How the Demonization of “Gossip” Is Used to Break Women’s Solidarity
Gender oppression shaped the notion of “idle women’s talk.”
The following is an excerpt from Silvia Federici’s book, Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women.
Tracing the history of the words frequently used to define and degrade women is a necessary step if we are to understand how gender oppression functions and reproduces itself. The history of ‘gossip’ is emblematic in this context. Through it we can follow two centuries of attacks on women at the dawn of modern England, when a term commonly indicating a close female friend turned into one signifying idle, backbiting talk, that is, talk potentially sowing discord, the opposite of the solidarity that female friendship implies and generates. Attaching a denigrating meaning to the term indicating friendship among women served to destroy the female sociality that had prevailed in the Middle Ages, when most of the activities women performed were of a collective nature and, in the lower classes at least, women formed a tight-knit community that was the source of a strength unmatched in the modern era.
Traces of the use of the word are frequent in the literature of the period. Deriving from the Old English terms God and sibb (akin), ‘gossip’ originally meant ‘godparent,’ one who stands in a spiritual relation to the child to be baptized. In time, however, the term was used with a broader meaning. In early modern England the word ‘gossip’ referred to companions in childbirth not limited to the midwife. It also became a term for women friends, with no necessary derogatory connotations. In either case, it had strong emotional connotations. We recognize it when we see the word in action, denoting the ties that bound women in premodern English society.
We find a particular example of this connotation in a mystery play of the Chester Cycle, suggesting that ‘gossip’ was a term of strong attachment. Mystery plays were the product of guild members, who by creating and financing these representations tried to boost their social standing as part of the local power structure. Thus, they were committed to upholding expected forms of behavior and satirizing those to be condemned. They were critical of strong, independent women, and especially of their relations to their husbands, to whom — the accusation went — they preferred their friends. As Thomas Wright reports in A History of Domestic Manners and Sentiments in England During the Middle Ages (1862), they frequently depicted them as conducting a separate life, often “assembling with their ‘gossips’ in public taverns to drink and amuse themselves.”
Thus, in one of the mystery plays of the Chester Cycle representing Noah urging people and animals to enter the ark, the wife is shown sitting in the tavern with her ‘gossips’ and refusing to leave when the husband calls for her, even as the waters are rising, “unless she is allowed to take her gossips with her.” These, as reported by Wright, are the words that she was made to utter by the (clearly disapproving) mystery’s author:
Yes, Sir, set up your sail,
And row forth with evil hail,
for without fail,
I will not out of this town,
But I have my gossips, everyone,
One foot further I will not go.
They will not drown, by St. John
And I may save their lives!
They love me full well, by Christ!
But you let them into your boat,
Otherwise row now where you like
And get yourself a new wife.
In the play the scene ends with a physical fight in which the wife beats the husband.
“The tavern,” Wright points out, “was the resort of women of the middle and lower orders who assembled there to drink and gossip.” He adds: “The meetings of gossips in taverns form the subjects of many of the popular songs of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, both in England and France.” As an example, he cites a song, possibly from the middle of the fifteenth century, that describes one of these meetings. The women here, “having met accidentally,” decide to go “where the wine is best,” two by two to not attract attention and be detected by their husbands. Once arrived, they praise the wine and complain about their marital situations. Then they go home, by different streets, “telling their husbands that they had been to church.”
The literature of mysteries and morality plays belongs to a period of transition in which women still maintained a considerable degree of social power, but their social position in urban areas was increasingly under threat, as the guilds (that sponsored the production of the plays) were beginning to exclude them from their ranks and institute new boundaries between the home and public space. Not surprisingly, then, women in them were often chastised and represented as quarrelsome, aggressive, and ready to give battle to their husbands. Typical of this trend was the representation of the ‘battle for the breeches,’ where the woman appeared as the dominatrix — whipping her husband, straddling across his back, in a reversal of roles clearly intended to shame men for allowing their wives to be ‘on the top.’
These satirical representations, expressions of a growing misogynous sentiment, were instrumental to the politics of the guilds that were striving to become exclusively male preserves. But the representation of women as strong, self-asserting figures also captured the nature of the gender relations of the time, for neither in rural nor urban areas were women dependent on men for their survival; they had their own activities and shared much of their lives and work with other women. Women cooperated with each other in every aspect of their life. They sewed, washed their clothes, and gave birth surrounded by other women, with men rigorously excluded from the chamber of the delivering one. Their legal status reflected this greater autonomy. In Italy in the fourteenth century they could still go independently to court to denounce a man if he assaulted or molested them.
By the sixteenth century, however, women’s social position had begun to deteriorate, satire giving way to what without exaggeration can be described as a war on women, especially of the lower classes, reflected in the increasing number of attacks on women as ‘scolds’ and domineering wives and of witchcraft accusations. Along with this development, we begin to see a change in the meaning of gossip, increasingly designating a woman engaging in idle talk.
