Women & Witchcraft in Puritan America

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.

19 thoughts on “Women & Witchcraft in Puritan America

  1. I really enjoyed the tables that you put in your post, it was a good visual to have to truly get a better look at the difference in accusations between women with sons and brothers and those absent with them. What really grabbed my attention was the category under the unknown cases. These cases did not even have a specific label, and yet the table states that 9 women were executed. How is this fair? Society has come a long ways since then, especially in a sense of women becoming equal with men. No one gets to pick and choose women to become executed, and men are just as superior as women today.
    I agree with your belief that men truly feared women overthrowing them in this time period. Making up all of these societal standards, fears, and beliefs seemed like an easy thing to put a label on such as witchcraft, to (hate to say it) dispose of women, to get rid of the threat. I would have been long gone in this time period, being that I have only two sisters and live with my mom. Heartbreaking to think about.

    1. Hello Hannah, I have to agree about the remark on men being afraid of being overthrown by women. Even today men express their concerns for women being as powerful as men. There are even times men believe that certain positions are only fit for men. I even watched a show that was released not too long ago and there was a man who upheld these beliefs. He was a prison counselor and he often mistreated/tortured women who he thought were trying to eliminate the existence of men. He saw these women as too strong or heavily exhibiting male characteristics.

      1. I also still can feel the lingering fear that men have of women taking over and/or being able to make decisions for ourselves, let alone our male counterparts. It’s so much easier to look back on history and be able to see themes like this so clearly. I know all this misogyny, sexism, and fear of women still exists today but hindsight is 20/20.

    2. Hi Hannah,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the tables! I personally find visuals to be extremely helpful so it’s reassuring to know that others felt the same way. I thought the unknown cases was a very shocking number as well, and I find it to be very unfair. It really does illustrate the differences between the judicial system of the past and present. I agree with your elaboration on the concept of men fearing women. Since “innocent until proven guilty” was not something that existed during this era, it’s safe to assume that men and others with privilege would find ways to break down women. In this case, they created false standards, fears, beliefs, etc. to ensure that they would remain in power. It’s terrifying that society was once like this. I can’t really imagine in a society like that today. In addition, I agree with your comment about men being just as superior today. While women do have independence and freedom, it’s clear that women are still fighting for their rights, but in different ways. It’s definitely a heartbreaking thing to think about, and I would imagine that a lot of my loved ones wouldn’t survive if they lived in Puritan America.

      1. The visuals are definitely helpful for me as well! It’s one thing to hear of the horrors during the Salem witch trials, and it’s just as shocking to see the statistics themselves. The fact that so many women, regardless of status, were targeted and associated with being “evil” says a lot about the tribulations women have had to endure throughout history.

        1. Hey elise! I had the same thoughts of disgust when it came to how women and witches being viewed as “evil” when they weren’t. I think it is insane in this era that if a women even tried to be an individual she classified as a witch. I am so glad that women are looked at as the ones that hold families together now a days and have gained the power and respect they deserve!

    3. Hi Hannah, I really liked that you pointed out the part of the chart that had the unknown cases because I skimmed over that area when looking at the chart the first time and mainly focused on the women who did not have brothers or husbands. I agree with what you said about these men getting to pick and choose which women they got to execute, it’s heartbreaking to think that this was happening to these women and they were aware of how unjust it was and could not do anything to save themselves.

  2. Very great read. It gave a lot of insight on how times were back then for those of us who may not have known much about that era. It is so sad that women were subjected to that type of treatment because they were seen as a threat. I love to see that times have drastically for women. I think roles have totally reversed and so man women are very successful with out the help of men. Again, great read!

  3. I think that your opinion on women being accused of witchcraft because men were afraid of them gaining power is probably an accurate assumption. There are many examples throughout history that prove that people do awful things when they are afraid of the unknown, or do not understand another culture, religion, or even gender. The tables showing the women accused or executed without brothers or sons is shocking. I think there are two ways to decipher this information . The first being that those without male family members lack someone to stand up for them that would be more respected by the community. If it was only women they believed to be witches, if the woman’s daughter or sister tried to defend her they would likely be accused of witchcraft as well. While those with male family members to defend them may at least stand a chance at a trial. The second is that those women without sons or brothers may have been more likely to be more independent and free thinking without as many men to answer to, so they may have been feared by others for their independence. Either way the trials for witchcraft were a tragedy in women’s history.

