Scolds, Shrews, and Belligerent Broads

Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at

There has been a recent outbreak of angry women. They stomp about the streets in high dudgeon wearing pink pussyhats and waving naughty signs.  To quote an old cigarette ad, “we’ve come a long way, baby.”  Prior to 1972, a woman could be prosecuted for expressing her anger in public.

The criminal offense derived from the concept of communis rixatrix, which translates from the Latin as “a common scold.”  The law defined scolds as “troublesome and angry women, who, by their brawling and wrangling amongst their neighbors, break the public peace, increase discord, and become a nuisance.”

Contentious women hold a special place in Western culture.  The language provides a rich array of labels.  You’ve got your termagant, your harpy, your fishwife and your harridan.  A shrew, of course, is a stock character in literature and folklore – the shrill and insubordinate wife who doesn’t comply with social expectations.  Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language defines a shrew as a “peevish, malignant, clamorous, spiteful, vexatious, turbulent woman.”  Today’s default word for a bothersome female rhymes with witch.

A journalist and novelist named Anne Royall was the last woman convicted of being a common scold.  Anne definitely had a rowdy streak.  One morning when John Quincy Adams was bathing au naturale in the Potomac, she gathered up his clothes and sat on them until he agreed to answer her questions, thereby earning (or extorting) the first presidential interview ever granted to a woman.  President Adams didn’t hold a grudge, but in 1829 Anne’s caustic observations about a politically ambitious Presbyterian preacher named Ezra Stiles Ely kicked up a furor.  In her opinion, Reverend Ely’s efforts to elect Christian candidates blurred the line between church and state and she denounced him and his congregation in her newspaper as hypocrites and “morticians…hoping to preside at the death of the Constitution.”

Ely’s outraged sympathizers described her as a “vulgar and offensive woman,” a “domineering virago,” and a “she-devil.”  Anne continued to give them hell.  The old battle-ax was intolerable.  They horsewhipped her in Pittsburgh and ran her out of town.  They pushed her down a flight of stairs in Vermont and broke her leg.  Nothing shut her up.  Finally, Ely’s followers devised the perfect revenge.  While she was living in Washington, they threw stones at her windows, blew horns, and harassed her with prayer vigils outside her door.  When she responded by yelling taunts and curses, they sprang their trap.  They filed a complaint accusing her of being a common scold.  She was arrested and the case of United States versus Anne Royall came to trial in May 1829.

A dozen witnesses gave accounts of her abusive tongue.  The Librarian of Congress testified that she had maligned Presbyterians as “Holy Willies” and called for all their throats to be cut.  One member of the congregation testified that she called him “a damned old baldheaded __?__ .”  (The final epithet was left blank in the trial transcript).  The Secretary of War took the stand for the defense and testified to her good character, but it wasn’t enough to sway the all-male jury.  They found her guilty as charged.

The only prescribed punishment for the crime of common scold was to tie the offender to a chair and plunge her into cold water “to cool her immoderate heat.” Carpenters at the Alexandria Navy Yard began construction of a ducking stool, but Anne’s attorney appealed the verdict on the grounds that ducking was cruel and unusual punishment.  His argument prevailed.  He got her off with a ten-dollar fine, yet however cruel and retrograde the punishment, the crime remained on the books.

In 1971, a belligerent New Jersey broad named Marion Palendrano was the last woman to be indicted as a common scold.  She wasn’t convicted.  In 1972, communis rixatrix was declared unconstitutional and evolved into the gender-neutral crime of disturbing the peace.

There are deep-rooted attitudes in our culture about how women are supposed to speak and behave.  In spite of a general relaxation in our ideas of what is and isn’t offensive, coarse language is still regarded as unseemly when spoken by a woman.  For example, a number of gentlemen took umbrage at the unladylike signs brandished at recent women’s marches.  They declared them to be “foul, nasty, and crude.”  One especially offended male doctor, a clinical psychologist, lashed out via Twitter at the “vagina screechers.”  (Nota bene:  It’s okay for men to say foul, nasty, and crude things, whether they’re angry or not, especially if done to show women the error of their ways).

I wish I knew the particular epithet Anne Royall used against that damned old baldheaded Presbyterian.  I’ll bet it was spot-on, and not nearly as wounding as the gentleman claimed at trial.  But as Barbara Walters once observed, “If it’s a woman, it’s caustic; if it’s a man, it’s authoritative.”