Just in time for Halloween, the New York Historical Society’s Center for Women’s History (of which I am Associate Director) opened a new exhibit, “The Salem Witch Trials: Calculation and Recovery,which is on view until January 22. Originally organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., the exhibit features original artifacts from individuals affected by the 1692 witch trials and two creative responses from contemporary artists of Salem descent. The juxtaposition invites viewers to question their assumptions about the familiar story and search for new meanings, including thinking about how generations of women’s rights activists have viewed the witch-hunt story as a call to challenge gender norms.
In 1692, in Salem and elsewhere in early America and the Atlantic world, witches were believed to have made a pact with Satan to unleash “maleficia” – or harmful magic – upon their communities, causing disease, misery and the death. Accusations were overwhelmingly leveled against women, especially those who were poor or older. Trials engaged the whole community as a form of popular entertainment and visible social control over women’s behavior and authority. The Salem trials stand out from other witch trials in colonial America because they were so deadly and extreme: in less than a year, 19 people were hanged, six others died in lawful custody, and hundreds were killed. suffered damaging legal charges.
But the defendants and their families did not passively accept their fate. During Elizabeth How’s (also spelled Howe) legal review, for example, the mother-of-six insisted, “If this was the last moment I was to live, God knows I’m innocent of anything of that nature.” Even after his execution, his family fought to restore his honor. Family members of the falsely accused began submitting petitions asking that their relatives’ convictions be overturned a few years after the trials, prompting the legislature to exonerate the falsely accused in 1711. How’s daughters, Abigail and Mary, were compensated shortly thereafter.
Over the following centuries, activists continued to point to Salem and other witch hunts as defining moments of injustice and misogyny. In 1893, Matilda Joslyn Gage – an ardent suffragist, abolitionist and advocate for Aboriginal rights who held more radical views than many of her contemporaries, including her former collaborators Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton – published a book, “Woman, Church and State,” who identified the stigma of the “witch” as a historical source of women’s oppression. Gage argued that the “extreme wickedness of womanhood” was “taught as a cardinal doctrine”, “witchcraft being regarded as [woman’s] the most powerful weapon” against Christian society. Gage denounced these beliefs and pointed out how the persecution of witchcraft produced acts of physical violence against women, as well as great psychological, spiritual, and economic damage. “It is impossible for us at the present time to conceive the terrible horror that descends on a family in which an accusation of witchcraft has come,” she writes.
Gage’s words resonated in the burgeoning field of women’s studies 80 years later. Amid the groundswell of the diverse and varied liberation movements of the 1960s, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English drew the attention of newly organized feminist activists and scholars to a centuries-old tradition of “wise woman” healers in their book 1973, “Witches, midwives and nurses.” These women, they said, held essential knowledge and skills that gave them stature at a time when women held very little formal power. As a result, from the 15th century, these women were branded “witches” by male religious and medical authorities, whose anger led to the spread of deadly witch hunts.
Although some of the historical details of the book are today debated, their polemical volume has been crucial to the growth of the reproductive health movement and to modern feminist claims of the “witch” as an archetype of resistance. Activists, who have recognized that stigma has been weaponized against women and other marginalized people who have refused to conform to societal expectations for centuries, have used the mantle of the ‘witch’ to draw attention on the ongoing struggles for women’s liberation.
In 1968, New York Radical Women activists, for example, founded the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH). The group’s first action was a demonstration “bewitching” Wall Street on Halloween: The group donned witch costumes and used street theater to protest patriarchy and capitalism. Their manifest said: “There is no ‘joining’ WITCH. If you are a woman and dare to look within yourself, you are a witch. You make your own rules.
Similarly, in 1976, the radical feminist and anti-capitalist collective Wages for Housework organized a May Day march in Naples, during which 3,000 women chanted: “Tremble, tremble, the witches are coming back, not to be burned but to get paid!
These claims have even emanated into pop culture. Yoko Ono responded to the derision she faced for her relationship with John Lennon with the lyrics, “Yes, I’m a witch…/I don’t care what you say/My voice is real/My voice says the truth/I don’t”. it’s not your habit.
Beyond metaphorically donning the mantle of the witch, some feminists of this period viewed witchcraft as an alternative to organized religion, which they increasingly identified as patriarchal. Women like Zsuzsanna Budapest and Starhawk reinterpreted nature-based Wiccan and Pagan beliefs, believed to have roots that predate Christianity, into new, fluid, non-dogmatic practices and belief systems. Like secular feminist “witches,” the new religious traditions of modern witchcraft have activism at their core. As journalist and Wicca practitioner Margot Adler said in 1979: “Craft is a religion historically designed in rebellion” that can only “be true to its nature as it pursues its ancient struggle against oppression.”
This philosophy continues to attract activists seeking spiritual communities today. Contemporary portrait photographer Frances F. Denny – whose ancestor was a Salem trial judge – recently interviewed 75 people from across the United States for her book, “Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America.” The spiritual healers, shamans, Wiccan high priestesses, neo-pagans, occultists, mystics, herbalists and activists she has photographed are claiming power on their own terms, subverting the taboo of witches in favor of a complex and holistic state of grounding in various spiritual traditions.
Some of Denny’s subjects define their practice in a way that is inseparable from their political identity. As Mya Spalter explains in the book, “Witchcraft informs my worldview. It is extremely political to believe in the unity of life on Earth. In another profile of the book, Leonore Tjia asserts: “In a culture as racist and patriarchal and transphobic and homophobic and materialistic as ours, if you do not see how radical and revolutionary witchcraft is, you have to wake up. . .”
As women’s hard-won and contested freedoms come under threat following the overthrow of Roe vs. Wade and the growing discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, this Halloween, perhaps we can put stereotypical costumes and depictions of witches aside – and instead watch how generations of activists have reclaimed the witch archetype to resist patriarchal control and resist injustice in their own lives.