Once, there were witches. No. There were never witches. Not in the way men said, anyway.
Once, there were many Indigenous polytheist and animist faith traditions in what is now Western Europe. Their customs supported varying levels of respect and authority for women. They had holy women, woman healers, and woman leaders.
Once, there was a church that was a kingdom, built on the body of the Roman Empire, which itself was built on the abduction and rape of the Sabine women. This church was a principality in truth, ruled by princes who had a lust for land and gold that was almost as insatiable as their burning hatred for women.
They converted heads of state and demanded tithes of members, while leaving most local governance alone. They created a very early, very ephemeral transnational empire that required little in the way of personnel or men under arms, and was mainly concerned with governing what’s often classed as the private sphere.
Eventually, the church’s client states had a problem keeping their peasants in line, because the church and the aristocracy wanted to steal all the land and privatize it for themselves through enclosure of the commons.
As Sylvia Federici explains in her book, Caliban and the Witch, secular authorities eventually hit on the popular strategy of giving everything that women had to men, including the women themselves. Civil servants didn’t forget to account for the economic value of women’s work; rather, it was explicitly written out of economic accounting — declared to have no value during the enclosure era. Male tradesmen coordinated boycotts of female competitors and of men who worked with them. Women who persisted in trying to engage in public trades were harassed, called “whores” or “witches,” or were even assaulted without repercussion.
Eventually, to be a woman in public alone was very nearly synonymous with being presumed a witch or prostituted woman. Violence against women was both normalized and sexualized. Women were increasingly driven into prostitution if no man supported them or if they were pushed outside of polite society through accusations of misbehavior, unsanctioned relationships, or sexual abuse. In the sex trade, upstanding men in their communities could torture these women at will, their victims the only party subject to legal sanction.
In order to do their part in solving the problem of the revolting peasantry and acquire their own share of the former commons, the church stepped up to bless this destruction of women’s rights and independence with the seal of divine approval. Their priests invented witches. That is, they invented women who worshipped and had sex with the Devil, who then gave them ludicrous powers — what feminist historian Max Dashu calls “diabolism.” The church further asserted that everything that wasn’t approved as Christian was diabolism.
Again, there weren’t any witches as the church defined them. The pornographic, diabolist image described in the Malleus Maleficarum didn’t refer to any existing persons. For the most part, it didn’t even refer to things that are possible, in spite of the fact that some Indigenous spiritual and women’s health practices were included as evidence of witchcraft.
“Witches” were just women. That’s what men meant, in their own words.
“All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman… What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil nature, painted with fair colours… When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil… Women are by nature instruments of Satan — they are by nature carnal, a structural defect rooted in the original creation.” – Malleus Maleficarum
Diabolism was so broadly defined that any female rejection of male authority was potential evidence of witchcraft. Any woman could be a witch. Any look or word that offended a man, any angry speech, any unnecessary fraternization with other women, any sexual activity outside church-approved relations — all could trigger a charge of witchcraft.
Accusations could also be levied for material gain, as the church or state could then seize the property of the accused or charge them ruinous fines for a chance at freedom. Jews and Muslims were targeted as well, fitting the expansive view of diabolism as synonymous with being non-Christian, conveniently enriching the prosecuting authorities.
It became a major public project to humiliate and subjugate women, or to get women and girls to testify against their accused mothers and then stand at the front as they were executed.
Women could also be made to wear scold’s bridles, or branks, in public for speaking out of turn to any man, including their husbands, or for simply being poor and too old to work. The injuries sometimes sustained while they were paraded through the streets would have been life-threatening in the days before modern medicine and antibiotics.
When chattel slavery was instituted in the colonies, the brank was used as a method of breaking the will of slaves. It had worked so well with the women back in the old country, after all. Throughout the colonies, subjugated peoples were controlled after the initial conquest in ways that strongly echoed the patterns of dominance European men had been trained to enact towards their female peers.
Again, every woman was maybe a disobedient witch who might displease her Lord or master. Every woman needed strict control to keep her in line and loyal in allegiance to men. The fact that the last two sentences are both true and sound like purple prose from a BDSM story should indicate that these attitudes remain with us. Eventually, European men no longer needed to burn their women alive or subject them to public torture in order to get them to cooperate, to be quieter, or to consent to play along willingly, even eagerly, in their own submission.
