The Fury of the Harridans (and Other Spiteful Mutants)

“Scholastic harridans that thrash,
Should tarred and feathered be!
And ride face-tailward on an ass,
For all the world to see!”

J. B. McCaul, “The School Girl’s Dream” (1880)

When William Congreve wrote that “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” he meant no fury like a woman who has been, as we nowadays say, “dumped” and before perchance “pumped.” The modern word “dumped” has the merit of expressing the subjective experience of being used and discarded; but the old word “scorned” takes us closer to the cause of female fury.  The word scorn comes from the old German skern, which means mockery, jest and sport, so that a woman scorned is a woman aware that that fate, or folly, or perfidy has made her look like a fool.

As I yesterday scanned the photographs of women outdoing Hell in their fury against the annulment of the Roe v. Wade diktat, I was powerfully impressed by the thought that these harridans were in several ways ridiculous, and in several ways worthy of scorn.

A harridan is, strictly speaking, a bossy and belligerent old woman, the name likely derived from a French word that denotes an old horse.   The metaphor may have been inspired by the uncomely aspects of these sour old scolds, but more probably refers to the fact that the bad habits of an old horse cannot be broken.  The ancient Hindu epic called the Ramayana tells of “the land where warlike females and the horse-faced women dwell,” so we may suppose that it was from this cradle of crones that the sour scolds spread and infested the earth.[1] And as an old English proverb tells us,

“A colt ye may break, but an old horse you never can.”[2]

And this is why a homely, pugnacious, and inexorably bad-tempered old woman is called an “old horse” or harridan.

* * * * *

There is another old English proverb that speaks of old horses in terms that throw light on the harridans who were yesterday venting their fury in such rude and ridiculous ways.  This proverb goes,

“The tricks a colt gets at his first breaking, 
Will, whilst he lives, never be lacking.”[3]

Some of the furious women I saw in those photographs might be more correctly likened to fillies than colts, but these neophytes are harridans in training and will no doubt, whilst they live, never lack the “tricks” to which they are even now being broken.  The other furious women were true old horses, both long in the tooth and fixed in their “tricks,” and they were biting and bucking and shying and shirking, just as they were taught by the “scholastic harridans” who broke them to harridan habits, fifty and more years ago.

* * * * *

Not long ago I happened to read some keen and ominous lines about a pack of furious harridans who were ranting about women’s rights at the 1880 Republican National Convention, in Chicago, Illinois.  One must remember that in those days the Republican party was home to all of the nation’s radical crackpots and progressive cranks, and should from this learn the important lesson that a political party has no soul. It will happily admit any group of voters that does not drive a larger group of voters away.  A political party is a vote-harvesting machine and nothing more.

In any case, the keen and ominous lines about the pack of furious harridans appear in a letter that was written from the Chicago convention, and that was printed in the Galveston Daily News. This was one hundred and forty-two years ago and the correspondent begins:

“Another observable feature at the hotel is the precipitancy with which the women’s rights advocates hustle through the crowd.  On Monday six of them, ugly as home-made sin, their eyes snapping like scotch terriers, and their personal appearance one of carelessness amounting to indifference, rushed through the Palmer House in company with a zig-zag zebra of a male.”[4]

This is, so far as I know, the single usage of the phrase “zig-zag zebra of a male,” and its meaning is not altogether clear.  A “political zebra” was at that time a man who attempted to appeal to all people by wearing the colors of both parties, and my guess that this particular “zig-zag zebra” was some sort of neutered androgyne.  Thus we have here the same bossy and belligerent women, and the same henpecked hermaphrodites, who are at this moment glaring and shouting and otherwise blighting our green and pleasant land.

“They were looking for the national Republican committee, before whom they stormed like a tornado.  What the anti-man screechers were after I have not been able to find out.”

Notice that the harridans and their neutered puppy “rushed through” the crowd of conventioneers and made their way directly to the seat of power, rather like the apostles of abortion rushed through the democratic process and made their way directly to the courts.  This is because harridans and hermaphrodites are too repulsive to win popular support, but find that tornado-like storming gives them strange power over those who really pull the strings.

“‘I wonder,’ remarked a bystander, ‘if we gave them our boots, our hats, our pants, if they would not learn to love us.’”

