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Gender and Feminism


Feminism is usually considered to be a fight of women for equal rights and opportunities. Such a struggle was connected to gender roles which were ascribed to males and females from birth. There have always been people who rebelled against this established order and initiated a fight for the change of woman’s status in the society. Now these individuals are called feminists, but several centuries ago they were labeled as witches and accused of sorcery. This paper will explore the issue of feminism in the context of debates about witchcraft and gender, which have been shaped by the influence of witchcraft historiography. It will also draw parallels between first early modern, and then contemporary witchcraft accusations, as well as trials and female movement for equal rights and freedoms.

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Connection between feminism and witch hunt

Witch hunt is considered to be one of the greatest and most notorious feminist stories. According to Lavack, it could be defined as “an act of an unjust search and subsequent punishment of individuals who are accused of having opinions which are considered to be dangerous”. This is a contemporary definition of an outrageous practice of killing females who were standing out and were not afraid to show their individuality. Witch, a name commonly ascribed to them, was a woman who was hated and blamed for all misfortunes. These females were always in a way related to spiritual practices. In the ancient times, they were members of pre-Christian agrarian cult. This fact only proved the theory that the witch hunt was an effort of the church to eradicate pagan religion and its worshipers. But witches were not always regarded evil. In pre-Christian times they were the ones who gave the best advice, cooked potions which healed diseases, helped in giving birth and even assisted in generating harvest. But those were very different times, and not only in respect to women-witches, but also to the other females. In pagan ages women were revered and respected as important pillars of societal lives. They were not only mothers, wives, but also community leaders, physicians, sources of wisdom and strength. The roles females were given were very much different from the one’s men performed, but they were definitely equally important.

The concept “witch” has to be clearly defined in order to avoid further confusion. According to Rountree, she was “a self-possessed woman who is in control of her life”. Obviously it resonates with feminism in some way. Nevertheless, the line has to be drawn between female archetype and a witch. The former gets power from other people. They are mothers, daughters, queens who are potent due to their relations to others. The witch, on the other hand, has power unto herself. She draws it from something greater, like nature, but also has strength within herself.

Feminism as a movement exists far longer than anyone may imagine. Its origins may be traced to Lilith, the woman who was considered to be the first wife of Adam. It is believed that she did not want to submit to him and therefore left her husband. The second spouse of Adam is also viewed as one of the most ancient feminists. By tasting the prohibited fruit, Eve not only became the first sinner in the history, but also the first human to protest against something she did not like. This story portrays one of the first demonstrations of the evil female sexuality. There are many cases when historical fiction and mythology demonize women. For instance, mermaids have long been viewed as beautiful females who seduced sailors by their voices with a malicious intent. Even though males tried to cover their ears to resist, these mythological creatures still dragged them down and drowned. Femme fatal story is another example of how women are demonized in folklore. They were considered to be evil vampires who seduce men, suck their blood, and kill them using sexuality. This is only one of many examples when female power of seduction is viewed as a cause of a disaster. All of them are early prototypes of witches who were massively persecuted between 15th and 18th centuries.   

Feminism representation in early modern witch hunt

The spread of witch hunt in Europe between 15th and 18th centuries deprived women of power they historically possessed. Since approximately 90 percent of the persecutions’ victims were females, it may be considered as an attack against womanhood. This tendency could be explained by the fact that women were linked more readily than men with negative beliefs about the practice of harmful magic and association with the devil. Also, it could be because systems of power in communities and courts worked rather against women than men. Elderly, poor and unmarried females were more vulnerable to accusations. Especially bad reputation was ascribed to spinsters – old women who had no kids or husband. This fact creates a direct link between persecutions of witches and feminism. Women were primarily punished because they allegedly constituted a threat to the patriarchal authority. Therefore, it is not unreasonable that many scholars named witch hunt “holocaust of women” or “gynocide”. The distrust, suspicion and paranoia, which penetrated every aspect of life in the early modern times, was connected to superstitions and religious fears. Fear of female sexual power persisted in this period. It was believed that they were a weaker sex therefore more susceptible to corruption by devil. By means of accusing women of witchcraft men allegedly tried to control their sexuality and make them subordinate again. It is worth noting that cases of women accusing other women were not rare during witch trials.

