When you hear the word ‘witch’ in America, you can be pretty sure it’s in reference to a woman.
That’s because here in the U.S., when we label somebody ‘a witch’, we’re not usually describing their spiritual practice, or the rich history of multicultural goddesses that preceded our modern understanding of ‘witches’. What we’re often doing is describing a certain brand of boldness and power.
To quote the descriptions of women accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch trials:
“A woman of forcible speech and domineering ways.”
“Confident and determined.”
“Ready to express their opinions and stand their ground when crossed.”
Even then, it was women who were overwhelmingly labeled witches (roughly 78% of those accused and convicted), and the few men who met the same fate were often either supportive of or associated with them.
These were women who did not dutifully conform to the social norms of getting married, having children, tending to the household and submitting to the men around them.
In other words, these were women who challenged the status quo of white male Puritanical power and dominance.
In her recent book, “In Defense of Witches,” author Mona Chollet, draws a line from the unmarried, childless and independent women persecuted and accused of witchcraft in what sometimes feels like long-gone history, to today’s single, childfree and independent women – who face ridicule, harassment and oppression by the same misogynistic, patriarchal forces – albeit, through less violent means (typically).
In the book’s introduction, author Carmen Maria Machado concedes that we no longer hang or drown as many women as we did in the past, “but there is no shortage of ways women’s lives continue to be destroyed. Women are abused, assaulted, economically disempowered, raped, shoved into the margins, pressured, silenced, ignored, treated as guinea pigs, co-opted, stolen from, misrepresented, forced into pregnancy or servitude, imprisoned, and yes, sometimes murdered.”
And those women who, in the face of all this, still manage to exercise their ambition and power, from Hillary Clinton to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Nancy Pelosi, are still disparaged, and yes, even labeled ‘witches’ for daring to push back against the existing power structures, and subverting the patriarchal expectations of womanhood.
While today’s ’witches’ may not be burned at the stake, they’re certainly demonized, persecuted, and punished. It’s all part of a long tradition of vilifying ambition, demonizing independence and repressing power in and among women.
So while it might feel like we’re too old, as a society, to be afraid of ‘witches’ – aka. ambitious, powerful, independent women – as long as the status quo remains one of white, male power, the challenges these kinds of women represent, will still be labeled a threat. And we probably won’t hear too many men vilified with the label ‘witch’, any time soon.
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