In this article:
- Before the witch hunts, “witch” was a broad label for anyone practicing a non-Christian religion or doing unsanctioned magic.
- While both men and women could be accused of doing witchcraft, only women are accused of being witches. The label is thrown at anyone who fails in some way to conform to the limited roles available to medieval women.
- Long after the witch hunts ended, women revived the term “witch” as a source of pride. Witches were powerful people, capable of wielding supernatural forces.
- Though it’s never blatantly linked to feminism, the periodic revival of witchcraft’s popularity always coincides with a parallel revival of feminism in popular culture.
Witches today are more open and outspoken about their practice than ever before. While the link between modern witches and the pre-Christian magic users they draw inspiration from was broken by centuries of persecution, the determination in the face of oppression that they represent is remarkable.
To understand why and how witchcraft works to empower women, even without being explicitly a feminist practice, we need to first understand the origins of the term “witch” and the history of the witch hunts that led to the birth of the modern witch.
Witches Before the Witch Hunts
The word “witch” derives from the Old English “wicce” (female) or “wicca” (male) which meant “magician” or “sorceress.” The specific meaning is unclear because there were many different words for sorceress, enchantress, or witch, and what distinguished one from the other — if anything — is hard to decipher.
Even so, it seems clear that “wicce” was meant to identify someone who practiced a non-Christian religion that was being suppressed.
During the Christianization of Europe between the 6th and 14th centuries, hundreds of belief systems were wiped from society. While some records of pre-Christian belief systems survive, much of what they believed and the rituals they practiced are lost to us today.
So, we know that a wicca or wicce was not Christian and that they likely engaged in some activities associated with the supernatural. But we don’t know what these specific beliefs and practices were. Most likely, a large number of different folk belief systems and traditions fell under the umbrella term.
Even while the Church was trying to eradicate all other belief systems, it still had to tolerate a certain amount of folk rituals and beliefs blending in with Christian theology in order for the Church’s authority to take hold.
To that end, the Church sanctioned certain kinds of magic. This Church-approved magic included healing rituals or victimless spells such as those used to find lost things. Many of these would blend Christian elements into the performance.
A healer might whisper a Christian prayer over a pot of herbs in order to infuse them with supernatural powers. A magic-user might use the cross to find lost things. In one case, a woman would allegedly use holy water to wash her husband’s laundry in an effort to make him more obedient.
Any magic not approved by the Church would fall under the category of witchcraft.
By the 14th century, witchcraft accusations start to appear in court records with some regularity. But cases are rare, sentences are light, and strong distinctions are made between good and bad witchcraft.
In a culture where witchcraft could be either good or bad, it could also be practiced by both men and women. But a gendered double-standard already starts to appear in the kinds of charges levied on male and female suspected witches.
Charges of harmful magic like curses or causing sickness were almost exclusively made against women. Meanwhile, accusations of unsanctioned but less harmful magic like treasure-seeking or associating with ghosts were more often levied against men.
So the lines start to get drawn. When men did witchcraft, they did it for good or at least for victimless crimes like digging up buried treasures or talking to the already dead. When women did witchcraft, though, they did it for vengeance or to cause harm.
Even more telling, according to an article published in Social History, “although ‘witchcraft’ was attributed to both men and women…only women are described as being ‘witches;’ this is in line with a tendency to accuse men of specific offenses while describing women as deviant people.”
Men could be accused of doing unsanctioned magic, but it was women who were condemned to be permanently labeled a witch.
The Criminalization of Witchcraft
By the late 16th century, theologians argued that magic of any kind was evil because it was only made possible through diabolical forces. Whether healing the sick or cursing your neighbor’s wheat harvest, the devil was behind all magic works.
The distinction between good and bad magic, pure or evil intent, was now irrelevant. If you did magic, you did it with the devil’s help. The courts already had a long history of condemning devil worshippers, and witchcraft would be exclusively seen as a kind of devil worship from then on.
At the same time that the Church deemed all magic evil, the medieval imagination began conjuring up the stereotype of the witch as a woman. This wasn’t a stretch since women were already associated with bad magic at this point. So, if all magic was bad magic now, it wasn’t a leap to assume that all witches were women.
When witchcraft became both diabolical and feminine, the punishments for the accused likewise became harsher. Executions became more widespread and rules surrounding trial proceedings became increasingly biased against the accused.
Women made up as much as 80% of the victims of anti-witchcraft laws by this century and the specific charges against them became increasingly outlandish.
