I was immediately attracted to Mona Chollet’s book when I spotted it. I was on one of my bookstore splurges in San Francisco, the ones where I allow myself to walk into an independent bookstore and purchase whichever hardback appeals to me most.
On this particular day, Chollet’s In Defense of Witches: The Legacy of the Witch Hunts and Why Women Are Still On Trial, whose cover bears a woman flying on a broomstick and print splashed with the pink of the Women’s March, was the one for me.
Though I thought it was going to be a book about the modern women’s spirituality movement as it emerges out of the witchcraft tradition of Europe, it is more heavily focused on feminist theory and how the witch-hunts remain in our psyches and affect our opinions of women overall, not only in relationship to spiritual practices.
Chollet presents very compelling arguments and examples of this prejudice being carried forward into modern life in ways that may seem unexpected. She makes her points with clarity and backs them up with facts and research.
Many of her sources are books and authors I am familiar with from years of being immersed in feminist theory. If someone is new to, or unfamiliar with feminist theory, they will find it a very good introduction.
“What I am interested in, given the story that I have roughly sketched out here, is rather to explore the afterlife of the witch-hunts in Europe and the US. The hunts both translated and amped up prejudices about women, especially the stigma that attaches to some women. The hunts effectively repressed certain behaviors and lifestyles. We have inherited these representations as they have been forged and perpetuated over centuries. The negative associations continue to produce, at best, censorship and self-censorship, and barriers wherever we turn; at worst, hostility and even violence. And even if there were a genuine and widely shared desire for a critical analysis, we have no alternative with which to replace these historical associations”(30).
Who are the witches and what are the witch-hunts?
We are all familiar with the spectre of the witch, the ugly, crooked nose hag living alone in the woods, or maybe a nice, but weird, crooked nose hag, casting magic spells that go wrong.
We have also watched the archetype of the witch try to be reclaimed and redeemed by modern women as a way of taking back their power and spiritual birthright. Still the negative connotations of the word witch endure. Very few of us want to be called a witch because, for one thing, it rhymes with b**ch, and let’s be honest, means the same thing.
But there were once real witches, living in real villages, all across the globe, who were the medicine women and midwives: the wise women. And they were fully persecuted, the victims of what many call the first genocide in Europe. The witch-hunts and witchburnings carried out in many European villages lasted from 1486 until the early 1800s. These women and men were murdered en masse. The lowest total estimate of those burned at the stake for the crime of witchcraft is 300,000. Others estimate the count to be millions of witches murdered during this time. 82% of those murdered were women.
Europe was not the only place where the witches were persecuted. Many places in Africa have a history of the persecution of the witch as well, albeit with different nuances. Chollet documents current persecution of women in Ghana who have been accused and convicted of being witches. There were also witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts beginning in 1692 where 200 women were accused, 19 eventually hanged for the crime of witchcraft.
But the large and collective genocide of the European Witch-hunts and burnings trumps all in its scope and effectiveness and continues to haunt the psyche of the western world.
In most instances it is a certain kind of woman who receives the accusation and witch-hunts prove a particular and effective way to eliminate them. The one characteristic they all seem to share is that of independence.
The perceived danger of independent women
Chollet explores the way independent, single, and women who choose to be or are child-free are treated. They are often seen as aberrations, scary, “wrong” and depicted as miserable and unhappy. They are often viewed as threatening to the lives of married people, and even worse, like the witch, evil and detrimental to society.
Women who are independent are a threat and women who are independent and single are dangerous and this has a direct link back to the negative branding of the witches. The witch is most often depicted as living outside of the cultural norms especially that of hetero marriage.
“Who is this Devil who, from the fourteenth century onward, in the eyes of powerful European men, began to loom behind the figure of every female healer, every sorceress, every women who was slightly too forward or too much of a stirrer, to the point that they became a mortal threat to society? What if this Devil were in fact independence?”(65).
It’s interesting to think of the fear of independent and single women and especially independent single women as stemming from the witch-hunts. When a woman is not occupied with caring for a spouse, a husband and kids, when a woman is able to focus on herself and be one with herself, this seems the most scary thing for many people. It is images of the witches casting spells and working to conspire against men and married people—happy families—that are often conjured to incite that fear.
It is true that when a woman is independent, independent and single, unmarried and child-free, she may have more time for herself, to be in charge of her life, to be well-seated on the throne of her own power. Why is it assumed she would take this time, independence, power and self-identification to “go after” men and families? Wouldn’t she have better things to do? Why would she even care about what other people are doing?
“To refuse to sacrifice yourself or want to pursue your own goals can still attract instant condemnation. If your rebellion occurs in a professional setting, you will be accused of being pretentious, individualist, careerist or simply of being big-headed”(80).
Of course women can be independent while married but they do not receive half the same stigma and harsh judgement from the culture. They are not made to feel even more alone, by the punishing tactics that are played out on single, independent and child-free women—the most dangerous and wicked of all.
