Gossip!

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Posted by Goody Sandy on January 04, 2000 at 04:31:31:

Happy New Year:

I just finished a fascinating book about life in 17th century America entitled "Founding Mothers & Fathers, Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society" by Mary Beth Norton. Among the many fascinating topics discussed in the book are the origin of gossip and the role of midwives in early American society.

The word gossip derived from the eleventh-century English term "godsib," a child's sponsor at a christening (godparent). By 1600, it had come to mean both "a woman's female friends invited to be present at birth" and a woman "who delights in idle talk; a newsmonger, a tattler."

The conjunction of definitions was not accidental: women did talk at other women's childbeds, and that talk took place outside the presence of men - thus, to men's minds (men!), it must have been idle or "tattling."

Childbirth was as central an experience for the women's community at large as for its individual members. Although women often casually encountered each other during the course of their daily lives, only birthing rooms provided women with environments that consistently excluded men.

There midwives, their assistants, and the mother-to-be's female relatives and friends joined together, sometimes for several days at a time, to supervise a woman's labor. Given the number of fertile married women in any specific geographical area, childbirths would have been a regular occurrence, creating a shifting series of all-female neighborhood communities.

Midwives played a crucial role within the women's community and were selected with great care. So much so that one superstitious Virginia wife in 1626 rejected her husband's choice of midwife because the woman was left-handed.

When groups of women were consulted by colonial courts in matters involving women's bodies and reproduction, midwives nearly always participated in the discussion. Because of their recognized expertise, judges named them as members of female juries that examined the bodies of accused witches, bastard-bearers, and suspects in infanticide cases. In addition, when a midwife presided over the birth of an illegitimate child, she was expected to interrogate the mother about the child’s paternity. Although all women might at some point be called to testify in civil suits or criminal prosecutions, only midwives repeatedly appeared in court as witnesses.

Women's relationships with midwives, and with other women who gathered at childbeds, were therefore complex. On the one hand, midwives' expertise was necessary for women's very survival. On the other hand, that same expertise could expose wrongdoing and render mothers liable to penalties for bastardy, premarital fornication, adultery, or infanticide. Midwives and their helpers often learned secrets that women would rather have kept hidden from public view. Therefore, a woman's good name rested almost exclusively on her sexual conduct.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in 17th-century Anglo-American life.

Best wishes,
Goody Sandy



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