By Camaryn Wheeler
Pennsylvania, United States
It’s no secret that self-identifying as a “feminist” in 2020 is often met with backlash, insults, and rebuttals that feminists are just “angry lesbians who hate men and grow armpit hair.”
While those women are remarkable in their own right, it’s important to note that this stereotype isn’t the definition for feminists across the board. The word “feminist”, much like the word “witch”, has a long history of carrying a negative connotation, even being utilized as an insult against those who fall under the large umbrella of people who go against the grain of the patriarchy.
In this way, feminism and witch identification go hand in hand. Feminism itself means rising up against patriarchal rule and defending women from male oppression and all that it entails. Witchcraft also prioritizes these acts of resistance through activism, political work, ritual and magic, and as a spiritual base and belief system.
For those of you who call yourselves feminists, I’m sure you’re tired of hearing the definition of feminism so many times, but for the sake of my point, it bears repeating: feminism is simply the belief that men and women are equal in all aspects of life. Today, we know that this also means that all people, regardless of gender or sexual identity, are created equal politically, socially, economically, and personally. It sounds incredibly simple, and the semantics of it are, but this definition often gets lost in translation, even for those who publicly or personally call themselves witches. Internalized misogyny, anti-feminist influence in the media, and lack of education on the history of feminism are some of reasons why not all “witches” include feminist ideals in their practice or beliefs.
Ignoring feminism in witchcraft and practice is just as bad as being anti-feminist, and as a witch and a feminist, I’m here to tell you why, if you identify as a witch, you need to also be a feminist.
The symbol of the witch is ever-changing, and has historically been used as an insult to marginalize women, people of color, the poor, the disabled, queer and trans people, the elderly, and other minorities who defy the norm in every society throughout time and place. The “witch” as an abstract concept is a representation of everyone who has been persecuted for being an “outsider” or for being a minority.
The first witches in our known history were “healers, community counselors, oracles, medicine women, sex workers, midwives, herbalists, and wisdom keepers” (Sabrina Nelson); in their female-dominated communities, they valued freedom, self-sufficiency, and the ability to care for themselves and each other without having to depend on outside sources for assistance. In doing this, they directly countered the systems put in place by the “church, state, and colonial forces,” whose combined and individual purposes were to stifle any form of resistance (Sabrina Nelson).
Silvia Federici, in her book Caliban and the Witch, discusses the criminalization of women’s (typically witches’) innovation in prostitution, procreation, and medical contraception; because the White men in power felt threatened by the idea of White women and women of color creating their own careers and lines of work and gaining power and wealth, they placed strict regulations on women and their work, criminalized their jobs, and publicly shamed them.
Witch hunts were utilized by the oppressor to destroy what little control women had over social conventions in order to capitalize on women’s success and claim it as their own. The hunts and executions portrayed women as mentally ill, emotionally disturbed sinners and fools. In this way, men in power could justify their persecution of women by claiming that the women were in desperate need of “social therapy”, medical cures, or religious reconciliation and spiritual enlightenment, all services controlled and provided solely by ruling class men.
This mental and emotional torture aside, hundreds of thousands of women accused of “witchcraft” were of course also tortured, burned, and hanged in less than two centuries. Federici notes in her book the significance of the witch hunt “occurring simultaneously with the colonization and extermination of the populations of the New World, the English enclosures, the beginning of the slave trade, [and] the enactment of ‘bloody laws’ against vagabonds and beggars” (164).
She adds that the witch hunts “deepened the divisions between women and men, teaching men to fear the power of women, and destroyed a universe of practices, beliefs, and social subjects whose existence was incompatible with the capitalist work period.” This, in turn, redefined the main elements of social reproduction (165). For women, this meant that the witch hunts and persecution of their sisters had dismantled their careers, social systems, and ways of life.
As Sabrina Nelson, a lovely witch-writer who I have the pleasure of knowing, has told me in an interview, “Attempts to suppress witches were attempts to suppress women, non-binary people, and everyone who operated outside of systems built on colonization, white supremacy, homophobia, sexism, and exploitative capitalism.” Today, those who identify as witches for practice, religion, activism, or for all three attempt to reclaim the word “witch” by turning it on its head and utilizing it as a positive title.
To reclaim the word “witch” as one’s own, one also needs to reclaim its history, its connotations, its burdens, its oppression.
Therefore, to be a witch is to be anti-racist, anti-classist, anti-ageist, anti-homophobic, anti-ableist, anti-sexist, and anti-patriarchal. This is not to say that there is no existence of people who call themselves witches and are sexist, racist, homophobic, etc., but this is to beg the question: how can one be any of those things and truly identify as a witch? The simple answer is that no true witch can claim the identity of witchcraft, magic, ostracization, and personal power unless they recognize the oppression of those with the same title who have come before them.
The persecution of women as witches is not a suggestion for us to use essential oils, collect crystals, and “stand up for people” every now and then; the history of women as witches is a call for the witches of today to use our voices at any possible moment. It’s a call for us to demand equality for all so that we might not allow history to repeat itself, and to protect feminism in honor of those who could not.
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