History Ph.D. Dissertations

"Several Unhandsome Words": The Politics of Gossip in Early Virginia

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Ruth Wallis Herndon

Second Advisor

Timothy Messer-Kruse (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Stephen Ortiz (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Terri Snyder (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Tiffany Trimmer (Committee Member)


This dissertation demonstrates how women's gossip in influenced colonial Virginia's legal and political culture. The scandalous stories reported in women's gossip form the foundation of this study that examines who gossiped, the content of their gossip, and how their gossip helped shape the colonial legal system. Focusing on the individuals involved and recreating their lives as completely as possible allows for a comparison of distinct county cultures. Reactionary in nature, Virginia lawmakers were influenced by both English cultural values and actual events within their immediate communities. The local county courts responded to women's gossip in discretionary ways. The more intimate relations and immediate concerns within local communities could trump colonial-level interests.

  1. This examination of Accomack and York county court records from the 1630s through 1680, supported through an analysis of various colonial records, family histories, and popular culture, shows that gender and law intersected in the following ways.
  2. Status was a central organizing force in the lives of early Virginians. Englishmen punished women who gossiped according to the status of their husbands and to the status of the objects of their gossip.

    2.English women used their gossip as a substitute for a formal political voice.

  3. Englishmen considered women's gossip disorderly, even dangerous, because it threatened their efforts at maintaining order. At the same time, they treated gossips as useful tools for maintaining community control.
  4. This study helps us understand how gendered ideals were both enforced and challenged at the county and colony level. It joins with other studies of early Virginia in illustrating how women were critical to the transformation of Virginia from a trading outpost governed by martial law to a diverse, profitable, and ordered colony within the English empire.