One night in the 1820s, a man in Rugby, England, came home to find his wife drunk. As punishment for her “unacceptable” behavior, he threw her into a nearby pond, quickly dragged her out, and shoved a bar of soap into her mouth. “She has had plenty of water to wash with. She ought now to have a little soap,” the man said, according to a court account cited in an 1832 law lecture given at London University.
Many of us think of washing someone’s mouth out with soap as an outdated punishment for ill-tempered children, but for a long time it was also commonplace as a corrective for women who ventured beyond the bounds of what their husbands considered wifely. It’s also no accident that such a penalty was enacted in conjunction with the submerging of the offending party into a body of water. After all, washing away sin is an act as old as civilization itself, and one that’s most often associated with children, women, and others considered uninitiated in the ways of morality and faith. Baptism is meant to purify, through Christ, children born with sin. While any Jew can go to the mikveh, or ritual bath, women have to go after their menses to wash away the impurity of their own blood.
In medieval times, and up to as late as the early 19th century, women who were presumed to be witches (or simply deemed immoral) would often be strapped to a chair and submerged in water as both punishment for their perceived crimes and as a form of purification. And soap, layered on top of the symbolically cleansing water, was often portrayed as the “cure” for nonwhite cultures that white imperialists sought to indoctrinate—violently, if necessary—in their notions of faith, family structure, and goodness. One infamous 1890s advertisement for Pears’ Soap depicts a military man washing his hands in a basin, with copy that reads, “The first step towards lightening The White Man’s Burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness.”
Prior to the mid-1800s, soap was handmade by artisans at great cost, and available only to royalty or the very wealthy; bathing itself was seen as more of an extravagance than as a matter of hygiene. But in the mid-19th century, multiple factors brought soap to the forefront of Western culture. Doctors like Ignaz Semmelweis in Hungary and, later and more famously, Louis Pasteur, recommended regular handwashing as a way to prevent disease. At the same time industrialization allowed for the more efficient production and distribution of soap. But along with the mass-market availability of soap came an increased sense of responsibility in the minds of the powerful for governing “uncivilized” outsiders through cleansing. These purveyors of morality turned their eyes, as they so often did, to those they believed were the most in need of purification: people of color, misbehaving children, and wayward women. The desire to maintain an ideal of spiritual spotless-ness has always been a driving force of patriarchy; the introduction of soap simply added an implicit caveat suggesting that natural means of purging impurity were insufficient—true cleansing required a man-made product designed to eliminate filth.
Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere
Historically, women—mothers, teachers, and other guardians of children—wielded the soap and carried out its punishments. If you’ve ever had your own mouth washed out (and, according to a 2006 Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts study, 20 percent of you have), it was probably your mother or teacher who did it. This isn’t surprising, both because women have typically acted as primary caretakers and because so many of them internalized the pervasive message that they needed to purify themselves to be worthy of love and acceptance—a message that soap advertising ensured they would pass on to their children. Ads warning that “‘dirt danger’ days are here for your children!” (Lava soap, 1952) or urging women to “make your little Fairy clean and fresh and fine” (Fairy soap, 1913) preyed on mothers’ desire to keep their children safe and pure. Images urging the same consumers to “keep that wedding-day complexion” (Palmolive, 1922) or reminding them that “dainty girls win out” (Lux Soap, 1932) reinforced the message that men’s happiness depended on women’s ability to never falter in their femininity.
It was my mother who memorably washed my mouth out, after a particularly knock-down, drag-out screaming match between me and my older brother. There’s no denying that I had the fouler mouth in the argument, but because I was three years younger and no match for him physically, words were all I had to fight his uncanny ability to push my buttons. Language is often the most effective weapon against power, especially when those who use it to fight back—like women, like children—aren’t supposed to have any. My mother had always hated profanity and vulgarity, but hearing them issuing from her little princess’s mouth was an intolerable assault. And so the woman who not only refused to spank us but could barely execute a grounding that lasted longer than five minutes rubbed her hand against a bar of Dove soap that rested on the rim of the kitchen sink and shoved her lathered palm in my mouth.
In the moment, I’m sure she felt an incredible sense of alienation from her only daughter, whom she wanted to believe was sweet, beautiful, kind—all the things a girl should be. Perhaps it felt to her like she was bringing me back to the idyllic state in which I was born, when she looked into my infant eyes and said to my father, “If you could imagine the perfect little girl, this would be it.” To me, it felt like the words I’d conjured to defend myself from my brother’s taunts were being purged, redacted, stricken from the record—like my voice itself was being scrubbed from my mouth.
