Sunday, 9 May 2010

The Origins of Female gossip

Whether true or not 'gossip' is still an activity which is generally more closely associated with women than men. For instance most gossip magazines are primarily aimed at a female market (think NOW, Glamour, OK, Hello!)  Of course I do not deny that men read them too but they are probably more typically associated with women. Think too of the archetypical caricature of the office/work/local gossip who fuels the rumour mill and who more often than not tends to be represented as a woman. Generally women are seen as more talkative or 'gossipy' than men it is unsurprising then, that this association is long held and can be traced back to the early modern period and beyond (for further discussion seen Philips, Transforming Talk: The Problem with Gossip in Late Medieval England) Currently the word gossip is defined as conversation about the personal details of other people's lives, particularly rumours, with a propensity to be malicious. However the origins gossip and its association with femininity began with childbirth and female friendship in the early modern period.
               Early modern childbirth was very much an all female affair which involved midwives and female friends referred to as 'gossips' that supported the woman who was giving birth. In the time before giving birth the expectant mother would have a period of ‘lying in’ where she would be confined to a warm room with the windows and doors kept tightly shut, as it was believed that she was particularly susceptible to bad spirits or illness. Locked away husbands could only imagine what went on inside the birth chamber. Early modern childbirth remains somewhat mysterious because of the fact that men were unable access the birth space and therefore could not accurately document its happenings. It is perhaps because of this exclusive female world that ‘gossip’ became synonymous with idle or malicious talk; men could only imagine what women talked about together and they imagined the worst. A ballad from 1674 entitled ‘The Gossips Meeting’ is an example of this. It is a tale told from the position of a man overhearing an illicit conversation between a ‘parcel of women’, drinking in an ale house. In the tale the women discuss their husbands; plotting how they will explain away the money they have spent drinking ale:

If he gives me money to buy meat to roast,
Be sure I will reckon him more then it cost;
And so you may live with your husbands most brave
And they ne'r the wiser what money you have.

SAith Sarah my husband is of such a mind,
He calls me to reckon what money's behind;
When I bring it home, he will tak't in his hand,
And then he will ask me in what it doth stand:
Then I make a lye, and tell him something more,
Or else this cross Knave would beat me out of door
For he I not allow me a penny to spend,
But I care not for two pence if I meet a friend.

Why should we be curb'd so, hang care, let us drink,
We'l have t'other pot what e're our husbands think
If when we come home they upon us do frown,
we'l give them good words & bring their anger down
Pretending our Burthens hath tired us sore,
As if we were ready to fall on the Flore:
And so by that means they will patient remain,
And pitty us too, when they hear us complain. [1]

The women plan to use their burtherns (or ‘burdens’- referring to pregnancy) to soften up their husbands and gain sympathy to avert their anger when they arrive home penniless. As well as this the women frankly discuss their husband’s sexual prowess:

Methinks  Gossip Jone you have a lusty man,
I hope he doth give you content now and than,
I'le warrant you'r merry enough when I'm sad,
I'm sure that I want what I formerly had:
My husband doth sit like a Mome all the day,
And at night in the bed he is cold as the clay;
I had rather he would go and drink a Pot or two,
And come home at night and do what he should do [2]

It seems that increasingly throughout the seventeenth century there was a propensity towards associating women’s conversations with idle or negative talk. This is shown in other ballads one states ‘When  gossips meet, ther's too much prate’[3] prate meaning idle, profitless, or irrelevant chatter, and similarly another states ‘she and Gossips meet and Babble’[4]. Most damningly is William Gouge’s Of Domesticall Duties from 1622 which informs the reader that ‘when tatling  Gossips meet, their usuall prate is about their husbands, complaining of some vice or other in them’[5]. It is the exclusivity and mystery of women’s friendships and birthing communities in the early modern period which led to an association of women with ‘gossip’.

[1] Anon, ‘The Gossips meeting, or, The Merry market-women of Taunton tune of The Parliament of women, or, Digby's farewel’,1674, EEBO, [accessed 7 May 2010]
[2] Anon, ‘The Gossips meeting’

[3] Anon ‘An excellent new medly. To the tune of the Spanish Pauin’, 1628, EEBO, [accessed 7 May 2010]

[4] Thomas D’Urfey, ‘Collin's walk through London and Westminster a poem in burlesque’, 1690, EEBO, [accessed 7 May 2010]

[5] William Gouge, ‘Of domesticall duties eight treatises’, 1622, EEBO, [accessed 7 May 2010]

Figure 1 my own
Figure 2 Painting by Samuel Van Hoogstraten,17th C, from Web Gallery of Art

Copyright © 2010 Elaine Hunter

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