    1. Hi Danielle, I enjoyed reading your take on why women without husbands or brothers were possibly targeted more and I agree with you in saying that women with a brother or husband that could potentially stand up for them would have been more respected and that if another woman attempted to stand up for someone who was accused, they would have likely been accused as well. Men could basically execute anyone they wanted , which is awful, but true and that could be why many women did not stand up for one another during the witch trials.

  4. Thanks Nori for enlightening me with your knowledge. I think that women and especially women during these times have always been very strong. I am sure the goal of getting married became top priority for young ladies. They must of been afraid of becoming poor and soon after poverty being accused of witch craft. I think that women became easy targets and were very vulnerable because they depended on men so much. I am sure that if women were able to make enough money for their necessities, men wouldn’t have as much control.

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog post about the reasonings behind witchcraft. It would clear up many issues and questions people have revolving around why this was even a problem a long time ago. I do agree men back then may have feared women potentially threatening their dominance and would do whatever it took to prevent that. It is also cool to see how women have stood up for their rights since then to become equals with men. This was a very interesting read.

  6. I enjoyed reading your post a lot. I visited Salem a couple of years a go and went to a mock witchcraft trial and it was so cool to see. It was amazing to me to see how many people actually were convicted of witchcraft back then. I also visited a women’s house who was accused of witchcraft and it was very sketchy and creepy to me. Everything in her house was dark and just had all these writings on the walls carved into it . It was very cool experience and i will recommend anyone to go to Salem. I loved the tables you used as well great job.

  7. Your blog post was such a good read Nori, and touched on a lot of things I may have said vaguely in mine, which is why I love reading the other poster’s blogs as well. I loved your opening paragraphs and how you described how accused women and the idea of what witches were portrayed as in folklore are completely different and misconstrued. The women accused were just average everyday women who more than likely wanted to make a difference in their societies and make a life for themselves independently, which is sad to think about the sorrow and fear they must have felt themselves being accused of such crimes. It is very clear that men were afraid of women gaining power, wealth, and more independence then them, which is why women were primarily accused. It makes me very glad that today’s society isn’t as classiest and sexist as it used to be, and all the independent, strong women we have in today’s society that are fighting to make a difference makes me happy for what the future will hold for Women’s Rights and working towards the end of misogyny. Awesome post!

  8. I thought this post was very well thought out and well spoken, the visual aid was a big help in seeing your point about how women without brothers or sons were more likely to be accused of being a witch. I do agree with you in saying that these men clearly feared women and wanted to get rid of them because they felt threatened. If we look at what women went through then and what they go through now, the situation has much improved but it still leaves much to be desired for women. One thing that I found interesting was that they could use religion and fear in order to get away with murder. Men have always treated women as if they are these promiscuous, untrustworthy beings and it has allowed them to get away with some very horrendous things, such as these witch trials.

  9. After reading all this information and going over the facts it blows my mind. This is not just because its very sad, but this is not how my school taught or looked at this era when I was learning about it. I learned about a lot of executions and people being accused as witches, but never were we taught about the women rights facts. Of course the school would skip over women’s facts like that and I think that goes back to everyones comments about men being scared of being knocked out of power. I would very much struggle in this era. It blows my mind how women have no power and if by chance theres no men around and they get some money and power they get it taken right back. I am so glad times have changed so women don’t have to only rely on there men.

  10. I like the lay out and style of this blog post! It was a easy read and kept me intrigued. I like how you commented and talk about how men feared women as individuals and this is why so many weren’t let out on their own or couldn’t do things for themselves. I think this still has some effect on woman in our societies today. Like you said, men take care of women and they hold down the household and that’s still the case today where men are protective over woman. I am happy that woman are more career driven and independent now a days and prove they don’t need a man to succeed in life. I think your opening statements on how some witches today are perceived as green monsters that ride on broomsticks but, most witches like we learned about in your blog and the reading state that witches looked like everyday woman. Great post!

  11. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blogpost! I had similar thoughts while reading the essays in the textbook, especially the belief that men were afraid of women gaining too much power. In a way, this made me think that Puritan men wanted to keep their oppressive control over women, so whenever a woman seemed to gain too much independence or the slightest amount of autonomy, the entire community turned against her. Traces of the leftovers of this strict, sexist religion can be seen throughout American history and society; women were granted the right to vote 98 years ago, after all – not too long ago! Fortunately, the waves of feminism have sought to give women more power and position themselves as equals to men, though you’re absolutely right, misogyny is far from being dead.

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