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Women and Witchcraft: Persecution of the Powerless

In honor of Women's History Month, let's take a look at the history of witch hunts and myths surrounding the past.

Women always outnumbered men during Witch Hunts.

A "Witch Hunt," was any attempt made to find and punish individuals whose opinions are unpopular and thought to be a danger to society. When thinking of witch hunts from a historical standpoint, nearly everyone you ask will say their first thought is "The Salem Witch Trials," as it's arguably one of the most infamous cases of 'witch hysteria'. In this case, fourteen of the nineteen people found guilty of and executed for witchcraft were women.

Women were disproportionately found guilty of witchcraft over men, because witch hunts have always been about persecuting powerless and vulnerable groups. There were also several books published on witch-hunting starting in 1486 - and most of these books would state that women were far more prominent in witchcraft than men. In New England between 1638 and 1725, 78% of accused witches were female. The height of stereotypical witch hunts occurred in early colony days within Puritan communities; a religious community were women held almost completely powerless positions with no voice for themselves.

Women were easy targets when society was ruled completely by men. Step out of line, and you could be next. Having too much money could be viewed as sinful gains, while too little money showed bad character. Too many children? You made a deal with devil, but too few children? God must be punishing you for something. It was dangerous and life-threatening to be born a woman in these times, where you could easily be persecuted as part of a vendetta.

The Myths

Only the uneducated partook in witch hunt.

Most of the executions of "witches" during the middle ages were actually a result of political interests made by some of the most educated people of the time. Two prime examples of this are Agnes Bernauer and Joan of Arc. The later was executed as a witch in 1435 simply because the Duke of Augsburg couldn't accept her as his son's wife. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1491 because she was a threat to the English political and military interests.

It is true, however, that many accusers were uneducated lower class peoples - it was wealthy, powerful, and educated men were were the executioners. While anyone could make an accusation, only those in power had the ability to influence the masses and determine whether someone should live or die.

Witches were Burned at the Stake

Partially true.

Death by burning was considered the most successful method, there was also: hanging, strangling, beheading, and lynching. Many witches also died during the horrific tortures endured while being interrogated.

Witches were young, beautiful and red-haired women

There were cases where the accused were young red-haired women, but there are no court transcripts or witch-hunting books were a woman was accused of witchcraft based on her heir color. In fact, many executed witches were elder, middle-aged, disabled, or outcast women.

These women were also mostly uneducated, poor peasants living in vulnerable life situations. Defying the myth that witch's were also highly intelligent women with cast knowledge of medicines.

A Witch-hunt Was Not an Act of Gendercide

Notably the most dangerous misconception and myth in regards to witch-hunts. Officially, witch-hunts are not considered either a genocide against women or a gendercide, and even many scholars do not characterize it as such. Instead, we are given terms like "witch-craze," "witch epidemic," and "witch panic", which remove all responsibilities from the perpetrators and the system that committed these crimes again almost exclusively women.

Witch-hunts were a way of systemically cleansing womanhood. Most victims of accused witchcraft were women considered to be outcasts and unsuitable members of patriarchal society. They were viewed as a danger to society due to not meeting the societal standards.

Continuing to study this dark part of history as a crime of religious fanaticism instead of a consequence of systematic oppression, dehumanization, and violence against women is detrimental in the recording of women's history overall. The refusal to study this issue properly also put a damper of the root of women's issues we still face in today's society.


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