When the above quotation appeared in the movie Miss Representation, which I showed in an Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies class, my students scoffed at it. Indeed, at first glance Robertson’s words seem wacky on a number of levels, but get past the wackiness and what you have is fear of female sexual and economic autonomy. Robertson is speaking of women without husbands, women choosing whether or not to have children (not by killing them once born, of course, but via contraception and abortion), women seeking policies that support and uplift families from all socioeconomic backgrounds, and women loving other women. Each of these ideas flies in the face of patriarchy, or a society built on male control of women. The wackiness makes sense seen in this light—but what of witchcraft? Why is that one in there?
The answer lies in the history of the persecution of witches. Douglas Linder’s Brief History of Witchcraft Persecutions Before Salem provides some vital background:
- Biblical Condmenation: The books of Exodus and Leviticus in the Bible condemn witches. As Linder explains, in context, the condemnation was probably meant to encourage Jews to ignore the religious practices of others.
- St. Augustine: The early church didn’t worry about witches, as St. Augustine claimed they were powerless.
- The Hammer of Witches and Female Sexuality: Things heated up in 1484, when Pope Innocent the VIII had the Malleus Maleficarum (the “Hammer of Witches”) published. It condemned the practice of witchcraft, and focused on women who practiced abortion as well as the “sinfully lustful” nature of women. From this point forward, midwives and others who helped women control their fertility were persecuted as witches.
- Witch Hysteria: Between 1500 and 1660, 50,000-80,000 Europeans were persecuted and killed as witches. Over 80 percent of them were women. Torture to force confessions often preceded the killings.
- Salem Witch Trials: In Europe, things settled down by 1682, with the coming of the Enlightenment. In 1692, the United States had an outbreak of hysteria with the Salem witch trials, during which 19 women and men were hung for witchcraft.
The persecution of witches was about the religious suppression of female power and female sexual autonomy. We no longer live in a time in which witches are hunted and killed, but many people don’t know this history—or the fact that modern-day witches, or Wiccans, base their beliefs in ancient traditions that honor the divine feminine and respect for the earth.
Witches have become iconic, associated with Halloween, black cats and bubbling cauldrons, pointed hats and long noses. Free association with the concept of witch brings to mind, for me, spells of dark seduction—the gnarled hand offering Snow White an apple, the lyrics to “Witchy Woman” (Well I know you want to love her/Let me tell you brother/She’s been sleepin in the devil’s bed). These images and ideas serve to reinforce the idea that female sexuality—especially if it is owned by a woman herself—is inherently dangerous.
As we work through our cultural ambivalence around female power, new stories arise to challenge and reshape our conception of witches. J.K. Rowling has given us a world in which witches are merely people with abilities that must be trained—and like the rest of us, they must choose whether to use their powers for good or evil. And in Wicked, a musical retelling of The Wizard of Oz (based on a novel by Gregory Maguire), there are no wicked witches—just misunderstood women. Monty Python’s spoof of witch burnings in The Holy Grail makes the same point, as an angry mob insists that a woman they’ve dressed up with a hat and false nose is a witch: “She’s a witch! Burn her!” they cry, and then admit to trumping up the charges. True to history, their admission doesn’t call things to a halt—they just trump up some more charges and burn her anyway.
In accusing feminists of witchcraft, Pat Robertson was drawing on the mix of images we have around witches—all that dark seduction and vaguely defined evil. He was assuming we knew nothing of the history of witchcraft, of the persecution of women, or of modern-day Wicca. And he was doing what fear-driven patriarchs have done for centuries: trumping up charges against women who wish to establish self-ownership, and hoping the mob will follow.