Something Wicked This Way Comes: Witches and Modern Women

By Emma Louise Backe

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.4261b0afed1a66338670afb8609f1f3a

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.

There are still parts of the world that prosecute and burn witches. Women in Papua New Guinea still face violence if they are accused of sorcery or black magic. VICE reports that, “Those accused tend to be the more marginalized members of society, and while men are occasionally victimized, women are particularly vulnerable to attacks, comprising roughly six out of every seven cases reported” and it is estimated that “there were more than 50 sorcery-related killings in their provinces in 2008” (Coursen-Neff 2009). In Ghana, women (usually elderly widows) have formed “witch camps” and “witch villages,” as safe refuges for those accused of witchcraft in their communities. As many of the supposed Ghanian witches are widows, the accusation can be seen as a ploy by the family to take their property. “’The camps are a dramatic manifestation of the status of women in Ghana,’ says Professor Dzodzi Tsikata of the University of Ghana. ‘Older women become a target because they are no longer useful to society.’ Women who do not conform to society’s expectations also fall victim to the accusations of witchcraft, according to Lamnatu Adam of the women’s rights group Songtaba” (Whitaker 2012). The efficacy of black magic and threat of witches remains very much a lived reality within many cultures around the world, a hazard that often targets already marginalized women and perpetuates cycles of gender-based violence.

Girls pose by a jail that recalls the witch trials of 1692 in Salem, 1945 [click on this image to find a short clip and analysis on the study of deviance in sociology] Photo Credit: B. Anthony Stewart/National Geographic Society/Corbis © Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Girls pose by a jail that recalls the witch trials of 1692 in Salem, 1945 [click on this image to find a short clip and analysis on the study of deviance in sociology] Photo Credit: B. Anthony Stewart/National Geographic Society/Corbis © Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Within recent years, however, Western feminists and women within certain cultural enclaves have appropriated the term witch, claiming it as a title of female empowerment and solidarity. The appropriation of the term witch can be understood within the linguistic project of Mary Daly, through Webster’s First Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language and the Crone Project, which aims to dismantle patriarchal ways of thinking and understanding women, and instead revisioning language from a female perspective.

As spectral evidence leave contemporary audiences spellbound, I believe we’re experiencing a different kind of séance. The recent television shows that feature witches come out of a particular cultural milieu, one that is increasingly aware and vocal about women’s issues. American Horror Story: Coven not only tackles the history of women’s oppression, but it also attends to ongoing misogyny, present controversies over women’s rights, as well as division within feminist communities at large.

During Coven’s very first episode, “Bitchcraft,” the writers take the dangerous sexuality of witches and recast it as a form of female empowerment. Zoe Benson discovers her witchy powers when she tries to lose her virginity, and accidentally ends up giving her boyfriend a fatal brain hemorrhage. Later on in the episode, when Madison Montgomery—a fellow witch at Miss Robichaux’s Academy—gets drugged and gang-banged at a college party, Madison exacts punishment on her rapists by killing all but one in a bus crash. When Zoe realizes that one of the rapists might live, she straddles him in the hospital and uses her sex as a weapon. She becomes the castrating woman, like Salome or the vigilante vagina of Dawn O’Keefe in Teeth (2007). While rapists and sexual offenders escape punishment or legal action, these witches enact their own form of justice, one that punishes the violation of a woman and appropriates a legacy of men fearful of the power housed within the female body.

Coven reconfigures history in other ways too. Zoe and Madison assume the role of Dr. Victor Frankenstein in “Boy Parts,” when they reconstruct and reanimate the limbs of the victims of the bus crash to create Kyle, a surrogate boyfriend/sex-toy for the two. Only women, in this story, have the power to transcend life and death. Coven also deals with women’s health issues. When Cordelia Foxx, Headmistress of the Academy, fails to get pregnant by medical means, she resorts to magic. Her desperation for fertility speaks to the debate over women’s bodies, especially regarding access to services like birth control and comprehensive reproductive health care. The Academy’s most assiduous antagonist, true to form, is the Delphi Trust, an organization whose sole purpose is to hunt down and eliminate witches. The Trust is comprised entirely of men and could easily be read as a corporate manifestation of the patriarchy.