Men of today, who find themselves bootless, hatless, and pantless—we know the answer to this question.  The harridans did not learn to love us because old horses never learn anything.

“These Amazons,’ retorted another bystander, ‘all they are fit for is to abuse the males and talk of population.’”

And when they talked of population, their theme was that there was too much of it.  ‘Abuse the males and stop the babies’ has always been the gist of the harridan creed.

But this, as Richard Cocks has often helpfully reminded us, is a creed that appeals to “spiteful mutants” and revolts all sane and normal human beings.

“‘Look at that lady with the baby in her arms and observe the contrast.’   As he spoke the crowd was opening like the jaws of a vise to let the lady and her baby pass.  The contrast was striking.  It was on the one hand the adorable qualities of a woman commanding the reverence of the multitude; on the other . . . the sun robbed of its brilliancy, the prairie of its verdure, the water of its purity, sans delicacy, sans the evidence of civilization represented by the decent fashions, sans babies . . .”

It was natural for that crowd to open for that lady and her baby.  It was just as natural for that crowd to make those slatternly harridans fight their way through it with sharp elbows, muttered curses and black looks.  Before turning to other curiosities on display at the 1880 Chicago convention, the correspondent adds this ominous line.

“It is a gloomy reflection to think of what the world will come to when the will, and not the understanding, of the human race, will have half the say in ruling it.”

By the “will” of the human race, he means the fury of harridans and other “spiteful mutants” who elbow their way to power, “ugly as home-made sin, their eyes snapping like scotch terriers.”   When they reach the seat of power, they “storm like a tornado.”  And by this storming they gain much more than half the say in ruling the human race.

* * * * *

Those slatternly harridans and hermaphrodite were, as was said, “sans babies;” but they do have spiritual descendants that are today securely roosting in the seats of power.   This is why the annulment of the Roe v. Wade diktat is likely to unleash a fury that will cause Hell to raise its hat and bow with envy and admiration.

We are not, I will add in closing, the first people to be ruled by harridans and hermaphrodites, because long before those six horse-faced women and their zig-zag zebra pushed their way through the crowded lobby of Chicago’s Palmer House, the spiritual ancestors of these “spiteful mutants” had risen to rule the ancient empire of Rome.   The German historian Theodore Mommsen described their rule in a line written only a few years before that scene in the lobby of Chicago’s Palmer House, and he noted, without expecting contradiction, that men and women must feel a natural “horror of the unnatural world, in which the sexes seemed as though they wished to change parts.”  Here is the passage in full:

“Anyone who beheld these female statesmen performing on the stage of Scipio and Cato and saw at their side the young fop—as with smooth chin, delicate voice, and mincing gait, with head- dress and neckerchiefs, frilled robe and women’s sandals he copied the loose courtesan—might well have a horror of the unnatural world, in which the sexes seemed as though they wished to change parts.”[5]

But Mommsen’s ink was scarcely dry before those belligerent and bossy women, all “ugly as homemade sin,” burst into the Republican National Convention and made a beeline for the seat of power.  And today female statesmen perform on the stage of Fillmore and Coolidge, the young fops around them copy the style of loose courtesans, and their furious art is doing everything it can to kill that natural horror.


[1]) The Ramayana and the Mahabharta, trans. Romesh C. Dutt (London: J.M. Dent, 1910), p. 100.

[2]) Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia: Adages and Proverbs, Wise Sentences, and Witty Sayings (London: T. and J. Allman, 1817), p. 2.

[3]) Ibid., p, 201.

[4]) Galveston Daily News (June 8, 1880), p. 1.

[5]) Theodor Momsen, The History of Rome, trans. William P. Dickson, four vols. (London: R. Bentley, 1862-1866), vol. 4, p. 519.

6 thoughts on “The Fury of the Harridans (and Other Spiteful Mutants)

  1. And this is why a homely, pugnacious, and inexorably bad-tempered old woman is called an “old horse” or harridan.

    It is commonplace in my part of the world to refer to the type as “old hags.” But those to which that epithet applies are almost always “ugly as home-made sin.”

  2. In the Great Southern Land of ‘Terror Australis’ we are lucky to have a panoply of wildlife from which to draw: screeching like a gang of cockatoos; as angry as a cut snake; all the charm of a hungry shark, and so on.

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