The Modern Day Witch

Francesca Verge is a first year International Relations student at KCL. She loves music, her dog and is interested in languages, having grown up in a multicultural family. She hopes to help the empowerment of women around the world, and was inspired by a high school anthropology class on gender theory. 

[Featured Image: Three faces from the nose down, each peeling silver duct tape off of each of their mouths. This is painted in water colour.]

Witches are typically something we associate with fairy tales and Salem. However, calling women ‘witches’ in an accusatory way is more common in today’s society than you think. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was called a witch by Michael Savage, a conservative radio talk show host. When Julia Gillard was elected as Prime Minister of Australia in 2011, there were rallies with images depicting her as a witch. Hillary Clinton, in both her 2008 and 2016 presidential campaigns, was vilified and endured endless depictions as a witch. Upon Margaret Thatcher’s passing, the reoccurring response from her media opposition was “ding dong the witch is dead.” Even the President of the United States, Donald Trump, tirelessly uses the term ‘witch hunt’ and has called both Nancy Pelosi and Stormy Daniels witches. 

Curiously, the traditionally male counterpart, ‘wizard’, doesn’t have the same negative connotation. In children’s books, wizards are good and help save the realm, while witches are those that aim to corrupt it. Today, men are called wizards when they break the mold: ‘technology wizards, ‘finance wizards’ all very positive terms. That same action of breaking the mould is detrimental for women. She is a witch when she fails to conform, and the term is an accusation, rather than a praise. Women are magic, but calling women ‘witches’ is highly problematic. 

The most memorable use of the term perhaps is Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings to become Supreme Court Justice, where Dr. Christine Blasey Ford brought forth a sexual assault allegation against Kavanaugh. For me, these hearings represented a challenge to society, to see how far we had really progressed, to see if we were past the ‘witch hunt’ mentality. To my disappointment, Kavanaugh began his opening statement by accusing democrats and the left of conducting a ‘witch hunt’, victimizing himself. 

The modern day ‘witch’ is a woman who comes forward with sexual assault allegations against a powerful and influential man. The old narratives and attitudes surrounding witches in the seventeenth century have been recontextualized into a twenty-first century threat – and the rise of the MeToo movement has increasingly identified this as a woman’s accusation threatening a man’s reputation. There are clear similarities between societal ostracizing of ‘witches’ during the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 and how today’s media ostracizes victims of sexual misconduct. By using the term ‘witch’, we dehumanize the woman and put the blame on her and her ‘witch like qualities’ rather than the perpetrator. In short, we classify the victims’ problems and grievances as inherently non-human. Instead of calling them witches, why can’t we listen and believe?

During the late 1600’s in New England, Puritans started to reject the inclusion of female religious leaders, labeling them as witches that needed to be exterminated. The Puritan clergy were convinced that people who practiced ‘witchcraft’ were possessed. Soon, any hardship or illness was believed to be a result of witchcraft. Even the story of Eve as the original sinner, seen by some as ‘satan’s first human ally’, was projected onto Puritan women. Writer Maggie Rosen reveals that “there was no discrimination based on gender when it came to having supernatural abilities and there are no records to indicate that more women than men practiced witchcraft. The discrepancy lies in the accusations and convictions of witches. This disparity can be explained by the compulsory gender norms of the puritan society and the women who defied them. Having little autonomy and agency, women were easy targets for blame.” Typically these women were unconventional for their time: childless, unmarried, poor or widows. None of the women were valued citizens, and thus were unlikely to be believed if they denied their accusers. We can trace this same kind of dynamic of disbelief and disadvantage to the one that modern ‘witches’ face today. 

When the MeToo movement took off, the pushback was reminiscent of the treatment of ‘witches’ in Salem; even with multiple accusers showing a pattern of behavior, women grouping together and speaking out is discredited by saying that they are after money or a reputation. Instead of validating the victim’s story and recognizing her as an equal to the accused, the victim is controlled by the image of a witch, perpetuating the devaluing of women’s voices and stories. 

Part of the problem is that victims are more often seen than heard. Few are listening because they are too busy judging what she was wearing, if she looked like she was ‘asking for it’, and if she is pretty enough to have experienced unwanted sexual advances towards her. We are unwilling to admit how irrelevant such details are. Even Puritan women of the 1600’s, who were covered head to toe in layers of clothing still experienced sexual misconduct – hence, clothing is irrelevant to sexual predators, and it’s about time we learn it. 

Many often miss the nuance in sexual misconduct allegations because the specifics are left out. Nondisclosure agreements may prohibit them, Human Resources or union rules may argue against them, leaving us with vague words such as ‘inappropriate workplace behavior’. Since the reporting is incomplete, it leaves much of it up for interpretation, making victims more vulnerable to critics and skeptics calling them ‘witches’. “Harassers often are able to create the narrative right off the bat,” said Nancy Erika Smith, the lawyer who represented Gretchen Carlson in her 2016 suit against Roger Ailes, which ultimately brought down the Fox News co-founder. After all, she pointed out, “How many victims have their own PR teams at the ready?”. As Charlotte Proudman writes in The Independent, “centuries ago, women were warned against non-conformity with the threat of public execution. Today, women who dare challenge the dysfunctional status quo do so at risk of public character assassination and ridicule.”

Instead of being burned at the stake or drowned, these women are today put on trial by the media with critics picking apart their story and exposing their past to distract from the allegation at hand. Charlotte Proudman writes that “demeaning women’s lived experiences to a witch hunt is a reactionary attempt to conceal structural inequality. The term is intentionally used to convey visceral images of hysterical women hunted, tried by death and burnt at the stake before their community”. Now the term is used to portray perpetrators of abuse as unwitting victims to a modern cult of feminists – these men are now defining themselves as victims. 

It’s time we learn to take women’s stories seriously. We can do this by holding perpetrators accountable and remembering that women coming forward with allegations isn’t a witch hunt, rather a long overdue grievance, dating back to the time of the Salem witch hunts, finally being brought to light. As Lindy West puts it, “we don’t have the justice system on our side; we don’t have institutional power; we don’t have millions of dollars or the presidency; but we have our stories and we’re going to keep telling them.”  

Sources: 

(This is a good opinion piece on the topic: NYT Opinion: Yes, This Is a Witch Hunt. I’m a Witch and I’m Hunting You.)

Image Source: Graciella Delgado, Peeling Back the Silence.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/movies/bombshell-takes-aim-at-fox-news-and-with-theron-and-kidman-headlining-hits-its-target/2019/12/17/51b24c32-1ea0-11ea-87f7-f2e91143c60d_story.html?arc404=true

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/03/sexual-assault-victims-newsnight-media-blaming-victims

https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2018/03/192115/salem-witch-trials-victims-date-history-march-1

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/is-sexual-harassment-just-a-witch-hunt-now-thats-absurd-and-heres-why/2018/01/26/b7bd0220-02bd-11e8-9d31-d72cf78dbeee_story.html

https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/westminster-sexual-harassment-assault-witch-hunt-sexism-misogyny-order-a8041566.html

https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2018/10/15/after-a-year-of-metoo-american-opinion-has-shifted-against-victims

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