Misogyny and stigma

In this short extract from Chapter One ‘the Penal History of Stigma’ from Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality I tease out some historical threads to illustrate the entanglement of stigma and patriarchal systems of discipline and punishment.


In Women and Power: A Manifesto (2017), Mary Beard teaches us that women of all social classes were barred from (full) citizenship in the [Ancient] Graeco-Roman world.  Even elite women had no independent legal personhood, but existed in a property relationship to male heads of households, and the wider Patriarchal state. Oratory was the ‘defining attribute’ of elite masculinity.[i] Citizenship was in effect demarcated by those who had the right to speak in public (and in so doing could participate in politics), and those who did not. Only free male citizens could exercise this right. The mothers, wives and daughters of citizens, along with slaves and foreigners, were prohibited from public speech. If the exclusion of slaves from citizenship was distinguished by their vulnerability to being written upon, women were identified by their muteness.[ii]  Beard quotes a second-century AD writer who notes that,

‘a woman should as modestly guard against exposing her voice to outsiders as she would guard against stripping off her clothes’.[iii]

[In the Antiquity] there is a relationship … between the social position of women of all social classes and that of slaves of both sexes – in as much as they all existed in a property relationship to men. Page duBois highlights how women were ‘sometimes likened to a writing tablet, a surface to be “ploughed,” inscribed by the hand, the plough, the penis of her husband and master’.[iv]

It is not only, as Beard argues, that women’s voices were absent from the public sphere, but that this prohibition on women’s speech was trumpeted, flaunted and enjoyed by male citizens. Greek and Roman literature is replete with examples of women actively being silenced. The muzzling of women was publicised in every genre of cultural production – in legal documents, in philosophy and literature and in comic and tragic plays.

Women’s attempts to speak were laughed at and mocked; they are transformed into wordless statutes, animals, nymphs, echoes, and they are more violently ‘shut up’ – raped, mutilated, their tongues cut out.

The parading of gagged and silenced women in antiquity has cast a long shadow. As Beard writes,

‘this is not the peculiar ideology of some distant culture. Distant in time it may be. But I want to underline that this is a tradition of gendered speaking – and the theorising of gendered speaking – to which we are directly or indirectly heirs’.[v]

The ancient genealogy of misogyny is instructive, she argues, in understanding the machinations of contemporary practices that seek to ‘quiet women’ within spheres of public debate today, ‘from the front bench to the shop floor’.[vi]  What is the relationship, Beard enquires, between ‘Twitter threats of rape and decapitation’, and ancient practices of gagging women?[vii]  As she reflects, even when women are ‘not silenced’ they still ‘pay a very high price for being heard’.[viii]  Beard’s prescient examination of the shade cast by ancient forms of misogyny deepens our understanding of how we might learn from antiquity.

‘Muzzled like dogs and paraded through the streets’

wife lead

 ‘Ann Bidlestone being ridden through the streets of Newcastle by an officer of the city’ by Ralph Gardiner, 1655’ illustration by Louis Bennett, based on an original drawing.

The public exhibition of silenced and gagged women continued in Europe for millennia. In medieval England practices of ‘scolding’ insubordinate women were recorded in court records from the thirteenth century. The scolding of garrulous women was also represented (often in comic guises) in church woodcarvings and stained-glass windows, in which the women are often depicted with gorgets (bands of linen) pressed over their mouths.[ix]

This practice of gagging women is most dramatically illustrated by ‘the scold’s bridle’ or ‘brank’, which was employed in Britain (and her colonies) from the sixteenth until the mid nineteenth century to torture and publicly humiliate women whose speech was deemed unruly, rowdy or otherwise troublesome (see image above, an engraving based on a witness 1655 account).[x]  The brank was particularly used to punish ‘older women such as widows and paupers’ who were perceived as ‘a drain on the parish’ or as not under the appropriate control of a male head of household.[xi]