One of the climaxes of female solidarity occurs in episode six, “The Axeman Cometh,” set during 1919, when the witches of the Academy lure the axe-murderer into their coven and stab him to death. When the Axeman returns to the Academy in “Go To Hell,” and Kyle offers to take care of him, Madison grabs the axe and cuts open the Axeman’s belly. Misty turns to Kyle, saying, “We really don’t need a man to protect us,” and the witches proceed to stab the murderer to death, again. Bloody girl power.

The most compelling and malicious characters in the show, though, are all women. Each female character is given a complex backstory and emotional life. Even the women with vicious tendencies, such as Fiona Goode, Marie Laveau and Delphine LaLaurie, pulsate with charismatic, vindictive energy. They are never wholly good or bad characters, but are rather given the full personal depth few female characters are afforded in media. If we are to use the Bechdel Test to judge television shows and movies, American Horror Story: Coven accomplishes the Test’s stipulations and validates the viability of a dynamic female-driven show that is intimately concerned with the magical machinations of women. What the Bechdel Test gestures toward is eliminating the artificial stereotypes of women where they are used as props—burn those heresies at the stake.

But American Horror Story: Coven also acknowledges the internal controversies that exist within the women’s movement. Just as Fiona Goode and Marie Laveau (the Vodou Queen of New Orleans) spend most of the series at odds with one another, there are divisions amongst feminists along the lines of race, ethnicity and sexuality. Audre Lorde and bell hooks, amongst other queer women of color, have called upon contemporary feminists to acknowledge the differences that can exist in feminist agendas and ideologies across cultures and races. Many indigenous feminists around the world have also called for indigenous feminisms, a plurality that attends to the multitude of lived experiences and histories that inform a group’s understanding and approach to feminism.

Yet despite the variety of feminisms throughout the world, the most insidious form of patriarchy manifests when women turn against other women. Many of the accusations of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials were women testifying and criminalizing other women. Similarly, there is fierce competition between the students at the Academy over who is to be the next Supreme, and the witches turn against each other, often with deadly results. This competition and ill will between the witches is mirrored in contemporary debates about women’s issues, where women recoil from identifying themselves as feminists–or even proclaim themselves anti-Feminist –or declare that America is post-sexism. There are women in the media who claim we have broken the glass ceiling and achieved parity, so that more vocal advocates of women’s issues are seen as heretical in comparison. Only through uniting around common goals of equality can progress, or magic, be made.a8b1c3b45c60620d3e86858fd54b0b39

In the finale of Coven, Cordelia—as the newly initiated supreme—decides to eliminate the secrecy of the Academy and expose the presence of witches to the wider world. It’s a risky decision, but one that resonates with the contemporary condition of women’s issues. Only by coming forward and making their stories of prejudice, discrimination and oppression known will the witch-burning end. Witches invite women to join hands and discover their power.



Works Cited

American Horror Story: Coven (2013-2014). Ryan Murphy Productions.

Chemaly, Soraya (2013). “What Witches Have To Do With Women’s Health.” Slate.

Classen, Constance (2005). “The Witch’s Senses: Sensory Ideologies and Transgressive Femininities from the Renaissance to Modernity.” Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Cultural Reader. Ed. David Howes. Bloomberg Academic.
Coursen-Neff, Zama (2009). “Where Violence Against Women is Rampant.” The Huffington Post.

Crone Project.

Daly, Mary & Jane Caputi (1994). Webster’s First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language. Harpercollins Publishers.

Douglas, Mary (1991). “Witchcraft and Leprosy: Two Strategies of Exclusion.” Man, New Series, Vol. 26, No. 4. pp. 723-736.

