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 ea