I recently attended a virtual lecture from the scholar and feminist activist Silvia Federici about her book Caliban and the Witch. Professor Federici researched the European witch hunts because she wanted to understand the causes of the particular forms of discrimination that women have suffered in capitalist society and how they could be traced back to pre-industrial societies. She wrote about how the witch hunts functioned to degrade the place and work of women and colonized people. Witches represented “female subjects that capitalism had to destroy: the heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife, the woman who dared to live alone, the obeha woman who poisoned the master’s food and inspired the slaves to revolt.” Caliban and the Witch argues that the trials stripped women of their bodily autonomy and repositioned women to perform the unpaid reproductive labor required to fuel capitalism.
I find it both horrifying and meaningful to try to understand what was done to justify the oppression of women and colonized people. The European witch hunts began when new laws were issued in the 15th century that made being a ‘witch’ a punishable heresy. Anybody could accuse anybody of being a witch. Being poor, a widow, unmarried, a healer, a midwife, having children out of wedlock or being disliked could be enough evidence to be accused of being a witch. In Salem, women’s proximity to indigenous people was used as a reason to cast suspicion on them of falling under the influence of the devil. Even language was used as a weapon to destroy female solidarity, did you know that the term ‘gossip’ used to refer to women friends or midwives?
Women were portrayed as being weaker, more animal-like and therefore more susceptible to being seduced by the Devil than men as the practice of witch trials spread. 75% of the victims were women. It was institutionalized femicide.
Federici reminds her listeners that the tactics used to oppress women in the past; such as religious and social control, are still being used in the service of capitalism. Women’s reproductive rights are still under attack. Women are also being accused of witchcraft in parts of Africa and South America in areas where land is being appropriated for commercial use.
Thinking about this makes me wonder – how might our lives have been different if the witch hunts did not happen? What is considered ‘heresy’ today and what can I do to combat it? How can we remember and revindicate the victims of the witch trials?? What aspects of how ‘witches’ were persecuted do I want to honor and reclaim? And how?
If you’d like to learn more about Caliban and the Witch, this interview with Federici is so long and so good! You can also read about the witch trials in the Netherlands.