Friedman, Maggie (2013-Present). Witches of East End. Lifetime Television.

hooks, bell (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. South End Press.

Küntzle, Julia & Paul Blondé (2013). “The Unhappy Fate of Ghanaian Witches.” VICE.

Lichtenstein, Mitchell (2007). Teeth.

Lorde, Audre (1977). “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press Feminist Series.

Miller, Laura (2005). “Who Burned the Witches?” Slate.

Salem (2014). WGN America.

Whitaker, Kati (2012). “Ghana Witch Camps: Widows’ Lives in Exile.” BBC News Magazine.

About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

There are 46 comments

  1. Marcel

    Remarkable issues here. I’m very satisfied to peer your article.
    Thank you a lot and I’m taking a look forward to touch you.
    Will you please drop me a mail?


  2. G. B. Marian

    This is a magnificent post and I will be including it in my list of resources on my site. In particular, I like it because it touches upon something I think about often, but am not always sure how to vocalize publicly. I do feel that witchcraft, as a reclaimed term, is uniquely well-suited to women who seek empowerment, and that it ties in especially with women’s mysteries in general. As a feminist man who’s married to a witch, I don’t really see “witch” as a term that men can (or even should) reclaim. This, of course, opens a huge can of worms, and I realize there’s a wide variety of opinions on the matter, so I certainly don’t mean to upset anyone who may disagree with this notion. But the point is that I appreciate and agree with this post wholeheartedly.


  3. aarontremper

    You might want to check out Anne Sexton’s “Her Kind” (and other poems as well, esp. in her book Transformations. Also, Sylvia Plath’s “Witch Burning.” Both exemplify the use of witch imagery and symbolism to exemplify an “Othering” of women refusing to conform to 50’s standards of femininity.


  4. ejoyfarkas

    I am not attempting to criticize or demean the content of the article. I thought there were many good points. As a practicing Witch however, I did not read or see any references to ‘origins of witchcraft’ here. As regards women taking up the feminism staff and witchcraft to assert their powers (politics), I did not read anything about the founders of the Feminism movement of the 1970’s with the Susan B. Anthony Coven #1. Gloria Steinem, Starhawk, Z. Budapest for instance. Nor a multitude of women who came out of that Feminist Witchcraft movement. One big difference I am reading here is that while the 1970’s ladies/witches took up many of the same women’s issues as the new show “Coven” addresses; they did so with peace and love in mind. Not as hormone driven, girls lusting for revenge.
    Feminism in witchcraft didn’t just begin as a new idea with this new tv program about yet again young vindictive girls being witches. Or worse, misrepresenting Witchcraft as a means to other non-witch craft behaviors.
    Because I do not subscribe to cable, I do not get the channels these new witchcraft shows are on. From this review of the characters and natures of the girls of the show Coven however, I agree with one of the other commenters on this blog: yet again, TV producers got it wrong. Women as Witches asserting their powers are women who follow the Goddess; they do not use their powers to maim and kill as this show seems to portray.
    I do not feel that show does any honor whatsoever to what Witchcraft really is.


    1. Emma Louise Backe

      Thank you for your input. It’s hard to incorporate everything into an easily readable piece, and I thank you for bringing in your own perspectives and context to the conversation.


  5. TGA’S 2nd Anniversary: a Journey of Anthropology Blogging | The Geek Anthropologist

    […] We may not have hit the 100 000 views yet (just over 59 000), but our posts are increasingly popular and we gain new followers at a steady pace. The blog was featured on Freshly Pressed, curated by WordPress editors, twice, and twice thanks to pieces by Emma L. Backe. Her very first piece on TGA, Confessions of an Anthropological Geek, was noticed by WordPress curators and so was her more recent Something Wicked This Way Comes: Witches and Modern Women. […]


  6. tallulah14

    Great piece, thank you for sharing!

