Even experts agree: the figure of the witch in history is a derogatory label for a strong, often economically independent, woman.
Men who fear strong women have always called them names. Donald Trump desperately hurling epithets at a competitor who is, by leagues, better qualified than he, is just the latest pathetic instance in millennia of malevolent monikers. When the human day was dawning, however, the condemnation carried a particularly wicked twist: they called us witches.
I remember being quite surprised when, back in 1986, the first cross-cultural historical book on women’s uprisings, Female Revolt: Women’s Movements in World and Historical Perspective (Janet Saltzman Chafetz, Anthony Gary Dworkin & Stephanie Swanson), opened with the premise that the first feminists were witches. But these experts set my thinking into a new path with their compelling argument that, before “organized feminism” (whatever that means), women who challenged the existing order necessarily stood alone against a patriarchy that was anchored not by a powerful state—because nations are a modern phenomenon—but against an impenetrable fusion of dynastic might and religious order. In a world that would accept concepts like “the divine right of kings,” the specter of a woman calling bullshit was pretty scary. Uttering the word “witch” neatly distills the thoroughly oppositional position represented by such a challenger, while also throwing the community into a paranoid spin and calling “no holds barred” on the retaliation. As history has too often shown, the naming of a “witch” carries a threat that “slut” can’t match.
Often, the fear of witches is grounded in what they are believed to know more than what they do. Their spell books, often also called grimoires or Book of Shadows, are as key to the witch symbology as black cats and broomsticks.
Soon after that, I was given three copies of The Mists of Avalon by three different people as Christmas gifts. I took that as A Sign. One winter evening, I said to myself, “OK, give this book thirty minutes.” I sat down on the sofa with a cup of tea—and got back up hundreds of pages later. The story is a page-turner, to be sure, but the central conceit, retelling the legend of King Arthur from the perspective of his half-sister, the enchantress Morgan Le Fay, unfolds brilliantly as a complex struggle between world orders: the ancient goddess-worshipping feminine way of life by supplanted by a new militaristic, Christian, and masculine one. The novel allowed me to see that the appearance of a “witch,” much like the appearance of a prophet or messiah, presents a dramatic fulcrum against which an entire social structure might be tipped over.
Fast-forward a few more years. My daughters are growing up in a world where The Craft has turned witchcraft into a teen girl fad. Liza, especially, rents Practical Magic from Blockbuster about once a month, never misses Charmed, haunts new “occult” shops catering to the young, and dabbles, along with a few friends, in casting circles and throwing spells. At one point, we place a life-size cutout of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in our living room. (Yes, ok, I was an indulgent mother.) We are living in a small Midwestern town that, outside the university, is populated with zealots and rednecks whose personal vision of Armageddon is teen girls breaking the rules. People start to make trouble with Liza—testimony that there really is too little to do in town—and I begin to look more closely at the magic.
Cosmetic manufacture, with its roots in herbalism, is a close cousin to witchcraft, but also a potent source of entrepreneurial activity. Helena Rubinstein is only one among quite a few female entrepreneurs who started making small batches of cosmetics and turned the products into an empire. Others include Elizabeth Arden, Germaine Monteil, Estee Lauder, Bobbie Brown.
I did find the whole phenomenon fascinating. And since I was just starting the research for Fresh Lipstick, I had a good excuse to dig deep. You see, before the 20th century, the practice of making cosmetics was often an “income-generating activity” (as they say now in economic development) for women. If you had the knowledge, the craft could be practiced from your kitchen, using herbs and roots from the garden. Not infrequently, the maker of cosmetics also made medicines, perfumes, poisons—and potions for a variety of lifestyle applications. Someone making their living like that, however, was vulnerable to reinterpretation. One sharp remark or sidelong glance and “poof!” you became a witch. I learned from my research on early New England that the Puritan fear of witches—most famously manifest in the Salem Witch Trials—was sometimes aimed at a lonely old woman living on the edge of the community, but was much more often focused on females who were making a successful go at a commercial enterprise. I am not kidding. This is from the court records. (All you entrepreneurs out there must now own your pointed hats.) At the time, this knowledge was a convenient finding for Fresh Lipstick, but I did not fully appreciate the threat to patriarchy that a successful businesswoman poses until I started studying the impact of female entrepreneurship in rural communities in the developing world.
