Public Shaming of Women: An Ancient Purging Ritual
Malicious gossip and national shaming have similar motives.
Posted Sep 21, 2018
As I read about the women in the news today who have been shamed into silence, I realize I have seen these plots unfold before. And, indeed, I have—on both a professional and personal level.
American literature has many such stories. One of the best known is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), a literary classic that examines the different shaming tactics that are used to humiliate and silence women in a Puritan culture. As most readers know, Hester Prynne in that novel had a child out of wedlock. For that transgression, she was publicly shamed by being forced to stand on a scaffold in the middle of a town square while her neighbors were encouraged to mock her. She was also humiliated by Puritan political and religious leaders who considered her the worst sinner among them. Meanwhile, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, her fellow “sinner” and “adulterer,” continued to be lauded as a highly respected spiritual leader and pillar of moral strength. The cruel gossip and innuendo directed at Hester Prynne drove her to the edge of the community, where she lived in silent isolation. Whenever she entered her small town, others would point the finger of shame at her, while denying their own considerable guilt for offenses that far surpassed in moral turpitude anything Hester had ever committed.
I eventually discovered a similar story in my own ancestry. My biological Grandmother Clara, who was raised in a rural small town in a deeply religious community, gave birth to my father out of wedlock in the 1920s. She kept her baby hidden on the family farm until an older relative forced her to give the child up for adoption rather than risk further “disgracing” the family. When the scandal became public, my grandmother had to bear her own invisible Scarlet A. She was not forced to stand on a scaffold to be publicly shamed like the fictional Hester Prynne, but she was never allowed to forget she had given birth to a child out of wedlock. Others used her as an example to their daughters, warning them, “Don’t let it happen to you, like Clara.”
The many years I taught Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and researched my Grandmother Clara’s story eventually influenced my own writings. My novel, The Sins of Rachel Sims, set in another small town, was not consciously written with this background in mind. Yet, the fictional story of Rachel Sims, a young mother who allegedly abandoned her husband and child to escape from rural poverty with a richer man, has elements of both Hawthorne’s novel and my own family history. The small town gossip that followed in the wake of Rachel Sims’s disappearance covered up a much more tragic story, but one that was of little concern to the people in her community. They accepted the gossip rather than consider any other reasons for her disappearance. Why? Probably because within American culture—going back to the times of the earliest Puritans, and perhaps since the dawn of humanity—there is a subconscious acceptance of the shaming and purging rituals directed against women. After all, many still believe Eve expelled us from paradise.
Hester Prynne, my Grandmother Clara, and Rachel Sims were all victims of ancient shaming and purging rituals. These tactics often serve much the same purpose as malicious gossip. They shame and humiliate women into silence. They are also weapons others use to divert attention away from their own sins and moral degradation.