In Solidarity With Witches: How Powerful Women Are Still Persecuted

The ferocious imperative to maintain male control that fueled the witch-hunts centuries ago is this same imperative that fuels the witch-hunt against Hillary Clinton today.

Halloween has come and gone, yet we still get a front row seat to a real-life witch-hunt. The threats of violence and imprisonment being leveled against Hillary Clinton are eerily reminiscent of 16th century European “Burning Times” when hundreds of thousands of women were burned at the stake. Turns out, not a whole lot has changed since then. Women are still persecuted for being powerful.

According to Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English in For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women, the witches that were persecuted in Europe between the 14th and 17th century were healers. Many were such good healers, they threatened the position of men.

Emerging as the authority on medicine by their own volition, these men who sought to commodify healing, knew little to nothing about science. They were educated in philosophy and theology, and held ludicrously dangerous beliefs about health and human biology. They implemented notoriously harmful “remedies” such as bloodletting, and inducing vomiting and diarrhea through poisonous agents with long-term deleterious effects.

In stark contrast, female healers, i.e. witches, practiced healing methods based on centuries-old knowledge of plants, herbs, and practical remedies. Their methods were gentle and often effective. Like many female lay caretakers today, these women knew their patients personally and engaged in emotional labor, comforting the sick and nursing them back to health.

Problems arose when European doctors, fancying themselves as all-knowing medical authorities were upstaged by these female healers. One such woman, described in For Her Own Good was Jacoba Felicie. Brought to trial in 1322 for being more effective than “properly” trained physicians, Felicie cured patients whom doctors had given up on. She was said to be “wiser in the art of surgery and medicine than any master physician or surgeon in Paris.” Ironically, these claims fueled the charges against her. Like Hillary Clinton, by being more competent than her male counterparts, Felicie threatened male control of the public domain, and was persecuted because of it.

Heralded as the most qualified person to ever run for president, Hillary Clinton is the first presidential candidate to be threatened with violence and imprisonment by an opponent. The hate and vitriol visited upon Clinton is not par for the course in a presidential election. One may point to the nature of her opponent, but looking at the history, it’s hard to see it as anything but an old-fashioned witch-hunt.

The parallel is haunting. The ferocious imperative to maintain male control that fueled the witch-hunts centuries ago is this same imperative that fuels the witch-hunt against Hillary Clinton today. It’s the same imperative that silences women who report sexual assault, who dare to leave abusive partners, or who simply exist without apology. Powerful women threaten male privilege and domination, and the consequences have been deadly.

The reign of white men has been toxic and injurious for centuries, costing innumerable lives through colonization, failed medical practice, wars, poverty, lack of access to healthcare, destruction of the environment, and basically any social ill you can think of. Yet, we are conditioned to resist change. We have been convinced by the privileged and powerful that their claim to power is legitimate—even sanctioned by God. Everything from mansplaining and street harassment to threats of death and imprisonment serve to maintain the established order. Centuries of violence and oppression have diminished our spirits and silenced us.

It’s now our imperative to revolt against the systematic silencing of women and stand in solidarity with witches past, present, and future. The world has been longing for women’s leadership, and we are worthy of heeding that call. I say, let the witches rise!

Rachel Piazza is a TEDx speaker and feminist self-defense instructor. She has a master’s degree in women’s and gender studies, and teaches sociology and gender studies at Wilmington University.

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