In John Liston Byam Shaw’s version of Jezebel, the focus is, predictably, on her toilet (thus telegraphing her vain corruption), rather than her power as a leader, especially of religion, which is what really galled the Hebrews about her.
In the Puritan mindscape, the apotheosis of nasty womanhood was Jezebel of the Old Testament. A Phoenician princess who married the king of Israel, Jezebel installed her own religion as the national faith and set up hundreds of prophet guilds to maintain it. She also killed as many prophets of Israel as she could find. The Phoenician custom was to install a royal woman as the administrator of the temples, but the Hebrew tradition, patriarchal to its core, did not allow women to have so much power and visibility. The Biblical story culminates in Jezebel dressing as a queen (thus wearing makeup, a common marker of privilege in historical cultures) to meet with the Hebrew leader, then being thrown from a window and eaten by dogs. It’s a nasty ending, as is unfortunately often the case for witches. But the combination of face-painting, heresy, and uppity womanhood was a tidy little package of feminism that has offended the bejesus out of traditional Christianity in America ever since. Her name has been used to define any woman who is beautiful and dangerous, from film to the popular press—and now denotes the fun and very edgy feminist site, Jezebel.
“Jezebel” was a name attached to a more serious leader of early American opposition, Anne Hutchinson of the Antinomian controversy and one of the founders of Rhode Island (where I now live). Like Jezebel, Hutchinson dared to preach a different religion than the one sanctioned by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She was arrested, tried, and banished to the wilderness. The transcript of her trial reveals an articulate woman, utterly true to her own vision and unafraid of the powerful men who judged her. Hutchinson gave birth to 13 children, but had two miscarriages of malformed fetuses, which, of course, gave the Puritan patriarchs all the proof they needed that she was the pawn of Satan. Hutchinson and others of the Antinomian Heresy survived exile and founded what would become a new state, largely because of the kindness of the Narragansett tribe who lived near what is now Providence. However, when Hutchinson and her children were killed in a brutal Siwanoy raid in 1643, the founding fathers in Massachusetts could only crow about how blessed they were to be rid of her. Kindly Christian men that they were and all. Today, however, Hutchinson is recognized as an early leader for the religious freedom that became such a core tenet of American philosophy, as well as a protofeminist.
My neighbors thought I was wrong to allow my daughter to dabble in spells and circles. But I knew what she and her friends were doing (largely because they were casting their circles on my back deck) and it was actually a lot like the Girl Scouts, very earth-oriented and joyful. Certainly, this was a more wholesome activity than watching a never-ending string of videos or calling boys only to hang up–which is what they otherwise would have been doing on a Saturday night. And there is something charming, poignant, and hopeful in allowing your child the possibility there might be magic in the world.
American history has its shady and glamorous witches, as well. “Marie Laveau” was a name used by an early 19th century Haitian vodou priestess, as well as her daughter. The two of them, successively, held New Orleans in thrall for more decades than a natural life could then span. They allegedly made their living by making hair-dressing house calls to the city’s elite, which not only gave them close contact (and, no doubt, the opportunity to collect personal samples for magical use), but access to information that could later be used in a fortune-telling ruse. They held public rituals that drew massive crowds. Indeed, “Marie Laveau” epitomizes a core principle of successful witching: the power of a witch is really the ability to make others believe you are more than you seem—and the theater of it is everything.
