Strange as it seems to us, the word “gossip” had a friendly meaning during the Regency period and for many centuries before that: a “gossip” was a woman who attended her daughter’s or sister’s or friend’s delivery. In its original sense, the word was a corruption of “god-sib” or “god-sibling,” meaning “sister in the Lord.” During the Tudor and Stuart periods in England (1485-1714), gossips were expected to participate in childbirth and christening ceremonies; they were persons invited to witness a birth for the purpose of the child’s subsequent baptism.1 By the 17th century, “gossiping” referred to women getting together at childbirth and elsewhere. In other words, gossips were a woman’s close female friends and family who provided comfort during her labor.2 (The word eventually took on its current derogatory meaning.)

Who Were a Pregnant Woman’s Gossips?

Gossips sitting with a young woman and her new baby (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Gossips sitting with a young woman and her new baby (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

One answer to the question of who should attend the birth was provided by a 16th-century physician: “a few godly, expert and learned women . . . better than a rude multitude given to folly, banqueting or bravery.” The midwife herself might come with “some sober, wise neighbors, such as have gone through the hazard before . . . there should be no frightful, whimsical, resolute, headstrong, drunken, whispering, talkative, or sluttish women.”1 Fair enough. No sluttish women.

Martha Ballard, an American midwife who lived in Hallowell, Maine between 1785 and 1812, called for the help of additional women once the second stage of labor began.3 Some of her young patients gave birth at their parents’ houses; others summoned their “marm” or their sisters from afar. Nearly all women relied on their neighbors. In fact, Martha’s diary recorded her simple actions: “call’d the women” or “the neighbors came.”

What Did Gossips Do?

Women attending a delivery offered both emotional and physical support to the midwife and her patient.3 Martha Ballard required the help of at least two women and sometimes as many as four during a birth. Their duties varied. One woman served as a servant, fetching tea, feeding gruel to the pregnant patient, and emptying the chamberpot. Another was the watcher who sat by the patient’s bedside offering comfort and simple conversation; she observed any changes in the patient’s circumstances, such as heightened color, altered breathing, or deepening pains from contractions. All attending women provided encouraging words.

What Did Man-Midwives Think of Gossips?

image of Dr. Thomas Denman, Regency man-midwife

Dr. Thomas Denman was a prominent man-midwife of the Regency period (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The man-midwives who published books on the practice of midwifery were careful to use the most circumspect language when speaking of their patients’ gossips. Writing about the ethics of obstetrics, Dr. William Smellie referred to the “friends” or “attendants” of his patient in labor.4 Charles White, man-midwife Extraordinary to the Lying-in Hospital in Manchester, and Dr. Thomas Denman, Licentiate in midwifery of The College of Physicians, both referred to the “friends” of a woman in labor.5,6 Dr. William Dease, Surgeon to the United Hospitals of St. Nicholas and St. Catherine’s, advised surgeons supervising a woman’s labor to ensure she wasn’t “crowded with assistants.”7 The wording of these four tomes, published between 1752 and 1807, suggests that successful man-midwives did not call their patients’ friends gossips!

The word “gossip” began to fade from use by the early 19th century, although the Oxford English Dictionary online cites examples of its use in 1819 and 1826 to mean “friend.” For example, the poem “The Eve of St. Agnes” by John Keats, which was published in 1820, used the term in stanzas # 12 and 22. Regardless of which term was used—gossip, friend, attendant, assistant—it was still the case until the late 19th century that most women gave birth at home,8 and they wanted their friends around them.

1Cressy, David. Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 55.
2Wilson, Adrian. The Making of Man-midwifery: Childbirth in England, 1660-1770. Cambridge, MA: Harvad University Press, 1995, p. 25.
3Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990, pp. 64, 185-186.
4McClintock, Alfred H. Smellie’s Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery, Vol. 3 (London, 1876), pp. 318 (PDF pp. 331).
5White, Charles. A Treatise on the Management of Pregnant and Lying-in Women, and the Means of Curing, but more Especially of Preventing the Principal Disorders to Which They Are Liable (London, 1791), p. 4 (PDF p. 30).
6Denman, Thomas. An Introduction to the Practice of Midwifery (Brattleborough,VT, 1807), p. 155 (PDF p. 194).
7Dease, William. Observations in Midwifery, Particularly on the Different Methods of Assisting Women in Tedious and Difficult Labors (Dublin, 1783), p. 30 (PDF p. 53).
8Forbes, Thomas R. The regulation of English midwives in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Med Hist. 1971(Oct);15(4):352-362. Available here.