The idea behind what it means to be a witch has been misconstrued for as long as time has told its tale. For example, during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, witches were often believed to be women possessed by the devil. This is a belief found in Carol F. Karlsen’s “The Devil in the Shape of a Woman” essay which will be thoroughly discussed here. Women who were accused and tried as witches in the courts were often executed for their perceived crimes against humanity. In addition, these women had similar economic backgrounds which suggests that there was an economic basis for this belief.
After the Salem Witch Trials, the stories of witches have evolved into different tales. Many tales of Hallow’s Eve will describe witches as ugly, green monsters who wear pointed hats and create spells in their cauldrons, flying on broomsticks and causing chaos. In Modern America, however, witches are not at all like their fictitious tales. They don’t worship the devil or make dastardly sacrifices like one might believe, but instead many witches honor nature and celebrate the seasons. Some may cast spells or charms, but it is nothing like the old tales.
The era of witch trials from ~400 years ago are drastically different when compared to the modern era. You might be wondering why things are so different today and why women were often executed for accused witchery, but are now free to practice witchcraft as they please. Let’s delve a little deeper to find the answers!
Why did neighbors or acquaintances launch accusations of witchcraft against particular persons?
During this time, communities often defined witches as people whose behavior enacts the things that the community fears the most (Karlsen, 54). Witches were associated with the Devil and sin, and in Puritan America, these associations were incredibly dangerous. Puritan ministers often stressed the equality of each soul in God’s eyes, and how everyone holds a responsibility to read the Bible (Karlsen, 53). If witches are associated with the Devil, that is likened to defiance within the community.
This leads to the economic basis in which people were accused.
Understanding the mindset of the past can help us determine why these were the beliefs and fears of Puritan society. Out of those accused of witchcraft, the most prominent victims were moderately poor women who were financially dependent on male members in their family, such as fathers, sons, or brothers. 20% of the accused were impoverished women who practically begged for survival (Karlsen, 54). Overall, it is reasonable to gather that women were feared in these societies, which is why the laws that existed were so strictly centered around the rights of men and made it difficult for women to survive after their husbands or fathers had passed away.
I will attach two tables that were featured in Karlsen’s essay that I think are important when making the efforts to answer this question.
TABLE 1. Female Witches by Presence or Absence of Brothers or Sons, New England, 1620-1725 (A)
|Action||Women without Brothers or Sons||Women with Brothers or Sons||Total|
|Accused||96 (61%)||62 (39%)||158|
|Tried||41 (64%)||23 (36%)||64|
|Convicted||25 (76%)||8 (24%)||33|
|Executed||17 (89%)||2 (11%)||19|
TABLE 2. Female Witches by Presence or Absence of Brothers or Sons, New England, 1620-1725 (B)
|Action||Women without Brothers or Sons||Daughters and Granddaughters of Women without Brothers or Sons||Women with Brothers or Sons||Unknown Cases||Total|
|Accused||96 (36%)||18 (7%)||44 (16%)||109 (41%)||267|
|Tried||41 (48%)||6 (7%)||17 (20%)||22 (26%)||86|
|Convicted||25 (56%)||0 (0%)||6 (13%)||12 (27%)||45|
|Executed||17 (61%)||0 (0%)||2 (7%)||9 (32%)||28|
(Karlsen, 61, 62).
This society was very classist and sexist, as well as misogynistic, and what better way to show those “ideals” than through accusations? Women who were of lower class, without brothers or sons (or very few), who were unmarried or widowed were the most likely to be targeted, accused, tried, convicted, and executed, as shown by the charts above. Those associated with those accused were also targeted. This was a society that feared women and targeted them because they were easy to take advantage of. So while moderately poor women were the most often targeted, women of varying classes were also targeted. If you were a woman, tied to a suspect, middle-aged, Puritan, married with few or no children, lower class/social position, etc., you were more likely to be accused, yourself, of witchcraft during this era.
What do you think this tells us about gender and about this time in American history?
Women and men lived in a world of specificed social standards and gender norms. Men were the caregivers, the breadwinners, the ones who owned property and made the rules. Women took care of the children, did the chores, and were simply taken care of by, for example, their husbands. Without a husband to fall back on for support, not even wealth could save you from the havoc that would ensue post-accusation.
During this time in American history, I believe that men truly feared women overthrowing them, fearing their independence and capability to be one day seen as equals. They wanted to uphold certain standards for as long as they could, and if women were painted as “evil”, they would succeed. A combination of fears, gender roles, societal standards, and beliefs led to women being targeted for witchcraft accusations more than any other group.
We learn that women are viewed in a very specific manner by the rest of society. We learn about the importance of property during this time period. We can see the huge role of religion within this society. If you did not uphold certain religious standards during this era, you could be tried as a witch. Similarly, if you didn’t uphold certain societal stands, you could also be tried. Puritans would take whatever means necessary to protect the community from the “evils” of the world. It also shows us the clear differences between our modern court system and the court system during the era of the 1450-1750s. Overall, we can clearly see the growth of society since these trying times. Women do have more freedom and independence compared to this era, but misogyny is not yet dead.
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.