One of the top Halloween destinations in the United States, the historic coastal city of Salem, Massachusetts draws many visitors from far and wide.
As a Massachusetts native, I am no stranger to Salem and its many Halloween traditions and attractions. While it is renowned for its historic maritime significance, the primary draw to Salem stems from its eerie atmosphere and chilling history. The infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692 accused more than 200 people, tried over 100 and executed 20 for witchcraft. Some men were proclaimed to be witches, but mostly, these accusations were hurled at women, especially those deemed unconventional compared to their Puritan neighbors.
Witch hunts are not unique to Salem, however. In fact, witchcraft has fascinated people around the world for centuries. Witches were believed to possess magical abilities, reinforcing a widespread belief in the supernatural. The Salem Witch Trials, particularly, followed a period of hysteria and witch hunts throughout Europe, which primarily persecuted and pointed fingers at women for working with the devil and for contributing to the evil and sin of society.
Considering these historic witch hunts and popular representations of witches, I notice a clear pattern with deep roots in misogyny and patriarchal social structures. First, many witches were often postmenopausal women or widows. These typically older women could not bear more children or perform “wifely duties” and consequently they were scorned by Puritan standards, becoming a primary case for witchcraft. Furthermore, the popular archetype for witches—the image of an old and haggard woman—also ties into this discriminatory bias and is a direct consequence of historical prejudices against older women and those who didn’t fit a conventional standard.
Splitting women into the accusers or the accused, witch hunts also pit us against each other: accuse other women of being a witch or you may be labeled one yourself. Once again, this all-familiar conflict between women exists as a by-product of our society and the patriarchal standards ingrained within us. Women, as well as men, participated in the assertion that women were more likely to be witches and that they were more vulnerable to the influence of the devil, only further perpetuating this damaging stereotype.
The chapter in history of women as witches has not yet drawn to a close. Instead, it is ever-present in our society in ways that we might not even perceive it. Intelligent and powerful women such as female politicians are often labeled as witches and even portrayed as them by opposing parties and on social media. The continuation of this harmful label reinforces centuries of prejudice against women, both questioning and undermining their competency and capability. We need to recognize and critique the damage of this characterization so that we may pave the way for a more inclusive future rather than default to a label and depiction that is deeply entrenched in an intolerant past.