The Tool of the Senseless and the Bitchy? Reclaiming Gossip as an Act of Female Agency.

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Words: Jasmine Niblett (She/Her)

In 1645, self-fashioned witch-hunters Matthew Hopkins and John Sterne turned hearsay and gossip into witchcraft accusations, killing over 100 people in the process. Circulating rumours and gossip, often regarding women, provided Hopkins and Sterne with convenient scapegoats for larger, unexplainable issues. Despite the two men bearing the responsibility for the deaths of so many, gossip remained powerful in marking these women as ‘evil’. To this day, gossip is seen as a feminine quality, the tool of the senseless and the bitchy.

Now, I must admit that I, myself, have been called a “gossip” in the past. It may sound bad but, in reality, this just meant that many people opened up and shared their stories with me. Growing up in a religious household, I was told gossiping was a sin and that no good could ever come from it. That said, in my experience, I have found this to be untrue, but I suppose it depends on how gossip is defined. If it involves hurtful and malicious sentiment then I can understand where the bad reputation comes from. Still, I’ve found gossip can often be harmless, perhaps even helpful as a way to vent your frustrations or forge alliances. Haven’t we all ranted about our siblings or wanted to know who our high school crush is dating now?

Interestingly, in early modern Europe, the word ‘gossip’ had a very different meaning. When a woman went into labour, her husband would call a midwife and a group of women, often referred to as “gossips”. These women would usually be the expecting mother’s closest female friends and relatives, who were in charge of figuratively and literally sealing the birthing room to create an exclusively female space. The presence of “gossips” promoted childbirth as a celebration of femininity and motherhood. Those who were not chosen to be present during this ritual were considered uncaring or non-maternal and thus susceptible to accusations of witchcraft. Historian James Sharpe has suggested that early modern women assumed power through their roles as ‘wives, mothers and gossips.’[1] Here we can see how our often misogynistic understanding of the word ‘gossip’ has evolved: through these roles, women undertook a dominant, organisational role, with their opinions manipulating public perception. Being a gossip allowed women to wield power in their communities, even if this was inherently bound to maternity.

Gossip, even as we know it today, has had a significant social function throughout history. Rumours and slander reinforce societal norms and values and underpin power and status dynamics. Revolutions have been sparked and aided by gossip; before 1917, Bolsheviks largely used verbal communication to circulate information about their cause, which included perpetuating gossip. It was a way to stir a revolutionary atmosphere, while simultaneously keeping the truth of their activities secret. More recently, exposure of political scandals such as Boris Johnson’s “partygate” often originated from gossip and rumours, but ultimately revealed significant misconduct and immoralities.

So, it is clear that, in the past, gossip has had a social function beyond the petty nature we ascribe to it today. Anthropologist Max Gluckman once said something I found simultaneously amusing and relatable: ‘I find that when I am gossiping about my friends as well as my enemies I am deeply conscious of performing a social duty; but when I hear they gossip viciously about me, I am rightfully filled with righteous indignation.’[2] And it’s true, we’ve all felt our stomachs drop when we hear someone has been saying nasty things about us. Many may claim that they don’t care what other people think, but as a people-pleaser, I’ve tended to take this sort of thing to heart. To this day, I remember some of the things that were said about me in high school and there’s always that little voice in my head reminding me to change my ‘Resting Bitch Face’ or cajoling me to speak up a little louder.

So if gossip can make me change some of my bad habits, can it also have a positive role in our society? Many employers are now introducing a concept called “positive workplace gossip,” which redefines gossip from something snarky or maybe even untrue, to constructive criticism and positive anecdotes. Gossip’s team-building quality, with its bonding potential, is also an aspect many are looking to utilise in the future. Looking beyond the workplace, these kinds of traits allow gossip to function as a powerful social tool, especially for women. If we reclaim gossip from its bitchy stereotype and return to its roots of celebrating womanhood and female agency, we can harness it as a positive tool for influencing our immediate communities and beyond. 

James Sharpe, “Introduction,” in Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, ed. Alan MacFarlane ( London: Routledge, 1999), xix

Max Gluckman, “Gossip and Scandal,” Current Anthropology, vol. 4, no. 3 (June 1963): 315.


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