One of the most infuriating witch narratives is the tale of Mary Ellen Pleasant. A light-skinned daughter of mixed race parents, Pleasant was born a slave and, once freed, became an indentured servant. After she worked off her indenture, Pleasant ran to San Francisco, where she “passed” as white for years. Once there, she opened a chain of upscale boarding houses, made smart investments, and ended up with a fortune said to be $30 million dollars in the currency of the time (many more millions now). Throughout her life, Pleasant was involved in the Underground Railroad, helping slaves to reach freedom by passing them along this secret trail of safe houses, but also giving a great deal of money to the cause. Then, one day, she decided to identify herself as a black woman in the census. She went instantly from being a respected and popular local leader to being a despised creature—and, of course, said to be a witch. Mary Ellen Pleasant is now a set feature of San Francisco Halloween tours, but in African-American history, she is revered.
My favorite American witch is Victoria Woodhull. She was born into pure riff-raff, a traveling medicine show family that crossed American selling bogus treatments and telling fraudulent fortunes. (When young, she was arrested in Chicago on the charge of “fraudulent fortune-telling,” a tautology that makes me laugh every time I think about it.) As young adults, Victoria and her sister set up shop as the first female brokers on Wall Street. They became extremely successful using their “magic” to make investments—as successful as chimps throwing darts, I suppose—and soon were famous as “the Bewitched Brokers of Wall Street.” The fame propelled Victoria to run for President (150 years before Hillary Clinton) and to publish her own newspaper. She also became a leader in the Spiritualist movement, a popular religion in the 19th century (but still very much around today), that claimed to prove life after death by talking to spirits (and even weirder other-worldly means). Woodhull was both one of the richest women in America and an advocate for “free love,” living openly with two men at the same time. And, in her day, she was, hands down, the best known feminist in America.
Far from the unsightly hag of Halloween pictures, Victoria Woodhull was thought to be gorgeous by contemporaries and many historical accounts tell of how compelling her personal presence was. As an orator, she could rattle rafters and open pockets. Even Susan B. Anthony was moved by her. Yet, after she exposed a sex scandal involving a leading Puritan minister in her popular newspaper, even the feminist movement turned against her. She then became the first person ever jailed under the Comstock Laws, the infamous statutes against “obscenity” that were also used to incarcerate Margaret Sanger. She fled the country with her sister. Then she married money and her sister nobility in England. Which just goes to show that when you tie stones to them, some witches do float.
Nova was three months old when Liza came to visit. Since we were just up the road–and we love this stuff–we drove up the road to the Salem Witch Museum.
The tradition continued. In the Second Wave, one of the most publicized activist groups was the Witches International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell. W.I.T.C.H. famously set up a demonstration on Wall Street, dressed as witches to throw hexes at passersby. (See the new article in Advertising & Society Review, “Uppity Women Unite: Marketing the Women’s Movement in America,” by Astrid Van Den Bossche and me, as well as the post by Astrid.)
In the 1980s and 1990s, Wicca, a feminist religion based on a reinterpretation of witchcraft and ancient “pagan” practice, emerged as the fastest growing New Age following in America, with the core moral principle “Whatever You Do, Harm None.” Though Wicca had been originally formulated in the England during the 1950s, as an alternative “occult” religion, its American rebirth was taken up by leftist activists and became explicitly feminist and political. Starhawk, the 21st century’s best-known witch and a serious environmentalist, founded the Reclaiming movement, a vibrant American offshoot of Wicca, in 1979 in San Francisco. Reclaiming grew into a network of activist “cells,” focused especially on the environment and against unequal capitalism, but always explicitly feminist. Both men and women can be “priestesses” in Reclaiming. Both sexes also self-identify using the word “witch”—and they will explain to you straightforwardly that the word packs the powerful punch of a person who stands in opposition to entrenched and exclusive powers. And, by the way, the word scares the socks off right-wing religious fanatics, thus having the desired impact on the movement’s biggest adversaries. (Obviously, the use of other terms like “cell” are chosen for the same intended effect.)
So, you can see that witches, like nasty women, are smart, stand up for their beliefs, and don’t take any guff off Donald Trump or others like him. They are also often leaders and economically successful. So, let’s distill a few lessons from their history.
Happy Halloween to all you nasty women, witches, heretics, entrepreneurs, persons of influence, powerful presences, and general do-gooders. This is the biggest ritual of the pagan year. Let it rip.