On Saturday evening at SFU Harbour Centre in Vancouver, feminist historian and founder of the Suppressed Histories Archives Max Dashu delivered a powerful presentation about the witch hunts that swept Europe, laying out the rationale, methods, and outcomes of this period of religious and secular femicide. While it might be tempting to consider this sustained spasm of murderous misogyny an isolated historical incident that could never be repeated, doing so would ignore that our oppression continues to be rooted in patriarchal control of female bodies, and ignores the strains of the witch hunt that echo in today’s backlash against woman-centered feminism.
Dashu methodically walked the audience through centuries of European history within which thousands of women from Germany to the Netherlands to Spain were tortured and burned as witches. She spoke of villages where mass exterminations killed all but two women. The victims included healers, adulterers, outspoken women, women with extraordinary talents, and women who raised a hand to defend themselves in a beating. Any woman who defied patriarchal expectations was a target for femicide.
The sexed context of the witch hunts is impossible to ignore. All male panels decided which women lived and which women died. Women were bound using full body shackles that forced their bodies into positions that allowed easy access to their sexual organs. They were routinely raped before being immolated. Their torturers used specially-designed tools to remove their breasts, burn their vulvae, and rip their vaginas apart. These horrific atrocities were committed to control and eradicate specifically female bodies, and the fact that this framing is considered controversial today shows how many have forgotten — or never learned — the lessons of herstory.
Dashu spoke at length about the ways that the witch trials shaped society. Men were seen as the authorities on reality and truth, and that male authority was institutionalized. Woman’s torture remains sexualized. And, for centuries, women raised their daughters to be quiet, obedient, to always be on guard, and to focus on the private sphere while disappearing from the public. The precedent for shaming, punishing, and silencing women’s speech was set.
On May 10th, Hilla Kerner of Vancouver Rape Relief and Meghan Murphy testified against Bill C-16, Canada’s “gender identity” legislation, out of concern about the way the legislation would dismantle sex-based protections for women. In their testimony, both Kerner and Murphy reminded the mostly male committee that, under patriarchy, gender exists as a tool to shore up male power and female submission. Both women properly situated women’s oppression in patriarchal control over our female bodies, an analysis that fueled the feminism that brought about rape crisis centers, maternity leave, and legal protections for sexual assault and marital rape. These days, simply making the connection between female biology and sexism is seen as hatred, and triggers the same impulses to shame, punish, and silence women that have permeated society since the witch hunts. It is a modern day witch hunt with familiar goals: to keep us quiet, small, and obedient.
As part of that witch hunt, CBC journalist Neil MacDonald responded to Kerner and Murphy’s nuanced and well-researched testimony with an opinion piece where he misrepresents their testimony, demonstrates he doesn’t understand basic principles underlying women’s oppression — including gender and gendered socialization — and smears those who do as “paranoid and brutish.” Incredibly, he goes so far as to use the misogynistic slur TERF, which is aimed at women who connect our oppression to our biology; assert that we are a political class with defined, common interests; and understand that womanhood is a material reality, not simply an idea or feeling.
After recounting the witch hunts as a deliberate, systemic campaign to silence women and secure our obedience through fear, Dashu concluded her presentation on an inspiring and determined note. Presenting the audience with examples of matrilineal societies and cultures that respected and revered female power, she asked us to draw strength from our shared herstory, and to use that strength to continue resisting. We are the granddaughters of the witches they weren’t able to burn, and today the panels we implore to recognize our material reality, and our humanity, reside in the Senate.
Speak up sisters. Be fearless, and don’t let the bastards grind you down.