Branks consisted of an ‘iron framework to enclose the head, having a sharp metal gag or bit which entered the mouth and restrained the tongue’.[xii]  Surviving branks reveal that the bit was sometimes spiked with pins, which would have pierced the tongue and the roof of the mouth. Women sentenced to the brank were ‘ridden’ through the town by a male ‘rider’. The motion of being jerked along would have continually disturbed the bit in the woman’s mouth, ‘threatening to break her teeth, shatter her jawbone, or lacerate her tongue’.[xiii]

The riding of the branked woman was a form of street theatre. E. P. Thompson describes the noise of jeering and clattering that accompanied these kinds of ‘rough music’ processionals as ‘ritualised expressions of hostility’.[xiv]  At the end of this mocking parade, the branked woman would have been made to stand in a market square or village green and subjected to verbal scorn, and had mud, stones, urine, shit and rotten food thrown at her. In 1686, one Dr Plott writes that the brank was not removed ‘till after the party begins to show all external signs imaginable of humiliation’.[xv]

There is only one known surviving first-hand account of the experience of being branked, which was written by Dorothy Waugh, a servant from Preston in Lancashire. Waugh, a radical Quaker, was branked by the Mayor of Carlisle for preaching in the town in 1655. Waugh’s account was later published in a pamphlet, which was intended to stir sympathy and support for the persecution of the Quakers, and it begins with her arrest at the market place in Carlisle, before her removal to prison and questioning by the town’s Mayor.

[The Mayor was] so violent & full of passion that he scarce asked me any more questions, but called to one of his followers to bring the bridle as he called it to put upon me, and was to be on three hours, and that which they called so was like a steel cap and my hat being violently plucked off which was pinned to my head whereby they tore my clothes to put on their bridle as they called it, which was a stone weight of Iron and three bars of Iron to come over my face, and a peece of it was put in my mouth, which was so unreasonable big a thing for that place as cannot be well related, which was locked to my head. And so I stood their time with my hands bound behind me with the stone weight of Iron upon my head and the bitt in my mouth to keep me from speaking. And the Mayor said he would make me an example to all that should come in that name. And the people to see me so violently abused were broken to tears…And that man that kept the prison door demanded two pence of everyone who came to see me while their bridle remained. After a while …the Mayor… sent me out of the city with it on, and gave me very vile and unsavoury words, which were not fit to proceed out of any man’s mouth, and charged the officer to whip me out of the town, from constable to constable to send me, till I came to my own home.[xvi]

Silvia Federici argues that it is significant that it was during the ‘Age of Reason’, and at the dawn of capitalist societies, ‘that women accused of being scolds were muzzled like dogs and paraded through the streets’.[xvii] The branking and scolding of woman was part and parcel, Federici suggests, of a broader movement of capitalist accumulation through enclosure. As we shall see, this process was characterised in England by the enclosure of land but also involved the enclosure of social relations. As Federici argues the European witch-hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was part of this project, ‘a war against women … a concerted attempt to degrade them, demonize them, and destroy their social power’.[xviii]

The stigmatising punishments meted out to outspoken, unruly women was, then, part of a deeper and wider political project (of capitalist enclosure) which signalled the hardening of a gendered social contract in which women were understood as the property of men. This enclosure of women within the new social relations of the Patriarchal capitalist state was supported by mass propaganda, including ‘countless misogynistic plays and tracts’.[xix] As Federici notes, ‘Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1593) was the manifesto of the age’.[xx] Indeed, publicity was a central function of these ritual stigmatising punishments. The scolding of women functioned as a warning to other women to hold their tongues. More than this, the riding of branked women, the piercing of tongues, the whippings and public scorn, and ‘the stakes on which the witches perished’, were sites through which new ideals of obedient domestic womanhood were forged. [xxi]

Branking in the twenty-first century

More than traces of this history persist in the misogynistic violence regularly employed to stigmatise women today in practices of public scolding which seek to silence and deter women from political and public speech.