Radical feminist accounts of witch hunts portray them as brutal means by which patriarchy exerted control over women and aimed at curbing the perceived threat posed to men’s dominance of early modern society by women’s allegedly predatory sexuality. Females had a possibility to dominate because of many reasons. Firstly, they possessed extensive medical skills and many of them were midwives. Secondly, women still had power as priestesses of the surviving pre-Christian fertility cults. Finally, females could pose a challenge to men in the economic sphere. All of the above mentioned facts precipitated witch hunts. The horrors of legal procedures used against the accused women, especially the excessive torture and burning of the condemned witches at the stake, may be viewed as a crime against womanhood.

Feminism representation in contemporary witch hunt

The currently unfolding feminism is at the same time similar and different from the one happening between the 17th and 18th centuries. For many people the word feminism evokes an image of bra-burning, angry LGBT representatives who desire a downfall of powerful men. It is also often viewed as an antisocial behavior motivated by repressed desires and unachieved ambitions. This is how the opponents of feminism subjectively see it. But in reality it is not necessarily so dramatic.

Even though witchcraft is a rather archaic term, it still occurs in the modern society which is not completely devoid of superstitions. Africa is a place which frequently appears in the media in relation to magic practicing and witch hunt. For instance, Swaziland has recently announced a ban on witches flying on broomstick higher than 150 meters. Angola, Nigeria, Gambia are countries where children are accused of being witches. Just recently, a mother and her two daughters were accused of sorcery and held captive.

Contemporary feminism started actively developing in the 70s. Women who restarted a fight for equality with men during that decade felt an extreme affinity to witches burnt at stake or hanged in the 17th century by Puritan conservatives. It may be explained by the fact that the common bond of persecution and societal unacceptance became symbolic for modern freedom fighters. One of the rights feminists wanted to reclaim was a female place in the medicine which was taken from them since their ancestors were considered to be evil witches who only do harm in medicine. Midwives and healers in particular, were often blamed for problems they were asked to help with. Modern feminists started a fight because of the historic evidence of female healers’ effectiveness. They claimed that childbirth has always been successfully monitored by midwives and that witches were once the best healers. These two professions were discredited by the church, which argued that lethal consequences are always a fault of women.

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In the 90s the emphasis shifted to understanding feminism as fight for individuality rather than change in interpretation of historical facts. The upsurge of the Goddess movement also started in this period. It draws inspiration from several earth-based matriarchal religions which embraced nature as well as witchcraft. Most certainly it did not involve devil worshipping, hurting or cursing people, Satanism, desecration of church objects, blood drinking and baby-killing. The premise of the Goddess movement was more about care for earth and its living creatures. The Goddess movement was closely related to paganism witchcraft, which celebrated the mystery of female sexuality. It strongly argued that witchcraft was and is a component of feminine activity. Goddess movement representatives stated that history has to be rewritten in terms of female oppression witch hunt actually was. Modern feminists were encouraged to rediscover their great inner goddess. But most importantly pagan religion and witchcraft reappeared in the feminist movement because of their close relation to ecology, sacredness of living creatures and environmental concerns.

Gender issue in witch hunt

Accounts of witch hunt in early modern times often focus on “Malleus maleficarum”, the demonological treatise written by the Dominican inquisitor Henrich Kramer as an evidence of misogyny among elites who are seen as a driving force behind a top-down persecution of witches. Kramer chose the term “maleficarum” or “female evildoers” for the title of his work not accidentally. In answering the question “Why are there more workers of harmful magic found in the female sex than among men?” he replied “because of fleshly lust which in women is never satisfied”. Tis example of a male opinion is highly mysoginistic and is obviously directed against women as a gender.

Midwives were occasionally persecuted for witchcraft, but they were far more likely to assist in the prosecution of infanticide than to find themselves accused of using witchcraft to kill the infants they delivered.

Witch craft is not gender-specific but it is gender related. Demonization of witches has always been closely related to the fact that they were females. Disobedient and independent woman who was not conforming to social norms was not corresponding to responsibilities assigned to her as a mother and a wife. Therefore, ostracizing and destroying every manifestation of females’ indiscipline and insurgence was a primary aim of witch hunt. Witchcraft can be viewed as an early form of feminism which was a sort of response to the female oppression in the society.


To conclude with, witchcraft accusations and trials were first manifestations of an attempt to subdue female movement for rights’ equality. The so called witches may be viewed as the primary victims of the feminist protest which aimed at reestablishment of the female, gender dictated role in the society. The feminist struggle still continues and it will not end until all women feel that they are appreciated and valued to the extent they deserve it.

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