Witchcraft and Womanhood: Historical Misogyny and the "Evil" Woman
From Revered Healer to Fearsome Wretch
The witch stands as a powerful figure that appears in nearly every culture across the world. Once recognized as medicine healers, witches now conjure popular imageries of aging, ugly women who have vested powers in dark magic and trickster potions. The witch is depicted as evil and scornful, repressed and isolated, and must be contained by all means necessary. Between the 14th and 17th centuries, witch hunts spanned across early Europe and North American colonies. They were used to target practitioners of witchcraft with public accusations and violent persecutions. It is estimated that over 60,000 to 100,000 people were persecuted as witches during this period, with an overwhelming majority of these being women.
But who is the witch, and why were witch-hunts taken to the lengths that they were?
Historical representations of women as witches are deeply rooted in Medieval religious beliefs that portrayed women as morally weak, subordinate to men, and more likely to succumb to temptations by the Devil. Women were seen as sexually devious, tainted, and to have had an inherently evil nature to them that posed a political, religious, and sexual threat to Church and State.
Misogynistic narratives condemned the behaviours of ‘evil’ women as unnatural and disproportionately targeted women who did not conform to the social norms at the time. Unmarried or widowed women, peasant women, women over the age of 40, and those employed as healers and midwives were considered outliers to established society and, therefore, made perfect targets of widespread organized violence.
Witch hunts were fueled by misogynistic propaganda, particularly the Malleus Maleficarum text that explicitly identify women as witches and provides a detailed guide for hunting and persecuting them. It even declares, “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.”
While witch-hunts ended in the 17th century, it is worthwhile thinking about the role that misogyny and violence against women have in our world today. Contrary to belief, witch-hunts were not a panicked phenomenon that was born out of impulsive and irrational thought. Rather, these were calculated campaigns against women that were initiated, financed, and executed by Church and State. It was no coincidence that women were subjects of state-sanctioned terror under the guise of witchcraft then, nor is it a coincidence that women continue to endure patriarchal violence today in all its forms. Misogyny is more than an ideological belief held by individuals; it bleeds into our very systems and processes and creates devastating consequences for women. Now THAT is scary.