Please welcome guest blogger Kristen J. Sollee, founder of Slutist.com and author of the upcoming release Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive.
The witch is a feminist icon for the ages. In 2017, her serpentine story is more familiar than foreign; she graces our screens, stalks our runways, creeps across our pages, and informs our spiritual practices. As a new wave of feminism floods both IRL and URL spaces to campaign for women’s rights, the witch is not solely an aesthetic influence. Now more than ever, she is informing artists, activists, healers, and everyday folks alike in their resistance against systemic oppression.
Although witches can be of any gender identity, to discuss witches and witch persecution in a historical context without addressing the woman-as-witch mythos would be to ignore a robust canon of art, literature, and scripture that equates femininity with devilry. Many people on the feminine spectrum may now embrace the witch identity for political or spiritual reasons, but thousands of women have suffered and died because of their perceived association with witchcraft.
“The history of witchcraft is primarily a history of women”
“The history of witchcraft is primarily a history of women,” writes scholar Carol F. Karlsen in The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. To study this history is to peer into the abyss of fear, sexist violence, and toxic masculinity that has dominated feminist discourse for decades. But it is also to uncover formidable strength and fortitude in the face of atrocity and injustice.
The following are four condensed milestones in the history of “witch feminism,” sourced from my upcoming book, Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive.
The Midwife: Bestial Bodies and Reproductive Rights
“Midwife sorceresses kill fetuses in the womb and cause miscarriages…and offer new borns to demons,” proclaimed the 1486 witch hunting bible, The Malleus Maleficarum. “No one harms the Catholic Faith more than do midwives.”
Because midwives dealt with the mysterious, liminal space between birth and death, sickness and health—and specialized in the needs of women—these predominantly poor, peasant women were viewed as suspect by the church and state. Armed with knowledge of herbology, biology, and, in particular, reproductive health, midwives were easy targets for accusations of sorcery. Those discovered teaching birth control methods or providing abortifacients or abortions were often accused of witchcraft and put to death. It is unclear the extent men in power feared the midwife’s supposed black magic capabilities, however, or if prevailing anti-midwife sentiment was merely a smokescreen for acute gender bias.
Hilary Bourdillon suggests in Women as Healers: A History of Women and Medicine that “it was not so much the type of healing being practiced by the wise-woman which laid her open to the accusations of witchcraft but the fact that she was an unlicensed healer.” Yes, midwives could be seen to receive their healing powers from the Devil, but they could also be seen as circumventing the male-dominated medico-religious system.
By the mid to late 1800s, witch hunting had all but ceased, but the campaign against midwives continued in subtler forms. When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867–1973 author Leslie J. Reagan notes that the early anti-abortion movement was partially an effort by the American Medical Association to discredit midwives and establish the primacy of “real” (male) doctors.
Although the execution of midwives and female healers would come to be viewed as a grievous error of the past, government officials are still leveraging their positions to thwart female bodily autonomy. Over the past decade, U.S. Senators have spoken out against birth control, Congressmen on the local and national stage have proved time and time again that they have laughably limited understandings of reproductive health, and a passionate Right-wing campaign against Planned Parenthood continues.
According to Silvia Federici in Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, the early modern witch hunts can be linked to “the contemporary development of a new sexual division of labor, confining women to reproductive work.” This sexual division of labor largely remains intact, and the women who seek to undermine its supremacy by exerting control over their own bodies and reproductive function are frequently viewed through the same lens accused witches once were. Yesterday’s Satanic witch midwives are today’s Planned Parenthood doctors, nurses, and clinic escorts, putting themselves in harm’s way to help a population desperate for basic reproductive health care.
Despite immense social and scientific advances over the past six centuries, politics, religion, and women’s health remain inextricably entwined.
Images 1 & 2 by William Mortensen, image 3 by Goya