Witches to Bitches: Why Powerful Women are Feared
© Illustration by INJECTION - Alicia Lupieri
During the 15th-18th century, any woman that subverted the Christian pagan values were accused of witchcraft. They could have been too rich. Too intelligent. Too female. Today, despite an attempt to reclaim the word, women that hold authority are labelled Witches.
The Witch narrative against powerful women has existed for centuries now. During the 2016 elections a plethora of memes surfaced online showing Hilary Clinton painted in green, captioned as the ‘Wicked Witch of the Left’. ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ charted to #2 in 2013 following the death of Margaret Thatcher and resurfaced after Hilary Clinton lost to Donald Trump in 2016. Oval Office tapes overheard Richard Nixon branding former female president of India, Indira Ghandi, an “Old Witch” in 1971. A cartoon of Angela Merkel reached virality in 2016, showing her tossing the Bundesadler into a cauldron beneath the European Union stars. In fact, if you search up any famous female politician next to the word Witch you are likely to find derogatory memes with little to none of the sort for their male counterparts.
Historical Witch Hunts
Witch-hunts were conducted from the 15th-18th century with thousands of women accused and massacred, for tedious reasons, attacking any women who held threat to the idyllic Christian Puritan values. Women were to be mothers, caregivers and ultimately subservient to men. Any woman that subverted this agenda was a witch. They could have been too rich, too intelligent, too female. The history of Witch-hunting is extensive and quite frankly disturbing. Societies most marginalised and vulnerable were accused. Men too were accused of witchcraft but not on the same level of women and many of the accusations would have some sort of link to female affiliates of who was also accused. Women over the age of 40 were more likely to be accused, linking to their dwindling fertility. Poorer women were accused because they often lacked the protection of a wealthy male. When women broke out of their prescribed roles, they were burdened with the accusation of Witchcraft. Too many children, too few children. Overall, it was poor prosperity and protruding the rigid social rules that led to an accusation of Witchcraft.
The Fear Mongering of Female Sexuality
‘Where there are many women, there are many Witches’
The Malleus Maleficarum was the notoriously revised handbook of Witch-hunting in the late 15th century and is also thought to be a crucial contributor in the gendering of Witchhood to women. The Malleus Maleficarum (which translates to the ‘Hammer of Witches’) was a highly salacious and misogynistic work that was an attack on the debilitating power of female sexuality. There were 3 types of women that were likely to become witches according to the Malleus Maleficarum. Midwifes, adulterers and fornicators. Notably, all 3 have connections to sexuality which arose from a fear of female sexual desire and liberation. Visual art also helped spread the archetype of the Witch across the population in early centuries, provoking a fear of other-worldly women. This form of visual art was highly sexual and represented a voyeuristic interest in female sexuality as well as arguably a deep-seated lesbian sexuality- which threatened their own.
Witches and Pop-Culture
Witches resurged into pop-culture as a reflection of the troubles women face in the real world as well as a response to the deep-rooted misogyny that exists in our society. Film and literature is now filled with witches and ethereal women and as an archetype, has been harnessed to enforce feminist agenda. Programmes such as Bewitched (which notably was released 1 year after the release of Betty Friedan’s feminist mystique) subverted the traditions of 90’s comedy sitcoms by featuring a magical, lead female protagonist- arguably making Samantha one of the most powerful female characters in sitcom history. CW’s charmed reboot sees the three sisters discover that they are incredibly powerful witches, with the pilot episode ending with them conquering a college professor found guilty of sexual assault. American Horror Stories ‘Coven’ deals with a similar plotline with Emma Roberts’ character destroying a bus full of males that sexually assaulted her and throughout the show, the representation of female witches is overtly feminist throughout. The Witch archetype is used as an attempt to go against the patriarchal values of society- with ‘magic’ as a weapon to defeat them. Hence the use of magic in defeating sexual predators throughout witch-based TV. Not only have Witches prevailed into TV and film but the celebrity world now has a miscellany of self-proclaimed Witches as well as practitioners of crystal healing and witchcraft. Once Upon a Time actress Gabrielle Anwar identified herself as a pagan in 2007 whilst Lana Del Rey told NME that she used witchcraft to place a hex on former US President Donald Trump. i-D magazine also features a whole section on Witches, branding Gen-Z ‘generation witch’. What was once a title so feared by women has been reclaimed to enforce feminism's agenda, making the ‘Witch’ both matronly and trendy.
The emergence of ‘Feminist Witches’ as a sub-culture of the feminist movement allows the archetype to be used as a symbol of female empowerment. Feminist manifestos and the Witch Archetype popularised during the 20th century and American suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gate unmasked the 21st century witch trials for what they truly were. Any women that possessed any idiosyncrasies were immediately accused of witchcraft. This literature can be accredited to the commencement of the ‘Good Witch’ paradigm. Notably, novelist L. Frank Baum was the son-in-law of Joslyn Gage and in his novel The Wizard of Oz, was clearly influenced by this alternative angle on witchcraft. The ‘Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy From Hell’ (W.I.T.C.H) came about in 1968, harnessing the Witch paradigm for political action. WITCH conducted coordinated acts of radical feminism through guerrilla theatre protests and public demonstrations. Additional strategies used by WITCH included the hexing of the NY stock exchange and the protesting the firing of a feminist professor by sending hair and nail clippings to the college at which it happened. Members of WITCH belonged to a subset of second wave feminism that sought to expose capitalism as the true enemy of women as opposed to men. Author Tish Thawer wrote the phrase in her 2015 novel ‘The Witches of BlackBrook’ the infamous quote “We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn” which has been plastered on t-shirts and feminist merch as you may call it. The rebranding of the Witch as a political weapon is highly powerful in the emancipation of women’s rights.
Despite the rebranding of Witches, it is still commonplace for women within the media and political world to be labelled as a Witch with intended negative connotations. In Kristen J. Sollee’s book “Witches, Sluts, Feminists”, Sollee says that ‘Witch is the most evil name for a woman who doesn’t submit to patriarchal power’. This asks the question as to whether the Witch can truly be reclaimed. Women are using it as a political force yet full reclamation is not a perfect process and the connotations of powerful women as wicked witches still lingers.