The price of purity
While most children are taught to behave well or pay the price, when it comes to language the expectations for boys eventually diverge from those for girls. Once they’ve crossed into young adulthood, men are socialized to take up space with their bodies and their speech and to use colorful, even bawdy language to express themselves. Women who do the same are usually met with shock and derision. They’re warned that bad language isn’t “ladylike,” told that “good girls” don’t talk in such a manner, and urged to stop “cursing like a sailor.” Even Hillary Clinton, a woman who has earned her place at the highest political table, is subjected to this critique. A condescending head shake and a tossed-off pronouncement of “nasty woman” undermines her spoken truth and makes her choice to fight back seem like an under-handed attack to those who fear women’s agency.
Witness, too, the recent backlash against Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib for pledging to “go in there and impeach the motherfucker.” “We must have civility!” the media cries at a woman who dares to use a single swear to speak out against a man who has, time and again, weaponized his own language against the most vulnerable. “Decorum!” the op-eds shouted at the woman attempting to hold the powerful to account. The silencing of those who refuse to fold into society’s expectations goes beyond the washing of women’s mouths. It reaches back to the 16th century, when the “scold’s bridle”—a metal cage clamped over the face, with an iron bit that prevented its wearer from speaking—was imposed as legal corporal punishment for women who were deemed to be ill-mannered, gossipy, or worse. (It was often referred to as “the witch’s bridle.”) And further back still, to that first mythological woman, punished with labor pains and eternal subservience to her husband because she yielded to temptation and ate the forbidden fruit that gave her knowledge of her own sexual power.
This punitive approach to nonconformity also extends to the reformatory movement of the 1800s, where religiously motivated penal reformers sought an alternative to the punishment-focused prison system. This attempt at large-scale moral cleansing and spiritual reclamation began in 1838 in England with the first children’s reformatory, eventually extending around the globe and into the 20th century. Reformatories attempted to prevent delinquent, usually white, youths from sinking into a life of depravity by teaching them skills and trades while educating them in moral virtue. Is it any wonder that it was the upper-middle-class white women of England and America who first advocated for expanding these reformatory efforts to wayward women? Such institutions did improve basic living conditions for the mostly white women confined to them, but their more pronounced focus was on ensuring that residents would be schooled in prescriptive Victorian mores and ultimately reenter white urbane society as good daughters, wives, and mothers.
Women who benefit from unequal systems are often their most ardent executors, even upholding them at their own peril. But how long until even the most well-behaved woman crosses the ever-tightening boundary of propriety and finds herself the object of the same judgment she imposed on her sisters? How long before she, too, finds herself in need of purification by a society that will never deem her clean enough?
A strength beyond clean
The assumption that women can be cleansed, reconstituted, and returned to some presumably natural state of purity has regularly resulted in brutal retaliation against those who resist such rehabilitation. People who are afraid of our conviction and strength will always try to silence us, cleanse us, and teach us to muffle ourselves and spread our internalized fears to others as a warning. The effort is not just about minimizing our voices, but about snuffing out our flames, the soap and the water together an attempt to take from us some of the most powerful weapons we have. And while a bridle can temporarily prevent speech, it cannot stop us from formulating the ideas that we will eventually speak. Submerging us in water cannot douse our spirits, and washing indelicate words from our mouths will not keep us from expressing ourselves in the manner we choose.
It didn’t stop me: At 41, I still curse like a sailor. Recently, my parents were visiting me and I dropped a casual f-bomb at lunch, to which my mother responded that she “still hated to see such ugly words coming out of such a beautiful mouth.” I was half-irritated, as adults often are when they’re judged by a parent, but also half-amused—triumphant even. “Well, good thing I’m a grown woman and you don’t get to decide how I speak,” I replied. If I want to be sensitive to how swearing bothers her, then that’s my prerogative, but she can’t determine how I choose to be seen and heard in the world. I’m sure she doesn’t see herself as some sort of draconian language police, but I’m equally sure that those early women reformatory advocates didn’t see how their work alienated the many women who failed to conform to their narrow Victorian mold.
It’s only by acknowledging our complicity in the systems that confine us that we become able to live without fear of retribution from those who want us quieter, meeker, and more subservient. To reject age-old binaries of womanhood imposed by so many faith and cultural traditions is to embrace a fuller, richer expression of the possibilities for women’s behavior and expression, to give voice to all the shades of identity that have always existed within us. And I, for one, think that’s fucking amazing.