Mind Matters — Not Much of a Revolution If We Ourselves Haven’t Changed

If you have a mother, a sister, a daughter, an aunt, a wife, a girlfriend, or simply happen to be a woman, read on … .

Once again, Chadds Ford Days were the happening in my neighborhood over the weekend. Participating in this annual celebration of colonial and revolutionary history has become a tradition in our family for the past twenty-four years. Clare Bowersox, the “Queen of Funnel Cake Making,” has been like Tom Sawyer and the white washed fence: every year she enjoined my kids (‘til away at college) to the Lure of the Lard. Family fun was and is what Chadds Ford Days represent.

However, this year something occurred that I found not only perplexing, but downright disturbing. A volunteer male re-enactor appeared dressed as a woman being punished for “gossip.” He, as a colonial woman, wore a metal head covering that disabled speech. Called a brank, or “gossip’s bridle,” it is described as a “shocking instrument, a sort of iron cage, … great weight … with a spiked tongue of iron … if the offender spoke, she was cruelly hurt.”

Mind you, this punishment was meant for women who “scolded” or “gossiped”—that is, spoke out in any way in a society in which they had no say. Historians remind us that colonial women had no legal rights as individuals. Judge and jury were all men. What may be one man’s being scolded, may be a woman’s speaking the truth.

Would that I could now say that the re-enactment of the so-called town gossip stood to remind us of how far we have come from such degrading, humiliating, and cruel treatment of another human being. Unfortunately, the re-enactor’s silent stance appears to have become a symbol for some men to long for the “good old days.” I was appalled to overhear (ooh, am I gossiping?) one man (who looked, for all intents and purposes, like a regular family man) wax on with some men behind a food counter, “Hey, did you see the guy dressed as a woman gossip?” His words were something to the effect of that’s effective punishment for a woman.

The group didn’t disagree. I later asked one of the men who had taken part in the conversation, “What was that woman gossip stuff all about?” His response was, “Well, it doesn’t hurt anybody”—implying that shame and humiliation is a fair and just punishment. His parting comment was, “Just don’t gossip.” (Hmm…)

Later I noticed the “gossip” was in the vicinity again standing silently under a tree. As I was asking the re-enactor if I could take a photo (he nodded assent, not being able to speak), another man walked by, commenting and laughing at how funny the gossip was. Another “Great way to shut a woman up,” so to “speak!”

Later that evening, I showed the photo to a young woman, now an M.D., who grew up in the area. She was appalled and noted that if she had seen this re-enactor as a child, she would have been horrified.

What is so horrifying to me is some men’s response to the “village gossip.”

I’m not about to do a study to see if these same men watching another man be pilloried or flogged would think that humorous as well as well-deserved. I don’t know if this recent experience has more to do with men denigrating women or with the fact that we are all far more primal and less civilized than we’d like to believe. We pride ourselves on liberty and justice for ALL, yet we continue to believe that shame and humiliation and cruel punishment of other human beings will “learn’em.”

Shaming and degrading another human being is about as far from the ideals of a truly free nation as you can get. This is the learning we need: How about a revolution of heart and mind?