The Ducking Chair

The Puritans had their own name for a contentious woman. The communis rixatrix, or “common scold” was a distinction reserved exclusively for a female offender accused of excessive gossip, nagging, or quarreling. The sentence of choice was the ducking stool—a wooden armchair attached to a seesaw-like structure that was positioned on the edge of a pond or river so the woman, held in place by an iron band, could be plunged into the water as many times as the magistrate dictated. This punishment proved fatal from time to time, particularly in winter months, but the old, seventeenth-century woodcuts show the townspeople smiling blissfully and little ducks floating around upstream as men in hats lower women into rivers.

Some women successfully avoided the ducking stool by instead wearing the scold’s bridle, or brank, which fit like a cage over the head and included an iron curb-plate studded with spikes. Others simply wore letters or were subjected to the stocks. In the most severe cases, an unruly woman might be convicted of witchcraft. Citing Exodus 22:18— “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (kjv)—communities across Europe and North America executed thousands on suspicion of witchcraft, often employing criteria so ridiculous it makes the Monty Python sketch seem downright logical. (“If she weighs the same as a duck, she’s made of wood. And therefore . . . a witch!” [1] ) Puritan Mary Webster was accused of witchcraft in 1685 and sentenced to hang. Left dangling from a tree for an entire night, she somehow managed to survive the hanging, was cut down the next morning, and was allowed to live. Later, Margaret Atwood, a descendant of Mary’s, wrote a poem titled “Half-Hanged Mary” in her honor.

Somewhere between “scold” and “witch” lay the pronouncement of “heretic,” a rare distinction for a woman in those days and one valiantly achieved by seventeenth-century pioneer Anne Hutchinson. The mother of fifteen children—yes, fifteen—Anne served as a midwife in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and was described by its governor, John Winthrop, as “a woman of ready wit and bold spirit.” [2] (He would later call her the “American Jezebel.” [3] ) Though Anne adhered to the basic principles of Puritan orthodoxy, she liked to critique the local church leadership regarding some of the finer points of Calvinist theology. What began as a small gathering of women in her home evolved into a following of more than eighty people. This did not sit well with the men in hats, who charged Anne with “traducing the ministers.” [4]

Highly educated and a passionate student of Scripture, Anne held her own during the public trial, over which Winthrop himself presided. She was forty-six and pregnant, forced to stand throughout the interrogation.

“You have maintained a meeting and an assembly in your house that hath been condemned by the general assembly as a thing not tolerable or comely in the sight of God nor fitting for your sex,” Winthrop declared at the trial.

“I am called here to answer before you but I hear no things laid to my charge,” Anne responded.

She had broken no laws, and she wanted Winthrop to admit it.

The two sparred over a passage in Titus 2 that admonishes the older women of the church to instruct and mentor younger women, with Anne arguing that leading a theological discussion in her home fulfilled this role as a teacher, and Winthrop contending that the passage restricts such instruction to the realm of home life.

When it became clear that the magistrates had no intention of hearing her out, Anne resigned herself to her fate.

“Take heed how you proceed against me,” she warned. “For you have no power over my body. Neither can you do me any harm, for I am in the hands of the eternal Jehovah, my Savior. . . . I know that for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity, and this whole state.”

Anne was convicted, tried again by the church, excommunicated, and banished from the colony. Sad to say, the misfortune she predicted would befall her assailants fell instead upon her when she miscarried, and detractors spread rumors that she’d delivered some kind of otherworldly “monster.”

The Hutchinson family resettled in Portsmouth and then in New York, where in 1643 the widowed Anne and ten of her children were brutally killed by Siwanoy Indians. The lone survivor of the attack, little Susanna, was kidnapped by Siwanoy warriors but later ransomed by extended family. Legend has it that the warriors spared Susanna on account of her red hair.

Anne was officially pardoned by Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, of all people, 350 years after her indictment.

Today, outside of Boston’s State House stands a bronze statue in memory of the “courageous exponent of civil liberty and religious toleration.” She holds a Bible in one arm and lays the other over the shoulders of a little girl, Susanna, who clings to her ossified skirts. America’s Jezebel is looking up into the sky.

Stories like these made my jar of contention seem rather tame. An hour or so on the roof would be nothing compared to the ducking chair, the scold’s bridle, or banishment from the community. I’d like to think that had I lived in colonial New England, I’d have led some kind of grassroots civil rights movement that would earn me a bronze statue and Wikipedia entry. But then I remember that the first appendectomies weren’t performed until the late nineteenth century, so my little postcollegiate bout with appendicitis would have killed me at twenty-five, leaving little time for revolution.

Jesus didn’t seem to mind women of “ready wit and bold spirit.” In fact, he surrounded himself with them. Much to the chagrin of his male disciples, Jesus routinely praised women who defied convention in order to speak with him, follow him, or be healed by him.

The gospels of Matthew and Mark, for example, include the story of a Canaanite woman who basically nagged Jesus into healing her daughter. Believing the girl to be demon-possessed, the mother pleads with Jesus, but her pleas go without response until, finally, the disciples get annoyed and entreat their rabbi, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

Rather than chastising the woman, Jesus offers an explanation for his seeming unwillingness to help her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” he said, alluding to his calling to minister specifically to the Jewish people.

Unwilling to accept his word as final, the woman persisted, crying, “Lord, help me!”

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs,” Jesus argued.

“Yes it is, Lord,” the bold Canaanite returned. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:23–27).

Oh, the moxie! I suspect that the disciples waited for some sort of divine rebuke or sagely smackdown, but in what would become a recurring exchange in the gospel accounts, Jesus marveled at the faith of a Gentile.

“Woman, you have great faith!” he declared. “Your request is granted” (v. 28).

The Canaanite’s story reminds me of the parable of the persistent widow found in Luke 18, in which the contentions of another strong-willed woman paid off. As the story goes, an unrighteous judge kept delaying justice for a local widow seeking protection from an adversary. But the widow persisted, daily pleading her case, until the judge finally relented. “Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think,” he grumbled, “yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!” (Luke 18:4–5). Jesus told this story to remind his followers to pray without giving up.

And then there is the tale of Rizpah, a sort of Old Testament Antigone, who protected the bodies of her executed sons for months, “from the beginning of the harvest till the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies,” fending away wild animals and birds to keep their bodies intact for the afterlife (2 Samuel 21:10). Her dedication to their memory reminded King David to honor these sons and grandsons of the former king, Saul, with a proper burial. God may be pleased with a gentle and quiet spirit, but not in every case. As long as the world is filled with oppression, injustice, sickness, and war, there will always be things worth making a big ole stink about.

1. From Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975,
2. Paul Lauter, ed., The Heath Anthology of American Literature, vol. A, 5th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 308.
3. Eve LaPlante, American Jezebel, the Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2004), 244.
4. Robert Ellsberg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses from Our Time. (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997).