If a woman is older, she is often lumped into this category of independent (bad, dangerous) as well. Many older women are widowed or divorced or simply independent because the time for caring of children, if they had them, is over. The equation—which it would appear we inherited from the witch-hunts and subsequent burnings—seems to be: time on her hands makes a woman suspect.
“If the witch-hunts targeted older women, it is likely because they displayed an unbearable degree of confidence. Confronted by their neighbors, by priests or pastors, even before judges and torturers, these women talked back; . . . They were better able to do so, being unconstrained by a father, husband or children. These were women ‘given to speaking out, to a bold tongue and independent spirit’”(169).
We should applaud and love the witch, we should strive to be more like her, but we are not. Why? Because she is promoted as being dangerous, ugly, unlovable. And this was a deliberate creation, in the time of the witch-hunts, whose propaganda machine yet grinds out and disseminates this negative spin.
Chollet quotes author Pam Grossman:
“the witch is arguably the only female archetype that has power on its own terms. She is not defined by anyone else. Wife, sister, mother, virgin, whore—these archetypes draw meaning based on relationships with others. The witch, however, is a woman who stands entirely on her own”(73).
The deliberate extraction of women’s independence
Chollet documents the many ways independence was deliberately extracted from women’s lives until they had to fight for even the right to be considered a valid part of the populace: women were pushed out of health care and disallowed autonomy of their own bodies including the knowledge and practice of controlling their own fertility. Midwifery and herbalism were co-opted by what came to be known as health care systems and industry. Women were also forced out of the work world they had inhabited and enjoyed and which allowed them financial independence :
“In the Middle Ages, like their male counterparts, European women could access a great range of professions, as Silvia Federici points out: “In the medieval towns, women worked as smiths, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, hat-makers, ale-brewers, wool-carders and retailers.” In England, “seventy-two out of eighty-five guilds counted women among their members” and some were “dominated” by them. It was, then, not a conquest but a re-conquest that women began to attempt in the twentieth century”(77).
Chollet also touches upon how the persecution of witches yet resounds in the way modern people are separated from nature, their own bodies and their own internal “knowing,” by what she labels a “cult of rationality.”
“What I try to express over and over is a critique of this cult of rationality (or, rather, of what we take for rationality), which seems so natural that we often give up identifying it as such. This cult determines both our way of viewing the world, of organizing our knowledge about it, and how we act in and on it, how we transform it. This leads us to conceive the world as a collection of separate, inert and unmysterious objects—understood in terms of their immediate usefulness, which it is possible to know objectively—which should be chopped up for conscription in the service of production and progress”(205).
Still the most dirty word seems to be independence
But underneath all the nuances in the way that this stigma of the witch continues to show up, it does seem to be that independence in women is ultimately the thing that is trying to be squelched. Independent thinking, financial independence, independently making choices for our bodies, independently choosing how to interact with and what to believe about our own experiences of the world, are still taboo for women.
If independence is truly the ultimate culprit then we need to look at this. And we need to change this. Because it will haunt every woman who is independent or aspires to be. It threatens her with ostracization and the fear of not being loved.
Can we look at that. Can we truly begin to notice when we are buying into that for other women and ourselves. Is an independent woman lovable? Is submission truly required? It seems the answer to that question may be a frightening yes.
Can we make the first alternative with which to replace these historical associations be that an independent woman whether married, straight, LGBTQ+, single, child-free or child bearing, a woman of color or black, is entirely lovable? Always. Period. No questions asked? I hope so.
The witch and nasty women
“The witch embodies woman free of all domination, all limitation; she is an ideal to aim for; she shows us the way”(4).
I would say this is true of Nasty Women as well.
It seems to me witches and Nasty Women have a lot in common. Nasty women speak their minds, are independent and often put their own ambitions before the needs of others. They refuse subordination and to be “put in their place as a woman.” Thus they are equated with witches and all that has been associated with witches. Nasty women are survivor witches.
The witch trials succeeded in making women not want to be a witch, not want to be called a witch or even thought of as anything close to a witch, and yet if the witches were independent, self-reliant, self-supporting, why wouldn’t we all want to be like them? It has absolutely nothing to do with love or being loved. It has absolutely nothing to do with other choices a woman will make for herself. It only has to do with her thinking she actually cannot make those choices for herself.
It’s all been a great big ruse, you see. And we are still falling for it. And that is what Chollet is exposing and arguing against in this book. And what we at Nasty Women Writers are working to expose all the time as well.
The next time you have a negative thought about a single woman, a child-free woman, an independent woman, a woman who does ritual on the land, an old woman, stop and consider if these opinions you have possibly come from this well thought out and successful assault on the witches. Are you still being influenced by that campaign waged against witches so long ago?
Mona Chollet is a Nasty Woman Writer.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2022
Chollet, Mona. In Defense of Witches: The Legacy of the Witch Hunts and Why Women Are Still on Trial. St. Martin’s Press. 2022