Unruly Women—Witches as the Martyrs of Feminism

“You are a witch, and you know you are a witch.”

“You are a liar,” was her indignant reply; “I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take my life, God will give you blood to drink.”

These were the words spoken by a woman by the name of Sarah Good one summer day in 1692, shortly before she was hanged on accusation of one of the most wicked crimes imaginable to her Puritan community—witchcraft. Good was accused by two girls named Abigail and Elizabeth of bewitching them, biting and pinching them and causing their bodies to convulse in fits. Good, along with two other townswomen, stood trial for witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts as some of the earliest victims of the notorious Salem witch trials. The bloody legacy of the Europe from which they had sailed, the witch trials in Europe and colonial America would claim the lives of tens of thousands of innocent victims—the vast majority of them women.

Often, the horrors of the witch trials have been taken out of context as an atrocity to be blamed on the paranoia of the hyper-religious, an isolated horror in the history of Christianity never to be repeated again. Yet, a more critical analysis of the circumstances that gave way to the witch hunts reveals that the witch hunts of the Western world were nothing if not a symptom of a patriarchal society rife with repression, and a taste for preying on the weak and powerless—and women, descendants of Eve, are naturally more inclined to fall to the devil’s temptation. See, while the fits displayed by her two accusers must have been rather compelling for the Puritan townspeople, suspicions of Sarah Good arose from a source rather different than being spotted dancing naked around a fairy ring or flying a broom against the backdrop of a full moon—Good, like many of the women who fell victim to the witch trials, found herself guilty of the hideous crime of stepping outside the rigid roles consigned to her as a woman. Good had sparked the contempt of her fellow townspeople for having to resort to begging door to door, fallen destitute due to her deceased husband’s debts. Moreover, she was a remarried widow who had scorned her second husband William Good, who seconded the townsfolk’s suspicions of witchcraft on grounds of Sarah’s “bad carriage to him”.

The two women who stood trial alongside Good were, similarly, misfits—Sarah Osborne, by then an older woman, had scandalised the community by marrying an indentured servant after the death of her first husband Robert Prince, and claiming his farmland for herself and her new husband. Moreover, a long illness had prevented her from attending church at all in the years leading up to the accusations, arousing yet more suspicion among the townspeople. Yet more complex is the involvement of the third victim, an enslaved woman from Barbados by the name of Tituba. In fact, Tituba was the first of the three women to be accused of witchcraft, and the only one to confess. However, it is likely that she confessed under the coercion of her master reverend Parris, the minister of the town of Salem—not only was she powerless as a slave, but her ethnicity and cultural background equally made her a particularly vulnerable target. Being a Caribbean woman, Tituba is said to have been a practitioner of voodoo, which the townsfolk interpreted as “black magic”. Keeping this in mind, we are left with a multi-layered paradigm of misogyny, racism, as well as the obvious power imbalance present in a slave-owner context, a prime illustration of a typical witch hunt target.

This powerlessness, the mark of society’s undesirables, is a recurring pattern in many of the witch hunts’ victims, those of the old world as well as the new. Poor women, independent women, sexually promiscuous and “unruly” women—basically, any woman who embodied these traits easily aroused the suspicion of those around them, because they defied the idea of what a “good” woman was supposed to be: meek, passive, chaste, small.

Though it is no longer punished by hanging or immolation, witch hunts yet linger on in today’s society. Women are to this day expected to be quiet, cooperative, mild-mannered—and are persecuted when they fail to live up to these expectations. Women who show too much skin, are too confident, too bossy, too loud, too much and yet not enough; they are vilified in modern-day witch hunts with the same motive as their historical counterparts—to silence women. The stories left behind by women like Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba are grim reminders that women have all too often suffered simply for being who they are, but they are more than that; they are a rallying cry for women not to let themselves be silenced again. They were the women that feminism fights for, has always fought for: they are unfortunate martyrs for the cause of women, all women, throughout history. In celebration of the unruly women who died for who they were, be loud, be “too much”—we are, after all, the granddaughters of the witches they weren’t able to burn.

 

Bibliography:

Nevins, W. S. (1994). The Witches of Salem. Longmeadow Press Promotional.

Hassett-Walker, C. (June 2018). What the Salem witches can teach us about how we treat women today. The Washington Post.

Tassell, N. (January 2016). What were the Salem Witch Trials? BBC History Revealed.

Marshall, B. (October 2019). Most witches are women, because witch hunts were all about persecuting the powerless. The Conversation.