[As] numerous feminist scholars have detailed, the rise of social media platforms has seen a significant intensification of misogynist vitriol and threats of violence directed against women.[xxii] The scolding of women in virtual public spaces extends from practices involving the use of humiliating, sexist and often sexualized epitaphs (cunt, bitch, whore), to physical threats (most frequently threats of sexual violence and rape).[xxiii] Speech which, as Dorothy Waugh described it, is characterised by ‘vile and unsavoury words, which were not fit to proceed out of any man’s mouth’.

These virtual branking campaigns escalate and move offline when sustained trolling campaigns are accompanied by the release of identifying information, such women’s home addresses or phone numbers, sometimes leading to stalking or physical acts of harm.  This ‘technology-facilitated sexual violence’ is frequently triggered when women speak out in public, often when they raise issues of inequality, but also when they participate more generally in political or public debate – as many women politicians and public figures have discovered to their cost. [xxiv]  Indeed, Mary Beard was prompted to write Women and Power: A Manifesto after becoming subject to misogynistic trolling campaigns. After I published my book Revolting Subjects, I received death threats, including a suggestion I should be cremated in a gas oven. For many women communication technologies which have ostensibly been designed to enhance, facilitate and democratise public speech are also experienced as stigma machines – spiked with threats of violence.

Men continue to use stigmatising devices to brank women – that is, to humiliate them in order to deter them from public speech and terrorise them into silence. As in the seventeenth century, these twenty-first century practices of branking weaponise stigma to inculcate fear and curtail women’s freedom.

While Stigma focuses on developing an account of stigma as an inscriptive form of power which operates through the axis of race–class, the penal history of stigma reminds us that stigma is also a mechanism of Patriarchal power. It stresses also how ritual forms of humiliation are elements within the wider systems of stigmatising classifications which accompanied the emergence of a new capitalist world order.

Just as the scolding of women intensified with the emergence of the capitalist state, other stigmatising punishments were devised to punish, control and mark the criminalised ‘lower orders’ within Europe and her expanding oversea dominions. Indeed, it is important to note that branking devices were employed in exactly the same historical period to muzzle enslaved people on colonial plantations.

 Slave Masks

Historical evidence suggest that slave masks were sometimes used to subdue resistance when people were captured and transported in coffles (lines of people fasted together with wooden planks, ropes or chains) from the African interior to the coast, and during the holding of people in slave factories and slave ships. Slave masks were employed more often as a punishment for insubordination or escape attempts on colonial plantations in the West Indies and Americas, and as a means of preventing the enslaved from eating crops, or soil – ‘dirt eating’ was a documented method of self-harm and suicide amongst the enslaved.[xxv]

In Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism (2008), the Portuguese artist and academic Grada Kilomba explores the historical dynamics of contemporary racisms in Europe through the cultural archive of plantation era violence. Kilomba introduces us to a figure from her childhood, the popular Brazilian saint ‘Escrava Anastácia’ – an enslaved woman of African descent who is usually depicted wearing a muzzle over her mouth and an iron collar around her neck. Anastácia has been muzzled, one version of the legend has it, to stop her speaking of her sexual torture and rape by a plantation owner. Kilomba argues that the muzzling of enslaved women ‘represents colonialism as a whole…. It symbolizes the sadistic politics of conquest and its cruel regimes of silencing’.[xxvi]

In 1968, an illustration of a masked and collared woman made by the French artist Jacques Arago circa 1817 was discovered in a Rio church in Brazil, and was displayed in Rio’s black museum (Museo de Negro).


‘Escrava Anastácia’, engraving of an enslaved woman by Jacques Arago, who he describes as wearing a ‘Máscara de flandres’, this was originally printed in Souvenirs d’un aveugle: voyage autour du monde in 1868.

This image was interpreted by many black Brazilians as evidence for the existence of the mythical Anastácia.[xxvii] Indeed, the display of this single image saw the cult of Escrava Anastácia grip Brazil. For many descendants of the enslaved, Escrava Anastácia remains a venerated figure – a defiant rebellious symbol of the resistance of black women. As Kilomba suggests, the veneration of Escrava Anastácia, the making of shrines and icons and in her image, is a means of speaking the history of slavery, colonialism, and of making visible its enduring legacies of anti-black racism and misogynoir sexual violence.


