God forbid women have hobbies

Gates Annai (she/they) // Features Editor
Angelica Blanch (she/her) // Illustrator

What’s the first thing you think when someone says gossip? I assume one of the images that come to mind are catty girls (blonde, probably) standing in a huddle and whispering and laughing amongst themselves, casting slight looks over their shoulders at you specifically.

This image isn’t random, and it wasn’t a mistake. But it didn’t start like this. Originally, the word ‘gossip’ was used to describe sharing information with someone close to you, and it was used for both men and women. Evolutionarily, gossip has been important to human survival as sharing information told individuals who was trustworthy, and informed them of what actions were acceptable in society and which weren’t. Have you ever heard someone isn’t trustworthy with a secret and from that point on have been careful what you share with them? That’s a 3000 year old human tradition, working exactly as it’s meant to.

Additionally, gossiping allows people to form close bonds with each other, and is such a natural instinct humans have that children as young as five are shown to engage in gossip. It allows humans to form larger groups, be safe within our community and trust those we’re close to—for this reason, it’s been likened to social grooming, practiced by our primate ancestors. From the 17th Century to the 19th Century, gossip transformed to meaning the sharing of secrets between close friends.

Then, in the late Middle Ages, women stuck at home began to host meetings to talk about their lives, their partners, political issues and the struggles and disappointments of their lives. Women had begun forming these large, close-knit friend groups while the husbands were away at work, which men had started seeing as a threat. The stereotype was that women would begin to rebel against the rules of society if they had these close friend groups and the opportunity to talk about their problems, and women who gathered in groups were labelled ‘gossips’.

While men were also gossiping at this time, as is natural, they saw their own gossip as more important and noble than female gossip, and weren’t berated for it quite as harshly. The ‘gossip’ label worked wonders in shutting women up and keeping them isolated and thus complacent in their lives. Not only was it a social taboo to gather in groups to talk, but it was made into a law—in 1547, women were forbidden from meeting to talk, and husbands were encouraged to keep their wives in the house.

Punishments ranged from bridles hung over women’s faces to being accused of witchcraft, which as we all know, often ended by drowning or immolation.

While such punishments ended with the witch hunts in the 1700s, the negative connotations of the ‘gossip’ has stuck around to this day, used to put down young girls for forming bonds with their friends, building social knowledge and practicing a tradition as old as humanity (and in the case of social grooming, even older) itself.

Gossip can be hurtful, especially if you’ve found out people think poorly of you, but its demonization is far more harmful to women and female friendships, and by practicing the putdown of ‘gossips’ we’re really engaging in an old patriarchal idea that lost women their lives and dignity.

So gossip away—don’t let the patriarchy win. It’s not the horrible sin you’ve been convinced it is.

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