Sunday, 16 October 2016

I am a Shrew and Proud of It

October 2016

Shakespeare would have thought me a shrew. A what, you ask? A small,
furry animal? No. Nowadays we would say a woman with 'attitude', a bit lippy, mouthy, gobby (or, if feeling particularly uncharitable a bit of a 'gobshite'). The Wikipedia definition of a shrew says,"the figure represents "insubordinate female behavior" in a marital system of polarised gender roles that is supposedly male dominated in a moral hierarchy. " Clearly, the shrew and the feminist are sisters. 

In medieval England a woman could be prosecuted as a nag or 
scold and sentenced to public humiliation and torture by wearing a 'scold's bridle', an iron muzzle in an iron framework that enclosed the head. A bridle-bit (or curb-plate), about 2 inches long and 1 inch broad, projected into the mouth and quite literally, 'held one's tongue'. 

 'scold's bridle'
As a child I was not especially troublesome, but I was fascinated by naughty girls.  Favourite books were the My Naughty Little Sister series. 
My Naughty Little Sister book series by Dorothy Edwards
 A favourite movie was the black and white 18th-century historical drama, The Wicked Lady which featured a dashing aristocrat, played by Margaret Lockwood, with her secret identity as a notorious highway woman.

Margaret Lockwood as the Countess
in  The Wicked Lady              
Margaret Lockwood in her hair highway woman disguise

My real life naughty little sister and I were co-conspirators in most things. We had a secret club, the wigga-wigga club. If one was in a naughty mood, making the secret sign to the other sister, was a signal to get together in private as soon as possible, in order to hatch some mischief. 

This may or may not have involved the 'witch kitch', a hidden and private area of the front yard, where low walls at a convenient child's waist height facilitated the cooking up of all manner of disgusting potions in stolen cooking pots. Dried up dog poos were collected from the pavements and crushed up with poisonous holly berries and curry powder, pilfered from the kitchen.  Adding water then made a delightfully poisonous and gloopy potion, which could then be flicked at the kids next door, or spattered over the next door neighbours'  windows.

I remember being taken to see the 1967 version of The Taming of the Shrew starring Richard Burton and a luminous Elizabeth Taylor.  Most of the action involves the highly entertaining misbehaviour of the fiery Katherina, the shrew.  However, the story ends with a downtrodden, exhausted and compliant Katharina who has been 'tamed'. This little girl felt thoroughly cheated, and wanted her money back.
Elizabeth Taylor as the fiery Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew

I think I was born a feminist. Only I didn't know it until, after a stormy and rebellious adolescence (oh my poor mum!), I reached Manchester University in 1982 where I became politicised.  On finishing my degree, I co-founded a 4 piece women's theatre company called Red Stockings, touring agitprop feminist cabaret throughout the North West and then nationally. Our administrative HQ was in a women's centre, the sumptuously converted childhood home of Sylvia Pankhurst, the Pankhurst Centre. According to the zeitgeist of the decade, I merrily campaigned and protested my way through the '80s. 

The role of women in society has changed immeasurably throughout my life so far. A recent phenomenon has caught my interest – the bitch-slap. One of the carers where I live I regard as the World Authority on this matter, so I   asked her,  "What is the difference between a slap and a bitch-slap?"."Oh a lot", she said. "Wid a bitch-slap dere's a backswing.  Dere's a lot more force. We're talkin' vi'lence!". Fascinated, I probed a bit further, "And can you bitch-slap anyone, man or woman? ". "Yes, but usually it's men, cos dey need keepin' in line. De only peops ya don't bitch-slap is children". The bitch-slap is not gratuitous violence or administered in the heat of the moment. Rather, it is a considered punishment which has somehow been deserved. Moreover it is a singularly female expression of displeasure. Strange to think that not so long ago, just punishment was purely the domain of men and never women. A bitch-slap would have been extremely unseemly and un-feminine. 

Oh, how the tables have turned. The shrew has finally used her sharp little teeth.

Henrietta Whitsun-Jones

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