[i]Mary Beard, Women & Power: A Manifesto (London: Profile, 2017), 17.

[ii] Trimble, “The Zoninus Collar and the Archaeology of Roman Slavery,” 463.

[iii] Beard, Women & Power: A Manifesto, 16. Beard attributes this quote to a 2 AD writer, but it is usually sourced to Plutarch (142 AD). See Kate Wilkinson, Women and Modesty in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, United Kingdom ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 93–94.

[iv] duBois, Torture and Truth, 70.

[v] Beard, Women & Power: A Manifesto, 20.

[vi] Beard, 6.

[vii] Beard, 6.

[viii] Beard, 8.

[ix] Sandy Bardsley, Venomous Tongues: Speech and Gender in Late Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).

[x] In England’s Grievance Discovered (1655), Ralph Gardiner writes:  ‘John Wilis of Ipswich upon his Oath said, that he … was in Newcastle six months ago, and there he saw one Ann Biulestone [Bidlestone] drove through the streets by an Officer of the same Corporation, holding a rope in his hand, the other end fastned to an Engine called the Branks, which is like a Crown, it being of Iron, which was musled over the head and face, with a great gap or tongue of Iron forced into her mouth, which forced the blood out. And that is the punishment which the Magistrates do inflict upon chiding, and scoulding women, and that he hath often seen the like done to others’, Ralph Gardiner, England’s Grievance Discovered (London: R. Ibbitson, 1655), 111.

[xi] Jenny Paull, “The Scold’s Bridle,” Lancaster Castle (blog), n.d.,

[xii]Anon, Oxford English Dictionary (Online).

[xiii] Patricia McDaniel, Shrinking Violets and Caspar Milquetoasts: Shyness, Power, and Intimacy in the United States, 1950-1995 (New York; London: New York University Press, 2003), 26.

[xiv] Edward Palmer Thompson, “Rough Music Reconsidered,” Folklore 103, no. 1 (1992): 3.

[xv] Lynda Boose, “Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman’s Unruly Member,” Shakespeare Quarterly 42, no. 2 (1991): 207.

[xvi] I have taken this extract of Dorothy Waugh’s testimony from David Booy, ed., Personal Disclosures: An Anthology of Self-Writings from the Seventeenth Century, Early Modern Englishwoman, 1500-1750 (Aldershot, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002), 349–50. The original text can be found in The Lambs Defence against Lyes (London: Giles Calvert, 1659), 29–30.

[xvii] Federici, Caliban and The Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation, 101.

[xviii] Federici, 186.

[xix] Federici, 101.

[xx] Federici, 101.

[xxi] Federici, 186.

[xxii] For a good overview of online stigma and misogyny see Emma A. Jane, Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History, 1st edition, Sage Swifts (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE ltd, 2016).

[xxiii] See also the phenomena of ‘revenge porn’ in which men – and it is almost always men – post naked or otherwise intimate pictures or footage of ex-partners on public websites as a shaming punishment .

[xxiv] Nicola Henry and Anastasia Powell, “Technology-Facilitated Sexual Violence: A Literature Review of Empirical Research,” Trauma, Violence, & Abuse 19, no. 2 (April 2018): 195–208.

[xxv] For some historical source materials on slave masks see, for example, J.F Johnson, Proceedings of the General Anti-Slavery Convention, Called by the Committee of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (London: John Snow, 1843); George James Bruce, Brazil and the Brazilians, Portrayed in Historical and Descriptive Sketches. (London: Methuen, 1915); Thomas Ewbank, “Cruelty to Slaves,” in The Brazil Reader: History, Culture, Politics, ed. Thomas Levine and John Crocitti (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 138–42.

[xxvi] Grada Kilomba, Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism (Munster: UNRAST-Verlag, 2008), 16.

[xxvii] On the history and significance of Escrava Anastácia  see John Burdick, Blessed Anastácia: Women, Race, and Popular Christianity in Brazil (New York: Routledge, 1998).


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