The Unburnt Witches

Scrolling through social media, I have noticed a continued trend in secular feminist circles. There seems to be quite a bit of messaging, mantras, poems, etc. almost glorifying (not sure if this is the right word, but it’s pretty close) the women of history who were accused of witchcraft.

Some examples below:

This seems to be a relatively newer trend (‘newer’ as in within the last 5 years or so). One that does make sense in a lot of ways, it certainly fits nicely into the current trends of the modern era –from the turn to new age spirituality, the love of crystals, the veneration of spirits, the celebration of goddesses, to digging up any semblance of a matriarchy in any historical record, etc. (it’s interesting, everyone dismisses the ‘narrow minded’ or ‘less evolved’ people, cultures, and generations of the past unless they happen to prove useful to support your modern thesis… just sayin’).

When I first started seeing this trend gain some traction and after I had seen it shared by more than one person whom I respect, I felt I had to take note. The more I read these posts, the more they bothered me but it took me a little bit to dig into ‘why’ it continued to nag. As I sat with the ‘why’ I began to realize that one of my main issues with this whole ‘fight the patriarchy, be a witch,’ mantra is that there are quite a few underlying messages within it – incredibly subtle, yet not-so-subtle when you look deeper. The more poems, pieces, posts, pictures etc. I saw, the more distinct the messaging became. To be clear, if you are unfamiliar with this trend, it is not intended to recognize the tragedies of the past and to learn from the lessons they should teach us (i.e. what happens when hysteria/paranoia run rampant among a myriad of other factors that yes, does include sexism and weaponized theology rooted in a primary concern for political consequences as opposed to its academic rigor).

Instead, what these little mantras have done is create a self-declared martyrdom narrative around a very specific set of criteria to create a sort of rallying cry that fits very well with the mainstream secular feminist messaging of today. It puts down the gauntlet and tells you, you must pick it up to avenge your foremothers. It utilizes a well-known history (everyone knows about witch trials at least in some form) to depict the epitome of the ruthless, misogynistic, power hungry patriarchy contrasted against the innocent woman who’s only ‘crime’ was to challenge the status quo. It is meant to paint the accused ‘witches’ as the strongest, the boldest, the wisest, the loudest, the smartest – the ones who refused to fall in line behind the ‘rules’ old white men set for them. It is meant to say, essentially, “Look! They died because they stood up to the patriarchy (whether directly or indirectly). Don’t let their sacrifice be in vain!”. It is intended to create this sense of universal camaraderie between the women of the past and the women of today (but to be clear, only a very specific kind of woman today).

I get why there is an idolization of the accused ‘witches’, because, well… they are the perfect archetype (how we view them, that is) of the only women we really care about. The loud, the stubborn, the strong, the smart, the fiery, etc. The ones who, in our mind, would have been voted most likely to break the glass ceiling during the Renaissance. They are the only ones we care about because they are the only ones that fit the modern thesis. And look, there is nothing wrong with being loud, strong, stubborn, fiery, smart, etc. (ask my mom how stubborn I was 🙂 ) and certainly, no I don’t believe those qualities should have ever warranted an execution but in our obsessive glorification we create this very skewed sense of what it means to be a woman when some very specific personality traits, as opposed to virtues, become the new ‘ideal’ criteria. It is precisely in the diversity of women (which speaks to our inherent value – not the one measured by the very public sphere we so fervently condemn) and all that constitutes our femininity that runs so much deeper than whether or not you would be more or less likely to be burned at the stake in the 16th century. In creating a historical narrative that places a very specific caricature at the top, you have completely disregarded… every. other. woman. in history. The women who were at home, doing ‘nothing but raising children’ are just as much as your ancestors as the women at the stake were. Why we idolize one and demean the other doesn’t paint an empowering picture, instead, it paints a pretty narrow one but… putting ‘Just a baby maker’ on a t-shirt probably wouldn’t go over as well at women’s rallies.

