in exchange for women’s legs so that the prince will like her, offers a precise metaphor. A vast industry supports women in their efforts to satisfy men’s fantasies and to participate in the economy of traditional gender relations. Their bodies and their bones can be shaped and reshaped, the color of their eyes can be changed, their organs can be rejuvenated. Meanwhile, men are hard at work advancing “universal” principles.

I was recently on an international panel with two writers, both men. The moderator was a woman. After we’d read our prepared texts, the audience posed a question. Before I’d had the chance to open my mouth, the moderator leaped to her feet and said that we had very little time for discussion. My answer took twenty seconds. One of the men spoke for fifteen minutes. The other spoke for ten. All the while, the moderator never blinked. After the discussion was over, she came to apologize. I thought to myself, “Don’t worry, sister, we’re used to this,” and smiled. She, too, smiled. We understood each other.

A legend: Cicero is lynched and killed. His head and right hand are on display on the speaker’s platform at the Forum. Fulvia, Mark Antony’s wife and a frequent target of Cicero’s speeches, arrives to inspect the head of her enemy. Fulvia plucks a hairpin from her hair and with it stabs Cicero’s tongue. Let us stop now and think about how many hairpins we need.

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