    I grew up wishing I could be a powerful witch and today I still want this. I want to feel like I have the power and the ability to speak out and fight against our sexist society. While I make the efforts to assert my power and use my voice I, along with the rest of the females, am consistently “othered.”

    Growing up, my Mother told me stories about how the term “witch” was used against her… She was mocked for her “witchy chin” for being a “nasty little witch” and for being a “bitch witch.” I didn’t understand the importance of these comments back then but now I see it more clearly.

    Our society loves it’s binaries. You’re either good or you’re evil, you’re normal or you’re not. Powerful females are not “normal” therefore should be labelled and contained for the protection of all–Burn the witch!

    Again, thank you for sharing. I enjoyed the read and I definitely re-blogged it.


    Liked by 1 person

  7. Liz Butcher

    Fantastic article! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and thought you did a wonderful job of dissecting and explaining Coven, as well as providing an interesting and concise history on the origin of witches.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. curiosetta

    > 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 fact that a persecution was aimed mainly at women does not mean it was necessarily perpetrated or supported mostly by men, or without the support/ aid of a lot of women….. or that it did not suit women’s interests.

    Having researched the subject what can you say of women’s attitudes to witchcraft and witchcraft trials in societies which persecuted witches?

    Specifically during times of persecution did any women defend witches? How common was it for women to make accusations against other women? How did women raise their children to view witches?


    1. Emma Louise Backe

      These are all great questions. When talking about the persecution of witches, it is important to remember that notions of witchcraft vary from culture to culture and across time. Within a Western context, males and females were accused of witchcraft in parts of Europe and the United States during the Salem Witch Trials, although women were targeted more often than men. As I mention in the piece, women and young girls were often the ones making accusations of witchcraft against other women. Perceptions of witches in different communities varied based on the voracity of their belief in Christianity–a religion which condemned witches as consorts of the Devil or Satan–, the supposed threat posed by black magic or witchcraft, and an individual’s or family’s relationship with the accused witch. Even if you believed in the innocence of an accused witch, potential association or friendship with a witch could make you a target or promote stigmatization in your community. Similarly, defending a witch could make you suspect as well. It was a tangled web of social relationships and taboo that made it difficult for women to aid or shelter one another.

      As to attitudes of women toward witchcraft in other parts of the world, this is a question that has yet to be thoroughly explored. There are many ethnographic accounts of indigenous perceptions of witchcraft and the production of witchcraft accusations, whether they are motivated by socio-economic gain, spiritual anxiety, or a combination. But there very few ethnographies about how the accused witches feel. For cultural situations in which witchcraft is experienced as an real phenomenon, I am tentative to essentialize or homogenize responses to witchcraft accusations. The women in Ghana, for example who are defending those accused of witchcraft propose that the accusations were made for economic reasons, but this does not negate the powerful belief that witches do exist and practice within the country.


  9. Rebecca Meyer

    This was an interesting read. I didn’t know much about this topic and how witches pertained to feminism. I’ve always loved stories about witches, and the history of the Salem Witch Trials is fascinating.


  10. sacredhandscoven

    Interesting piece, I am glad to hear that Hollywood is trying to show women empowering themselves and taking care of their own problems. I am even more pleased with the way you drew the correlations between the craft and women of confidence and power throughout the ages, as well as the more recent strides in feminism. Though as a practicing witch of 26+ years,I cannot say I am pleased with Hollywood’s portrayal of witchcraft, as usual. They never do get it right,

    Liked by 1 person

  11. thoughtsoncoffee

    Interesting piece! It kind of bothered me how in old-school children’s tales, women who had magical powers were evil witches, but men who had powers were considered superheroes. Witches are like mega-scientists in the fantasy world.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. rami ungar the writer

    Although I found Coven a little too campy at times for my taste, I did admire its exploration of women’s issues (though I had certain thoughts about the killer vagina). Perhaps witches will become the new icons of feminism and of women achieving equality with men. Better a witch than Bella Swan or Katniss Everdeen, anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

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