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The words feminism and witchcraft conjure images of women not conforming to the pressures of a patriarchal society. At her core, the witch is the anti-mother. She is some combination of old, single, ugly, childless, sexually free, queer or otherwise difficult for men to control. She disturbs order in a patriarchal society. Yet, the Salem Witch Trials are commonly written off as Puritanical paranoia caused by a rye fungus and the witch hunts that plagued Europe during the Renaissance are historical footnotes. The ancient role witches play in history as women’s health care workers has been falsely discredited for having evil pretenses. The witch trials are a cautionary tale of what happens when women step out of line. Revisiting them is necessary as a fresh hunt brews in the United States today.
Witch hunts took place from the 14th to 18th century. Witch-hunters were simultaneously obsessed with and afraid of female sexuality. It was believed that witchcraft was hereditary and women were easy targets for the Devil. In her book “In Defense of Witches,” Mona Chollet writes that, on average, women made up 80 percent of those accused and 85 percent of those condemned. “They were at the mercy of entirely male institutions: interrogators, priests or pastors, torturers, guards, judges and executioners — all were men.”
Entire families were killed during the witch hunts and trials. Chollet writes that this era fed prejudices about women, and behaviors were changed as an act of survival. “The hunts effectively repressed certain behaviors and lifestyles. We have inherited these representations as they have been forged and perpetuated over centuries.”
In reality, witchcraft practitioners were natural healers who used their “magic” to support women’s health, especially pertaining to midwife practices, birth control and abortion. In their book “Witches, Midwives and Nurses” scholars Barbara Ehreinreich and Deirdre English explore the transition from “wise women” to “witches” through males wanting to be experts in the medical field. Here again, men want control of women’s bodies. Women represent life, desire, and pleasure and they feel the need to control what they are fascinated with and afraid of.
In all this, it’s important to remember that witches were linked to the Devil through the male-run church. Even witches must be ruled by a man: the Devil. Women have always been the scapegoat. Chollet writes, “Before Eve ate the forbidden fruit, Greek mythology’s Pandora had already opened the urn that held all the ills of humanity. Fledgling Christianity borrowed much from Stoicism, which was already opposed to pleasure and therefore to women.”
I see the witch hunts and trials as violence against women perpetuated by an institution of patriarchy: the church. To quote Matilda Joslyn Gage who published “Woman, Church and State” in 1893, “When for ‘witches’ we read ‘women’, we gain fuller comprehension of the cruelties inflicted by the church upon this portion of humanity.” I say that when you replace “women” with “wombs,” we gain fuller comprehension of how the church truly sees people with uteruses. Unfortunately, this theocratic view is being infused in the ways our country is being governed.
The overturning of Roe v. Wade is an obvious witch hunt. The pro-life stance should not stand — the United States is not a theocracy. Here again, we fight a battle cloaked with the disguise of spirituality when it comes back to the same damn thing: control over women.
Women deserve the same bodily autonomy men are allowed without fear that it will be taken from them. I speak for all people with uteruses when I say we did not choose this life where we must be complacent while being controlled or face violence; whether that be burning on a stake, hanged or put in jail for terminating a pregnancy (or worse).
Disturb order. Be the anti-mother. The fight for bodily autonomy — a basic human right — needs to be fought, even if it means becoming a witch.
Bailey Cichon is social video producer for The Gazette.