The traditional meaning lingered on. In 1602, when Samuel Rowlands wrote Tis Merrie When Gossips Meete, a satirical piece describing three London women spending hours in a tavern talking about men and marriages, the word was still used to signify female friendships, implying that “women could create their social networks and their own social space” and stand up to male authority. But as the century progressed the word’s negative connotation became the prevalent one. As mentioned, this transformation went hand in hand with the strengthening patriarchal authority in the family and women’s exclusion from the crafts and guilds, which, combined with the process of enclosures, led to a “feminization of poverty.” With the consolidation of the family and male authority within it, representing the power of the state with regard to wives and children, and with the loss of access to former means of livelihood both women’s power and female friendships were undermined.
Thus, while in the Late Middle Ages a wife could still be represented as standing up to her husband and even coming to blows with him, by the end of the sixteenth century she could be severely punished for any demonstration of independence and any criticism she made against him. Obedience — as the literature of the time constantly stressed — was a wife’s first duty, enforced by the Church, the law, public opinion, and ultimately by the cruel punishments that were introduced against the ‘scolds,’ like the ‘scold’s bridle,’ also called the ‘branks,’ a sadistic contraption made of metal and leather that would tear the woman’s tongue if she attempted to talk. This was an iron framework that enclosed the woman’s head.
A bridle bit about two inches long and one inch wide projected into the mouth and pressed down on top of the tongue; frequently it was studded with spikes so that if the offender moved her tongue it inflicted pain and made speaking impossible.
First recorded in Scotland in 1567, this torture instrument was designed as a punishment for women of the lower classes deemed ‘nags’ or ‘scolds’ or riotous, who were often suspected of witchcraft. Wives who were seen as witches, shrews, and scolds were also forced to wear it locked onto their heads.15 It was often called the ‘gossip bridle,’ testifying to the change in the meaning of the term. With such a frame locking their heads and mouth, those accused could be led through town in a cruel public humiliation that must have terrified all women, showing what one could expect if she did not remain subservient. Significantly, in the United States, it was used to control slaves, in Virginia until the eighteenth century.
Another torture to which assertive/rebellious women were subjected was the ‘cucking stool,’ or ‘ducking stool,’ also used as a punishment for prostitutes and for women taking part in anti-enclosure riots. This was a sort of chair to which a woman was tied and “seated to be ducked in a pond or river.” According to D.E. Underdown, “after 1560 evidence of its adoption begins to multiply.”
Women were also brought to court and fined for ‘scolding,’ while priests in their sermons thundered against their tongues. Wives especially were expected to be quiet, “obey their husband without question” and “stand in awe of them.” Above all they were instructed to make their husbands and their homes the centers of their attentions and not spend time at the window or at the door. They were even discouraged from paying too many visits to their families after marriage, and above all from spending time with their female friends. Then, in 1547, “a proclamation was issued forbidding women to meet together to babble and talk” and ordering husbands to “keep their wives in their houses.” Female friendships were one of the targets of the witch hunts, as in the course of the trials accused women were forced under torture to denounce each other, friends turning in friends, daughters turning in their mothers.
It was in this context that ‘gossip’ turned from a word of friendship and affection into a word of denigration and ridicule. Even when used with the older meaning it displayed new connotations, referring in the late sixteenth century to an informal group of women who enforced socially acceptable behavior by means of private censure or public rituals, suggesting that (as in the case of the midwives) cooperation among women was being put at the service of upholding the social order.
Gossip today designates informal talk, often damaging to those that are its object. It is mostly talk that draws its satisfaction from an irresponsible disparaging of others; it is circulation of information not intended for the public ear but capable of ruining people’s reputations, and it is unequivocally ‘women’s talk.’
It is women who ‘gossip,’ presumably having nothing better to do and having less access to real knowledge and information and a structural inability to construct factually based, rational discourses. Thus, gossip is an integral part of the devaluation of women’s personality and work, especially domestic work, reputedly the ideal terrain on which this practice flourishes.
This conception of ‘gossip,’ as we have seen, emerged in a particular historical context. Viewed from the perspective of other cultural traditions, this ‘idle women’s talk’ would actually appear quite different. In many parts of the world, women have historically been seen as the weavers of memory — those who keep alive the voices of the past and the histories of the communities, who transmit them to the future generations and, in so doing, create a collective identity and profound sense of cohesion. They are also those who hand down acquired knowledges and wisdoms — concerning medical remedies, the problems of the heart, and the understanding of human behavior, starting with that of men. Labeling all this production of knowledge ‘gossip’ is part of the degradation of women — it is a continuation of the demonologists’ construction of the stereotypical woman as prone to malignity, envious of other people’s wealth and power, and ready to lend an ear to the Devil. It is in this way that women have been silenced and to this day excluded from many places where decisions are taken, deprived of the possibility of defining their own experience, and forced to cope with men’s misogynous or idealized portraits of them. But we are regaining our knowledge. As a woman recently put it in a meeting on the meaning of witchcraft, the magic is: “We know that we know.”
You can read a review of Silvia Federici’s book, Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women, here.