What We Mean When We Call Women Witches

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What We Mean When We Call Women Witches

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The threat of a woman who challenges the status quo

Have you ever noticed how we almost never hear about male witches?

Before the Halloweeny witches of today, there were women like Bridget Bishop. Bishop is widely regarded as the first woman executed for witchcraft during the Salem witch trials in the late 1600s, though she was not the first woman to be labeled a witch.

Bishop was known for getting into noisy squabbles with her husband – even finding herself in court at one point for her use of “foul language”. Soon after inheriting her second husband’s estate, her stepchildren suspected a “bewitching” took their father’s life.

Puritan women were encouraged to marry, raise children, and tend to a household. If a woman didn’t conform to these social norms, she was thought to have been tempted by the devil. So maybe it’s not surprising that a woman like Bishop, who didn’t fully submit to her man, was labeled a witch after he died.

“When women stepped outside their prescribed roles, they became targets. Too much wealth might reflect sinful gains. Too little money demonstrated bad character. Too many children could indicate a deal with a devil. Having too few children was suspicious, too,” writes Scholar and English professor Bridget Marshall . You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

78% of those accused and convicted during the Salem Witch trials were women. Most were accused by neighbors, fellow women, and men who found the women to be “unpleasant” — women who dared to speak out, speak up, or draw attention to themselves in any way, even unintentionally.

Descriptions of the accused include, “a woman of forcible speech and domineering ways.” “Confident and determined, ready to express their opinions and to stand their ground when crossed.” In other words, anyone challenging the status quo of white male Puritanical power and dominance. The accusation of Tituba, an enslaved woman of color, exemplifies the ways in which the Salem Witch Trials targeted the most marginal, vulnerable members of the society.

The third wave of feminism helped some women reclaim “witch” as a positive term, bringing it back to its original meaning, “wise one.” We can turn to social media hashtags like #witchesofinstagram or #brujamoderna, and see a community of spiritually aligned individuals eager to share their lessons and teachings with one another.

The reclamation has introduced and encouraged us to learn about other communities and their connection to witches. For instance, in Latin America, “brujería,” Spanish for “witchcraft,” is a deeply spiritual and sacred practice — though it hasn’t always been that way. Surprise, surprise, colonizers muddied the word for Latin Americans just as they had for Pagan women, as Amber Snider writes for Teen Vogue, “One interesting thing I’ve encountered when talking to some modern practicing witches is both a total embrace of the word ‘bruja’ and also a reluctance to use it all together.” Demonstrating the extent to which centuries of vilifying certain practices, however initially sacred or empowering, can make them challenging to step into and reclaim.

It’s interesting to see the social punishment ordered to free-thinking women today. A woman’s sexuality, femininity, and sanity all come into question when she asserts her independence, strays from the patriarchal expectations of womanhood, or fights for the equality of women and marginalized groups. And plenty of women are still called witches when they dare to push against societal expectations and existing power structures: See Hillary Clinton, AOC and Nancy Pelosi.

The casting of women as witches in negative terms, like spinsters, sl*ts and b*tches, is part of a long tradition of demonizing women who challenge the status quo. And as long as the status quo remains one of white, male power, we probably won’t be hearing about too many male witches any time soon.

Additional reporting for this piece provided by Jazmine Reed-Clark

Image: Maree Searle/ EyeEm via GettyImages

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