Kielbowicz on Women as Common Scolds in Law and Popular Culture: Pennsylvania, 1824-1972 @UWComm

Richard Kielbowicz, University of Washington, is publishing Women as Common Scolds in Law and Popular Culture: Pennsylvania, 1824-1972 in Gender & History. Here is the abstract.

Women faced prosecution as common scolds for their unruly speech in many U.S. 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 characterization 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 sheds light on community rules that regulated women’s everyday speech — evidence about a fleeting activity nearly invisible to scholars before the digitization of newspapers and obscure legal texts. The formal legal literature mainly captured appellate court decisions, and common scold cases rarely reached the upper rungs of the system. The now-available runs of digitized newspapers and obscure legal texts make it possible to recover countless common scold prosecutions. Relatively few cases came before the state’s courts until the 1870s, after which the number steadily climbed until peaking at more than seventy a year at the turn of the century. The spike was partly attributable to an 1866 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in a scold case that vigorously endorsed the continued value of the common law in regulating everyday annoyances. In the following decades, residents of Pennsylvania’s urban centers and industrial regions increasingly turned to this remedy to address tensions in communities undergoing rapid social change.

The full text is not available for download from SSRN.