Friday, April 1, 2022
A Legal History of Women's Prosecutions in Pennsylvania as Common Scolds for Their Unruly Speech
Richard Kielbowicz, Women as Common Scolds in Law and Popular Culture: Pennsylvania 1824 to 1872, Gender & History (Mar. 2022)
Women faced prosecution as common scolds for their unruly speech in US jurisdictions until 1972, with Pennsylvania playing an outsized role in this history. Pennsylvania's treatment of common scolds reveals how the interplay of the law and the press perpetuated a construct of women's speech as gossipy, quarrelsome and disruptive of social order. Prosecutions occurred so frequently and continued for so long in Pennsylvania because of English common law's grip on the state's jurisprudence, reinforced by popular culture representations that stigmatised women's speech. Common law furnished formal legal precedents, while the press, driven by its own imperatives, readily propagated, amplified and validated the law's characterisation of scolds. Reports about scold cases, which fit easily into journalistic and cultural frames, often appeared as humorous vignettes that served as illustrations – if not warnings – about women's transgressive speech. Judges wondering about the continued legitimacy of this gender-specific offense could take comfort from stories about prosecutions of scolds across the state and around the nation. The ordinariness of common scold cases also sheds light on community rules that regulated women's everyday speech – evidence about a fleeting activity nearly invisible to scholars before the digitisation of newspapers and obscure legal texts.