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Many of us think of washing someone’s mouth out with soap as an outdated punishment for ill-tempered children, but for a long time it was also commonplace as a corrective for women who ventured beyond the bounds of what their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.”

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Bad Mouths by Rachel Klien

July 15th, 2019