“Sadomasochism is an institutionalized celebration of dominant/subordinate relationships. And, it prepares us either to accept subordination or to enforce dominance. Even in play, to affirm that the exertion of power over powerlessness is erotic, is empowering, is to set the emotional and social stage for the continuation of that relationship, politically, socially, and economically. Sadomasochism feeds the belief that domination is inevitable and legitimately enjoyable.” – Audre Lorde
When men are put under constant surveillance, restricted in their speech, dehumanized, otherized as dirty and innately evil, or subject to torture or murder on the barest pretexts, all in hopes of a societal rebirth from the decadence of carnal softness, they call it fascism.
When women have to teach their daughters to conform to that sort of oppression, generation after generation, without any other hope of survival, men call it the natural order.
People seem to think that it was so long ago, it could hardly matter. Or that it only affected witches, whoever they were, and they sound like awful, terrible women, anyway, didn’t they.
The important thing to realize is that “witches” were just women that men were either jealous of, felt threatened by, or didn’t like. In practice, those were the triggering conditions for getting tried as a witch. More simply, witches were just women. Potentially all women.
To survive, women under the Inquisition submitted to isolating themselves away from the friendships of other women, and learned to be very good at making men like them. They taught their daughters to do the same.
For hundreds of years, any woman could be taken away to jail to be tortured and sexually assaulted. Any women could be pornographically tortured in public before her execution, in front of her family if she had any.
Why didn’t she speak up? That’s why. Why didn’t she stand up for other women? That’s why. European men ritually abused women for expressing any social solidarity with each other, or independence for themselves, for generations.
Men forced women to testify against other women, even their own mothers, to live. Yet they still mock women as jealous and spiteful of each other, still joke about “cat fights.”
The destruction of women’s history of community leadership, economic independence, and support for each other wasn’t so complete that there was no evidence remaining. But the living cultural practice of female solidarity was so utterly destroyed that it’s still newsworthy for us to talk about supporting each other.
Long after they stopped burning us alive in public, women could still be removed from public life to asylums, or subjected to torture, for displeasing men or showing too much independence. They could be abused for being pregnant or an unmarried mother.
When domestic violence wasn’t a crime, that meant it was still legal for a man to torture his wife in the privacy of their home if she displeased him. Or for no reason at all. The state considered it a matter of public health and safety to prosecute assaults, except of a man against his wife, which was legal. Marital rape wasn’t a crime in all 50 U.S. states until 1993. And given that barely one per cent of rapists ever see a day in jail in even the most supposedly egalitarian countries, that form of male torture against women is still effectively legal, also.
Individual men sometimes go to great lengths to plan to commit abuses against women and children, and this is often written off as inevitable misfortune. Other men often cover up for them out of a sense that they should give the male perpetrator the benefit of the doubt — an attitude which even police seem to extend to accused men, but often lack for female victims, empathy for women having been burned right out of our social norms. Male coverups and victim blaming is how individual misdeeds are transformed into what Andrea Dworkin called the barricade of sexual terrorism.
There are women still alive today who were simply disappeared from their communities for unsanctioned sexual activity. Maybe they became pregnant “out of wedlock,” outside the control of a husband, whether by choice or rape, and their children were taken from them. They were the girls who went away, either to give a child up for coerced adoption or to be committed to psychiatric hospitals and possibly treated with electroshock.
If you make the men angry, you can just disappear. That’s been true for a very long time. So many men still act in expectation of the instant obedience such fear can command, that the tragedy continues.
These forms of abuse were exported to colonized states, and having started as a political persecution of women for economic gain, they metastasized into a political persecution and style of conquest employed against non-Christian peoples across the world.
The theft of children from Indigenous populations by settler states, alone, is an ongoing rights violation that differs more in scale than in kind from the historical thefts of children from “wayward” white women. It’s a logical consequence of societies operating under the cumulative presumption that only (white) men really have any rights to children; damn the mother, damn the child themselves, damn the forcibly “feminized” masses of the brutally subjugated.
The Inquisition certainly didn’t invent patriarchy, torture, or reigns of public terror designed to break the will of a conquered people. Yet it did set in motion a powerful set of social norms that remain with us. And even though the world has changed so much that the Catholic Church has apologized for persecuting heretics, such apologies are rare among the other churches and governments that murdered people on allegations of diabolism.
As then, as ever, these injuries add up to degradation and disadvantage. Though they feel very personal when we are subject to them, the men who benefit from driving us out of public competition for power and resources don’t really care who we are. If another woman was in our place, they’d do it to her.
It’s the result of a centuries long, deliberate political project of destroying women’s will, power, and independence. That power and independence won’t be restored without similarly deliberate political resistance. Because, as Lierre Keith says, oppression is not a misunderstanding.
This is how they made her a political prisoner in her own home. This was how they broke her. Remember.
Natasha Chart is an online organizer and feminist living in the United States.