A misogynist insult in Washington and Westminster, a force for good in Hollywood … for centuries, witches have personified fear of assertive women. But why does the stereotype persist?
During the 2016 US presidential election, American social media was flooded with images of Hillary Clinton wearing a black hat and riding a broom, or else cackling with green skin. Her opponents named her The Wicked Witch of the Left, claimed they had sources testifying that she smelled of sulphur, and took particular delight in depictions of her being melted. Given that the last witch trial in the US was more than 100 hundred years ago, what are we to make of this?
In the late 19th century, the suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage asserted something revolutionary. The persecution of witches, she said, had nothing to do with fighting evil or resisting the devil. It was simply entrenched social misogyny, the goal of which was to repress the intellect of women. A witch, she said, wasn’t wicked. She didn’t fly on a broomstick naked in the dark, or consort with demons. She was, instead, likely to be a woman “of superior knowledge”. As a thought experiment, she suggested that for “witches” we should read instead “women”. Their histories, she intimated, run hand in hand.
Obviously, she was on to something. When we say witch, we almost exclusively mean woman. Sure, men have also been accused of witchcraft, but they are by far the minority. Further, the words used to describe men with magical powers – warlock, magus, sorcerer, wizard – don’t carry the same stigma.
A better parallel to “witch” is the word “whore”. Both are time-honoured tools for policing women, meant to shame them into socially prescribed behaviour. A whore transgresses norms of female sexuality; a witch transgresses norms of female power. Witches are often called unnatural because of their ability to threaten men. With her spells, a witch can transform you into a pig, or defeat you in battle. She can curse you, blight your crops, ignore you, refuse you, correct you. Punishing witches accomplishes two things: it ends the threat and makes others afraid to follow in the unruly woman’s footsteps.
Yet, despite all the attempts to stamp out witches, they are as strongly with us as ever, from Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch in the Avengers movies, to the recent film The Love Witch, to the television series American Horror Story, to non-fiction books such as Stacy Schiff’s The Witches: Salem, 1692. The stereotypical image of the witch – green skin, pointed hat, warts, black cat – has become entrenched, but beneath that surface lies a dazzling variety; a rich diversity of women who have frightened, possessed and inspired us over the centuries.