Now, in addition to the very specific type of woman these mantra’s glorify, I have to call out the elephant in the room (you know, that one that EVERYONE knows is there but no one wants to mention it?) – the whole picture of white religious men burning women alive has the underlying message of reducing organized western religion (and let’s call it like it is, we usually mean the Catholic Church) to little more than patriarchal scapegoating wrapped in superstition. You may say, “That isn’t the main message necessarily,” but it absolutely, 100%, glorifies, contributes, and supports that narrative. You could also say, “Well… if the shoe fits.” Which, is a conversation one could actually have. What DOES this say about religion? How could a Church you claim universally true have endorsed witch hunting women based on superstition? You can ask that. If you think you would be the first person to point to the Church’s past crimes… I would say we live in two very different worlds.

The problem, or rather the point I want to highlight, is not necessarily THAT someone wants to make that argument, but rather, with how it is presented, it creates just enough ambiguity to keep you from actually having to really make it. It is subtle enough to be dismissed as ‘you’re making a mountain out of a mole hill’ if someone wants to dig their heels in, yet obvious enough that it further solidifies grossly misrepresented, misunderstood, and twisted understandings of the Church as a whole without having to say a word (look up ‘confirmation bias’). Messaging that subtle, yet not-so-subtle, over and over and over and over again DOES have an impact and unless someone comes on and writes a 1,000+ word blog calling it out when it is underhandedly implied, we kind of just skim over it because it fits the modern narrative and sounds great on a t-shirt (modern narrative: no one likes the Catholic Church, except Catholics, and sometimes not even them lol).

One perfect example of this whole ‘subtle, yet not-so-subtle’ messaging, was when the entire internet lost its mind when Harry Styles showed up on a magazine wearing a tulle dress. I saw longgg drawn out debates about gendered cultural norms in fashion, going back to various centuries, some citing studies on clothing customs in various indigenous tribes, others philosophizing about the evolution of fashion and its intersection with gender/sexuality etc. I mean the entire internet was writing dissertations on the gender bias of fashion history overnight. But here is the thing, was that really the underlying message? Was fashion the relevant conversation? I mean… I have seen some interesting outfits walk the catwalk at NY fashion week, some I would label much more ‘gender bending’ than what Harry wore. Why this, now? When we really look at it, I think it’s more than fair to say – fashion was not what the main message was about (even if it genuinely was for some that engaged in it).

The ultimate message was much more about the existence of gender at all. This isn’t a far reach or even condemning anyone. This has been a hot topic discussed in mainstream headlines and Harry himself has been pretty outspoken about his defense of gender fluidity well beyond just fashion so it’s not a giant leap or a negative assumption to say it was more than just about a dress. The existence of gender constructs and whether they are sociological products or natural consequences of our sex, whether they benefit or hurt society, which ones should be accepted, or if they should even exist at all etc, again, are legitimate debates you can have (and ones well beyond the scope of this) but my point is, it wasn’t ultimately about a dress. It WAS about something more. It wasn’t, at the core, a simple fashion statement. It was a political, sociological, and philosophical one but you can’t even have a fair and honest discussion about it if we don’t identify the conversation you are ACTUALLY trying to have. The internet went around in circles for days, completely missing the much greater point and deeper issue at hand (yes… erasing gender is a significant subject). The whole issue goes well beyond the fashion statements of Harry Styles but instead, subliminal messaging of a single photo reigned supreme and led everyone on a wild goose chase debating the history of fashion and its intersection with masculinity.

Alas, I don’t have the most eloquent way to wrap this up – honestly, I think I am just too tired to put this into a neat paragraph, so instead, I will leave you with these last few points:

1.) Your grandmother was not a witch burned at the stake. Try, MAYBE, your great-great-great-great-great grandmother.

2.) More than likely, the generations of women in your ancestral line were busy taking care of children and the home and were much more likely to die from childbirth than burning at the stake – so maybe use this martyrdom energy and channel it to maternal healthcare reform.

3.) Narratives become popular when few speak up to really challenge them and even fewer actually study them (not in sound bite glory by big personalities, but I mean, really actually study and address them).

4.) Ambiguity can be weaponized. No productive dialogue or solid ideas were ever built upon it.

5.) Messaging matters. Don’t let anyone convince you it doesn’t.

The End*

*Told you I wasn’t going to end this eloquently.