Courts start filling up with older women who “bewitched” men into sleeping with them and unruly women who used too much profanity in public. Eventually, any woman who was old or cranky—or worse, both—could be accused of witchcraft.
The question historians still struggle to answer with certainty is why. If anybody, regardless of their genitals, could do magic, why were women so much more likely to be accused?
While no single answer has been found, four major theories have been suggested.
Witch Hunts Were a Way to Police Poor People (And Women Were Poor)
According to this argument, anti-witchcraft laws were a way to criminalize poverty, not unlike modern laws that criminalize mundane activities like “loitering” or sleeping in public.
With limited opportunities for owning property or getting paid work, medieval women were more likely to be poor. Hence, the gender imbalance.
Witch Hunts Were a Way to Limit Reproductive Choice
A lot of the victims of anti-witchcraft laws were midwives (a predominantly female profession). In addition to attending births, midwives also provided women with various forms of birth control and performed abortions.
By targeting midwives in witch hunts, the church could take control of women’s reproductive lives, thereby making them more dependent on the rigid patriarchal social structure.
Witch Hunts Were a Way to Enforce the Moral Authority of Christianity
While Europe was more or less fully Christianized by this point, the Church still had to work to maintain its control over society.
Since many of the accused tended not to conform to a Christian moral worldview in some way, it’s thought that anti-witchcraft laws were used to suppress non-Christian practices and views.
According to this argument, women would have been targeted more often because they were held to a stricter standard of moral purity than men. It’s the same double standard that resulted in women being more likely to be prosecuted for sexual offenses like adultery or fornication (even though it takes at least two to tango).
Witch Hunts Were Poor Men’s Vengeance Against Female Economic Independence
In the wake of the Black Death, women briefly enjoyed improved employment opportunities because a dwindling society simply could not afford to keep half its population out of work.
When the economy later fell into a recession in the late 15th century, unemployed and lower-class men became resentful of women “stealing their jobs.” In vengeance, they begin turning their female neighbors into the authorities for witchcraft — likely knowing that it would be an easy charge to make stick.
Whatever the motives of their accusers, it seems that the women who were targeted were usually the ones who were unwilling or unable to fit into the narrow confines of a woman’s place in medieval society. The “witch” label was used to suppress any evidence of strength in what was supposed to be the weaker sex.
Witches, Feminism, and the Post-Witch Hunt Revival
By the 18th century, anti-witchcraft laws and the witch hunts they enabled faded into history. With them, the widespread belief in and practice of magic waned. The next time we see a renewed interest in witches and magic is the late 19th century.
Women in the United States and across Europe at the time were fighting for equal rights, including the right to vote, to get an education, and to work outside the home. At the same time, stories about the witch hunts of old began to spread.
The cruelty of patriarchal rule that those trials represented caused many — who were now struggling against the same patriarchal system — to feel an affinity to those medieval women who had been persecuted as witches.
As a result, women begin taking an interest in the occult, especially in talking with the dead and fortune telling, as a way to connect with those ancestors. They start using the term “witch” not as an accusation, but as a source of pride.
Witchcraft’s popularity waxes and wanes every few decades from this point forward, but each time witchcraft experiences a revival, it occurs in parallel with another wave of feminism.
While not all witches during these time periods were politically active or explicitly feminist, the parallel rise and fall in popularity were likely due to both feminist theory and witchcraft offering a means for women to feel empowered in a society that seeks to disempower them.
The Modern Witch: How Witchcraft Works in the 21st Century
Today, women are typically drawn to witchcraft by dissatisfaction with their Christian upbringing or a desire for a more self-affirming spiritual practice.
While they typically didn’t associate their craft with feminism, almost every witch I spoke to for this article mentioned their practice gave them a boost of self-confidence and a general feeling of being in control of their own life.
Through rituals and spellcasting, modern witches seek to rid themselves of the fear and shame that plague them.
In many cases, that fear and shame were linked to some of the same things that medieval women were persecuted for: sexuality, gender identity, and the general experience of being a woman. Witchcraft offers its practitioners a way to feel comfortable in their own skin in a society where women and non-gender conforming people are constantly subjected to judgment.
Given this motive, it’s no surprise that some of the most popular forms of magic today are more introspective or nurturing in nature.
Modern witches favor a practice that infuses magic into daily life by incorporating witchcraft into everyday routines from brewing a morning cup of coffee to bathing before bed. When they turn to tarot cards and tools, they do it primarily as a means of introspection and guidance — a way to gain clarity on their direction in life.
What began as a means to persecute strong women evolved into a means to make women strong.