The horror of the witch hunts remains ever-present in modern culture

We are the granddaughters of the witches they weren’t able to burn.

Image: Facebook/Suppressed History Archives/Witch Hunts: legacies of misogynist persecution

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.

Jindi Mehat
Jindi Mehat

Contributor

Jindi Mehat is a Vancouver feminist activist and general rabble rouser.

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  • Meghan Murphy

    The two white men — Mitchell and Joyal — were incredibly disrespectful and condescending, you are right. They listened to nothing we said and simply proceeded to lecture us, ignoring all of our points, responding to none of our arguments. Mitchell even came up to lecture me after the meeting, claiming he wanted to ‘debate’ me, but then simply talking at me and running away the moment I began to respond, like a child. They very clearly don’t believe women are actually oppressed. I have no idea why they are hitching themselves to this ‘gender identity’ thing, except out of self-interest (i.e. to look good), or because they hate feminists so much they figure this will really show us. I don’t know.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Top notch trolling. 10/10.

    • Atheist

      No doubt. Yet another misogynist calling herself a feminist.

  • Neil MacDonald’s excuse is that he’s a hack who’s paid to stir up controversy so as to bring more visitors to the CBC site. He has no opinion on the matter (he says so himself, as he isn’t affected by the TtF issue). But as a good lackey of the patriarchy, he believes in pretending to opinions so as to stoke the fires of discord in his society. He’s a dud. He’s a worm. Ignore him.

  • Well, I read some of the other comments you’ve made over the past two years, and you appear to be otherwise pretty smart and in the know about the oppression of women (and about the purpose of fairy tales). So how’d you get brainwashed about this issue?

  • Hekate Jayne
  • Atheist

    “I need to know the answer to this ridiculously misogynist and biased question, but rather than wait for one, I’ll answer it myself in the way I want it to be answered to make this web site look as terrible as I can because I’m mad it doesn’t agree with me.”

    Some of us are very fluent in trolling tactics and it’s obvious from ten thousand miles away that you’re not here to actually talk to anyone. You’re here to cast aspersions on anyone who points out biology as a basis of female oppression.

    And if you were a feminist then you’d know that men aren’t in any position to decide who is or is not a feminist.

  • Meghan Murphy

    ikr.

  • Meghan Murphy

    They are senators, yes.

  • Meghan Murphy

    They seemed angry on twitter but I have no idea why.

  • So you need to know, does this site conform to the holy doctrine of gender, or is your immortal soul in danger of exposure to heretical ideas? The very worst Christian fundamentalists have nothing on you. Reread the article and understand that the witch hunters are the people who think–or rather don’t think–like you.

  • Numbers are conjectural at this point and likely to remain so, as the Catholic Church and various academic critics of witchcraft and feminism have no interest in accurate figures. 45,000 is a Church number and undoubtedly too low; the number is probably far less than 9 million, which was a figure extrapolated from German provinces where the numbers of burnings was particularly high. The figure I have read from feminist scholars is 200,000–which is also probably conservative.

  • Wren

    Yes, it makes them FEEL BIG. In fact, when my colleague was in my face the other day, he was puffed up like a peacock and in my personal space. They are so pathetic and weak.

    • FierceMild

      So hard not to flurry-punch the bollocks!

  • rosearan

    I often think that if the burning times were to come again, feminists would be the first to be rounded up, tortured and dragged to the stake.

  • Morag999

    I adore your rudeness, Cassandra. It’s like a laser beam, always on-target, very proper. Ha!

  • Tired feminist

    I would love to see this presentation. Is there a video or audio somewhere, even if only of part of it?

    • Meghan Murphy

      I recorded the audio, and hope to get it up via the podcast soonish!

      • Tired feminist

        Oh great! Thanks Meghan!!

  • Tired feminist

    You’re forgetting that hate crimes against women usually go largely unreported. There’s no reason to believe violence against women was taken more seriously in the Middle Ages/Renaissance than it is today.

  • Hanakai

    I am not so certain that the numbers are minor, considering that the killings went on for over 200 years and over a wide territory, and considering what scholars have been able to glean from parish birth and death records.

    As for the Malleus Maleficarum, it was a best seller for 200 years, second in circulation only to the Bible. It was the treatise used by judges and inquisitors and provided the legal, ideological, jurisprudential and theological basis for killing women. The Malleus was ubiquitous until it was somewhat superseded in the late 1700s by the book, Demonolatry by witch-hunter Nicholas Rémy.

    Even today, women continue to be referred to as witches. Even today, the thinking outlined in the Malleus Maleficarum permeates the culture. Jurors and judges do not grant women credibility and believe that women witnesses lie, in part because they have internalized the ideology of the Malleus which defines women as always deceptive. Surveys show that men believe that half of rape reports by women are fake and lies, even though the data shows less than 2% false reporting (the same rate as other crimes). And the Malleus lives on in the women-hating monotheistic patriarchal religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

    • FierceMild

      And Hinduism and Shinto and Buddhism. I know you were sticking to the topic, but these fellas get a pass too often in my book.

  • Cassandra

    This is one hell of a good comment.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Yeah. Or, whatever, was using me as an opportunity to get attention/retweets.

  • FierceMild

    Interesting! My family also withheld education from me and my sisters but found money to send my brothers to school…such a giant coincidence!

  • FierceMild

    Hahaaaaaaaaa! You forgot the choker!

  • Hekate Jayne

    HA!!!!!!!

  • Meghan Murphy

    Yeah it was weird. I just ignored it, but it gave me the impression they cared less about succeeding in challenging the bill and more about getting attention from MRAs.

  • Esther

    Nazis did it. They kidnapping, torturing, raping & murdering innocent jews and other people and stealing their property AND they made a public record of it

  • Zuzanna Smith

    I love the eyes, starry and shiny bright with crazeeness.

  • Cassandra

    This is awesome.

  • marv

    Buddhism follows a similar trajectory to other spiritual traditions: a male founder who seeks enlightenment and transcendence while women are tied to performing childcare and other domestic duties. The idea that a spiritual movement is a pyramid with one person at the top to teach and lead others is patriarchal as well.

    Women might be allowed to become disciples and even leaders but the sexual stratification of labor and rank aren’t consciously challenged. Buddhism doesn’t have the political awareness of class divisions between men and women. It’s seems more centered on gender parity not gender abolition. Hence, “male and female are each one wing of the bird without which it cannot fly.”

    Buddhism also shows its un-awakening by not seeing the capitalist economic class system as incompatible with workers’s rights to self-administration. It calls for inner individual emancipation – a freeing mindfulness – within systems of oppression and for liberal reforms of benevolence from the powerful. At best Buddhists speak out against greed and consumerism rather than capitalism, which demonstrates a moralizing and individualizing politics.

  • foamreality

    Good work by Meghan and Hilla. The depth of thought by that CBC journo is remarkably shallow. It never fails to amaze me how so many people aren’t even able to acknowledge the problem MIGHT be JUST SLIGHTLY more complex than ‘trans are harmless, don’t panic’. Don’t read the BTL comments if you don’t want to tear your hear out.