This is an image of a scold’s bridle.
Its origins are unclear, but it is thought to have emerged in Europe as a punishment for witchcraft. Women who spoke too loudly, who challenged authority, who argued with a neighbor, or who otherwise provoked anger in a man could be subjected, at the whims of the local magistrate, to be bridled and publicly paraded throughout the streets. While various designs gained popularity throughout history, the most gruesome included spikes on the bitt placed inside the mouth, designed to pierce the tongue. The metal headgear would frequently break the jaw, and the bitt would both necessitate as well as encumber the expulsion of blood, bile, vomit, or teeth.
While wearing the mask, it was impossible to speak.
A chain was attached to the side of the mask.
The chain allowed the woman to be led publicly throughout her community. Sometimes that was the job of a local official, sometimes the job of the angry husband. The public was encouraged to spit, jeer, and urinate upon the scold, as she was paraded throughout the town. In some countries, a bell was added to the top of the mask, to draw attention to the proceedings.
Used primarily in America as a method of controlling slaves, there are still documented cases of white women who were bridled scolds in colonial towns. The bridle’s last known use was in German workhouses in the early 1800’s. Several decades after we Americans had penned the phrase “All men are created equal,” several decades before we would think to extend this courtesy to those men who were not white, and nearly a century before we would begin to wonder where the women were at.
To break this down in a few short sentences: a woman who defied societal norms was considered a threat. She needed to be punished. Her punishment was equal parts pain and humiliation.
Now consider that this was used as a form of commonplace punishment for hundreds of years. Young girls in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries saw this in action. No one needed to warn them of the fearsome threat of the bridle; they saw it for themselves. Their mothers warned them. Some of those daughters grew up to be bridled anyway.
This is how a culture is created. How a culture evolves. Fish don’t know that they are swimming in water, and generations of women knew, in the same way that the sky was blue and the sun would set, that to be quiet was to survive.
And to be silent is to survive. And to be invisible is to survive. And to be shamed is to feel pain, and to feel pain is to feel shame. And in our silence we will survive, and we teach our daughters to do the same.
Ladies are quiet. Ladies survive.
They survive when they are Jill Harth, who was repeatedly groped during business meetings with Donald Trump, who “left the table to go to the bathroom” and “vomited” as a tactic. Like I have. Like many of us have. Because speaking up, simply saying “Stop putting your hand under my skirt,” just isn’t an option. Because pain and shame have been woven into our DNA for generations.
You know how when rape victims speak up, they are congratulated for “breaking the silence?” That they are often told by loving friends how “brave” they are?
That’s how deeply embedded this is. It takes an act of bravery to say “I was raped.” It takes an act of immense courage to say “I was forced.” It takes enormous strength of will to say “what happened to me wasn’t right.” And in case this point isn’t obvious to you, that is the harm that culture can do. Saying that you were raped shouldn’t be a source of humiliation or shame, any more than saying that your car was burglarized or your home was set on fire. Describing an assault shouldn’t be an act of bravery. It is, though, particularly when you consider how it is almost always met with skepticism and disbelief.
But that’s the funny thing about learned behaviors. When you live in a culture where a talkative woman can be dragged through town by the jaw from a metal harness, it stands to reason that it doesn’t seem particularly important to listen to whatever it is that she said in the first place. And if you try to make the argument that times have changed and we human have evolved, I beg you to remember that there are fifty-five women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault, and people still wonder if they’re telling the truth.
Ladies are quiet. Ladies survive. They survive even when they speak up and are not believed, when they are Ivana Trump, who published in her fucking book in 1993 that she was brutally raped as Donald Trump pulled out her hair and forced his penis inside her. (His lawyers later cooly stated that this was absurd, because obviously, “you cannot rape your spouse.”)
Ladies learn to speak softly. Ladies learn to be Arianne Zucker, the woman in the now-infamous Trump Tapes, who flirted with Donald Trump and Billy Bush because she could not refuse to hug both men when asked. Who answered the question of which man she would rather sleep with by responding “both,” who laughed and charmed and stroked their egos, because that is the way that we survive.
And I no longer have the energy to tell you that sexism is real, and not just a myth perpetuated by angry feminists. I no longer have the energy to gently persuade you that Hillary Clinton is held to a much higher standard because she is a woman. I no longer have the energy to reply to your Facebook comments that “all men speak like this sometimes,” and I no longer want to remind you that it is Hillary Clinton, and not her husband, who is running for office. I no longer want to hear you tell me that you are shocked by the recent behavior of Donald Trump, when it has been evident for years that he is horrible to immigrants and Mexicans and women and the disabled and black people and literally anyone who is not a straight, white, wealthy man. Because immigrants and Mexicans and women and disabled people and black people and all kinds of people have been telling you this, for years. You just didn’t listen.
And that’s the thing about culture. When you’re in it, you can’t see it for what it is.
In a few hours, I’m going to watch a qualified woman shake the hand of a bigoted rapist on national television, before the eyes of the world. And she will smile, because that is the way that we survive.