Women, Gender and Witchcraft

Why did neighbors or acquaintances launch accusations of witchcraft against particular persons?

Neighbors and acquaintances launched accusations of witchcraft against particular persons because according to Anthropologists, witches are defined as people whose behavior enacts the things that the community fears. This is one of the keys to understanding a society during this period and how they associated witchcraft to things they thought wrong or they were fearful of. Women were the most prominent of the accused, which caused a fear of “women-as-witches” epidemic during 1450-1750. Most of the women accused were moderately poor and were economically dependent on male members within their family. But, about 20% of accused women were impoverished and would often come before local town selectmen to sell their families land that was inherited to them in order to support themselves, place claims on their children or executors of their deceased husbands estates to get money, or even just to beg for food and basic necessitates. (Karlsen, 54)

Overall, neighbors and acquaintances would launch accusations of witchcraft on just about any woman from all levels of society because they were vulnerable and easy to target during this period. Karlsen lists many different examples of women accused, like wives, daughters, and widows of “middling” farmers, artisans, and mariners, and even women who belonged to the gentry class, which is the highest level of class. Accusations made on women who come from very wealthy estates were often ignored unless they were single or widowed, while accusations on married women from moderately wealthy families did not always have the easy way out unless their husbands testified on their behalf, and women with very low wealth estates were the most common of the accused. It was very common of husbands to act on behalf of their wives and slander their accusers in order to win over the jury. So, it’s a point to make that if you didn’t have a husband or you weren’t very wealthy back during the trials, you would have no protection against prosecution and would ultimately be tried for witchcraft. (Karlsen, 55)

What do you think this tells us about gender and about this time in American history?

When it comes to gender, neighbors and acquaintances launching accusations against women shows that women were most valuable during this period of history and men were held in a superior class above women and feared women taking power and gaining independence. Gender division was very prominent during this period, where men and women were expected to follow certain behaviors and ideals of this time. This takes us back to fear of “women-as-witches” epidemic and if a woman’s behavior enacts things that communities may have feared, she would easily be tried for witchcraft.  Women’s gender and inheritance was also targeted simply if the woman’s parents had no sons or their son has died, also women who gave birth to only daughters, and women who were in marriages with no children. Because of the fears, gender roles, and ideas that communities during this period believed in, women were most commonly the target for witchcraft accusations. (Karlsen, 60)

When it comes to looking back at this time in American history, it tells us a lot about how certain types of women were viewed within society, as well as how important wealth and land is to people because it ultimately defines their social statuses within their communities. It also showed how much communities valued religion and far they were willing to go to protect their colonies from the Devil and evil in general. Accused women who could not recite to Lord’s Prayer, even if they didn’t practice religion and refused, would be tried as witches. Additionally, it paints a picture of how naive people were about the law and how corrupt their court system was back then because “innocent until proven guilty” did not exist and women who were tried would be presumed guilty indefinitely. It’s crazy to see how our American history has changed throughout the centuries, as well as how more fair and civilized our judicial system has become.



Citations: Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Kerber, L. K., Sherron, D. H., Dayton, C. H., & Wu, J. T. (2016). Womens America: Refocusing the Past. New York (N.Y.): Oxford University Press.

9 thoughts on “Women, Gender and Witchcraft

  1. It was really interesting to me that the women who had gained property through inheritance and who were somewhat independent because of it, were a large majority of the women accused of witchcraft. Sometimes the accusations coming from other women lead me to think that they perhaps felt jealousy that they were not also more independent. And certainly jealousy from the men who had accused them, because they were now monetarily on a similar playing field.

    1. Interesting observation, Allison! I agree, it’s a pity that strong women, even back hundreds of years ago, were seen as threats to society. This “witch hunt” was a poorly disguised way to eliminate women who were independent or had desirable ownership of wealth/ property.

      1. Very good observation indeed. It’s a shame that women were thought of as such a threat to men and their communities that they needed to make such shocking accusations upon women who were completely innocent. These women just wanted to get ahead in life and make something of themselves, but some men during that period just couldn’t stand to see a woman be more successful then them and were ultimately accused and killed. My heart hurts for them.

      2. I agree it was messed up the way a “witch hunt” completely damaged most women’s chances of high success in a man ruled society back then, it is a good thing we have learned much from this and have transitioned to a society where all genders can be successful and are considered equal.

  2. What an interesting read! While I understand that women were the main targets and that the impoverished were the most prominent of the accused, I wonder what the mindset was behind this. I’m just thinking of this from a perspective of fear. If I feared change and women so much, I probably would have more of a basis to accuse prosperous women instead of the impoverished. The wealthy women probably had more of a chance to gain their independence compared to poor women, so I just find it an interesting thing to think about. Even when the wealthy were accused, as you stated, those accusations were mostly ignored unless they were single or widowed – suggesting that their connection to men is still important. The only other belief I can attribute this to is the hatred of the poor and the willingness to teach these poor women “a lesson”. After all, it’s not unheard of for people to hate the poor, and during this time, there was a probably a hatred for them for not being to fulfill their societal roles.

    It’s really unfortunate that women needed to marry into safety during the era of the witch trials and it is clear that the gender division was especially strong during this time. Women were hated so much that, for example, if they bore only daughters, they could be in danger. They had to be immensely careful and plan their steps very carefully if they wanted to make it out alive. I wonder if the women executed did just that and still met their dreadful demise. Thinking about the experiences and beliefs of the past that lead to the end of the innocent really just makes you wonder.

    I really like your point about the difference between the witch trial era’s judicial system and the modern judicial system. Is it possible that if “innocent until proven guilty” existed during that era, lives could have been saved? Would it even have made a difference if men held such a bias towards women?

    1. Nori i agree with you it was a very good blog post enjoyed reading it big time. I agree with you that it is really unfortunate that had to marry into safety they shouldn’t need to if they got proven to be Innocent they shouldn’t have to marry a man to protect themselves its ridiculous i don’t agree with it at all. Obviously it was a different time back then but still makes zero sense to me!
      Very good observation.

  3. It is so sad to think of how the women were treated by men in this time period. Independence was a scary thing for them to own for themselves, as they were made targets because of it. Society has come so far today, men and women genuinely own the same power for themselves. Women were seen plainly as a threat, to take over the jobs and duties of the men. Today, women can do just about anything a man can do, and that folks is the plain evolution of history.

  4. It’s interesting that women were seen as witches. A society that is so based in religion, to call someone a “witch” implies some sort of magic or voodoo. I think this is interesting because some religions take away that belief of someone having a higher power, other than god itself. Seems like a contradiction to me. Also, the scary part to me is that even if you weren’t a revolutionary or activist you could fall into the situation of being tried. Not all the women who were tried for witchcraft were trying to rise up against society. You could be a normal person in society and if your husband died, you have a high likelihood of being arrested. Thankfully some women stood up and fought for the truth.

  5. Such an informative read! I never knew how corrupt and misogynistic these witch hunts were, as I was taught a completely different version in middle and high school. I think it’s important for everyone to know the true story behind this sexist, tragic period of early American history, not only to learn from mistakes made in the past, but to further prove the point that men have always been trying to control women throughout history. I also like how you brought up the point that “innocent until proven guilty” was not a concept back then. It makes me wonder how many lives would have been saved if the judicial system relied on this; most of the “evidence” that was used against the accused would never be valid in today’s society.

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