Two weeks ago, I published a piece on modern monsters and their meanings within contemporary pop culture. Though I dug through the remains of zombies, vampires and kaiju, I intentionally avoided analysis of witches—I wanted to devote an entire piece that would provide me with the space to unpack the cultural resurgence of witches this year. I’m not talking about Hogwarts students—I’m talking toil and trouble, dances with the Devil in the pale moonlight, bad bitches hex magic witches. American Horror Story’s third season, Coven (2013-2014), conjured up a cast of New Orleans witches grappling to manifest the Seven Wonders and subsequently catapulted witches into the pop culture limelight yet again. While I have argued that zombies and vampires speak to concerns about climate change, capitalism and germ warfare, these witches serve a very different cultural purpose. With new shows like Salem (2014) and Witches of East End (2013-) on Lifetime, witches are experiencing their own charmed moment of cultural zeitgeist, one that comes out of ongoing feminist politics. Within the past year or so, women’s issues have gained ascendency in the media and public attention—topics like sexual assault on college campuses, rape culture, #YesAllWomen and equal access to birth control (I’m looking at you Hobby Lobby) are being discussed widely, ushering in a new era in feminism and its visibility. As the general public becomes more aware and educated on women’s issues, witches have pulled up their stockings and reemerged as feminist icons.
Witches have historically been understood and treated as threats to patriarchal forms of power. Many historians who have studied witchcraft throughout the centuries indicate that the women who were targeted for being witches were often outsiders or women who did not fall into the tightly controlled gender roles of the time. The moral discourse surrounding witchcraft accusations often legitimized and reified gendered social hierarchies and political structures, as well as culturally entrenched beliefs about sin and depravity (Douglas 1991). Many of those throughout Europe and America who were accused of witchcraft were women who did not regularly attend Church (an inherently patriarchal institution), were unmarried or widowed, were economically self-sufficient, or dressed and acted immodestly by societal standards of the time. Witches were also often perceived as licentious, sexual creatures who seduced men, lay with the Devil, and could pollute men with their feminine fluids.
During the Salem Witch Trials (1692-1693), the first three women accused of witchcraft were the cultural others of the Puritanical New England town—Tituba, Reverend Parris’s slave; Sarah Good, who was homeless; and Sarah Osborne, who disrupted land inheritance claims of the time by retaining the land of her deceased husband, rather than ceding it to her eldest son. Most of the women who were tried and executed for witchcraft undermined the conservative gender roles of the time and disturbed social norms of a woman’s place in the domestic sphere. The widespread witch panic was also contemporaneous with the Scientific Revolution, which demonized female healers and condemned the practice of medicine by women. Throughout Europe and America, as Soraya Chemaly indicates, women “were charged as witches because they were successful. Take the case of Jacoba Felicie,who was tried in 1322. Her accusation read, ‘she would cure her patient of internal illness…visit the sick assiduously and continue to examine…in the manner of physicians.’ No less than six witnesses described how she’d successfully treated the when “doctors” had failed” (2013).
Before the Scientific Revolution, medicine often fell to female healers, who used a combination of herbal medicine and folk therapies passed down through experience and intuition from generation to generation. As Constance Classen notes, “In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, medicine gradually distanced itself from the domestic realm, and from the feminine senses of touch, taste and smell […] Healing was further taken out of female hands by the increased professionalization of the field, for women were forbidden to follow men into university” (2005:80). Indeed, “a newly developing male medical profession benefited economically from the demonization of female healers and midwives, many of whom were poor and derived their only income from healing. Not only was the division between ‘witches magic’ and ‘men’s medicine’ gendered, but also it was classed. Newly minted male-only university doctors in the employ of the nobility were happy enough to eliminate illiterate female competition for their services” (Chemaly 2013). Many women, therefore, who were maligned of witchcraft were also female healers, women who destabilized “masculine” standards of medicine. Finally, “women were persecuted for associating with other women, accused of forming covens or holding parties with Satan. Women who came together to celebrate holidays or to share information, trade herbs, gossip or otherwise, you know, hang out together were considered dangerous” (Chemaly 2013). If you target disruptive women and keep them from communicating with one another, you eliminate potential subversion. Witchcraft, then, can historically be understood in Western contexts as the vilification and elimination of female power in the face of rising male power within the public sphere.