Mona Chollet's In Defense of Witches was published in English in 2022 by St. Martin's.
In Defense of Witches
Women Were Never Witches
Let’s Stop Taking the Witchcraft Out of Witches
“The Only Thing a Woman Can Drive Is a Broom”
Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an open-access feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues. Short Takes is part of the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.
In Defense of Witches
In Creole, the language of my native island of Guadeloupe, the word “witch” is translated by “volan,” meaning a bird with a raucous voice, dressed in a dismal gray plumage, in sharp contrast with the brightly colored feathers of the hummingbird. There is no worse insult for a woman than to be called “vié volan” (old bird), as the Creole expression goes. And here’s why: Popular legend has it that in the year of Our Lord 1722, a time when the slave trade was at its zenith, there was no counting the number of slave ships crowding into the ports of Martinique and Guadeloupe. The enslaved Gertrude was tired of being raped night after night by her master, Jehan de la Quintinière. One day, unable to stand it any longer, she killed him with a large kitchen knife and buried his remains in the squelchy mud of the nearby pigsty. She then transformed herself into a bird, having inherited the supernatural powers of her parents. But as she flew up into the dazzling sky, God emerged from the clouds and stopped her with a severe frown: “What have you done?” He asked. “Have you forgotten my commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’?” Thereupon He removed all her grace and finery and dispatched her back to earth where she was arrested, jailed, and executed like Solitude, the mulatto girl, legendary heroine of the resistance against slavery in Guadeloupe.
What can we conclude from this anecdote? The book by Mona Chollet, published in French in 2018, is now out in English. It’s a work full of hope and conviction. Things have changed. Women are no longer confined to maternal and domestic chores. Chollet takes her examples from the US, Europe, and even Africa. Women now seek to assert themselves and take possession of the place they are entitled to. Voices rise up to protest and denounce rape and sexual abuse. An era of freedom looms on the horizon. Nevertheless, a deep-rooted anger was aroused in my heart while I was reading this rich and well-documented book. God is a well-known figure: He always sides with the rich and powerful. He took sides with the plantation owners against the enslaved. If you have doubts, read the journal of Père Labat during his missionary work in Guadeloupe.God is a well-known figure: He always sides with the rich and powerful.Click To Tweet
If I have a small reproach to make, it is that Chollet does not reiterate enough the truth that if the patriarchal family didn’t exist, there would be no subjection of women. I should know, coming from a family of eight children where as soon as the girls were old enough, their role was to serve the boys. It took a lot of effort on my behalf to be who I am today.
To conclude, I too have written my tale of a witch: I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. I’m very proud that Mona Chollet gave it considerable attention. Is it proof that she liked it?
Maryse Condé was born in Guadeloupe in 1934 as the youngest of eight siblings. She earned her MA and PhD in Comparative Literature at Paris-Sorbonne University and went on to have a distinguished academic career, receiving the title of Professor Emerita of French at Columbia University in New York, where she taught and lived for many years. She has also lived in various West African countries such as Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Senegal, gaining inspiration for her worldwide best seller Segu. Condé was awarded the 2018 New Academy Prize or “Alternative Nobel” in Literature as well as the 2021 Prix Mondial Cino del Duca for her oeuvre. In addition, she received the Grand Croix de l’Ordre National du Mérite from French President Emmanuel Macron in 2020. Her latest novel translated into English is Waiting for the Waters to Rise published by World Editions in 2021.
Women Were Never Witches
Western women’s lives today could have been much different and better if had it not been for the European witch craze, Mona Chollet tells us in In Defense of Witches: The Legacy of the Witch Hunts and Why Women Are Still on Trial. The trials, which occurred sporadically in many countries over centuries and well into the early modern era, were unpredictable, irrational, and horrific. The persecution wiped out many thousands of innocents and helped entrench a tyranny of repressive misogyny women must still overcome.
It is gratifying to find Chollet referring to Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, the booklet that Barbara Ehrenreich and I published in 1973 (the year Chollet was born), as well as its sister booklet, Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness, which together show how modern medicine was born in the forced expulsion of women from healing professions while ushering them into psychosocially subservient roles as nurses, and “carers,” as well as casting others (especially in the white upper classes) as physically or mentally sick and in need of treatment by male doctors. Chollet reviews some of the detailed research that has validated and elaborated the account Ehrenreich and I sketched.
The witch craze was an elite persecution, carried out by torturers, prosecutors, judges, and executioners, and it drove many peasant healers out of herbalism and midwifery. This at a time before scientific medicine, when universities (which of course barred upper-class women students) trained doctors according to the dictum that four bodily fluids caused disease: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Treatments focused on bleeding, the application of leeches, and other “logical” attempts to restore theoretical equilibrium. Without such misleading dogma, peasant healers used local medicinal plants, various of which have survived the test of time, and relied on experience, empathy, and empiricism.
Chollet is charmed that some women today are embracing their own notions of witchcraft, creating covens and self-empowering rituals and mixing a brew of such things as astrology, tarot, crystals, and spells. In a time when medical care, especially in the US, is restricted, inadequate, and often cold, an alternative market for such things flourishes. Harmless if costly fun, for the most part, yet practitioners and their clients should perhaps be reminded that the “witches” of the past, who were said to possess occult powers due to being in league with the devil, actually had no magic to dispense, except any that was engendered by the trust they were held in. In other words, they were never really witches at all.The “witches” of the past, who were said to possess occult powers due to being in league with the devil, actually had no magic to dispense, except any that was engendered by the trust they were held in. Click To Tweet
Chollet nicely argues, though, in support of self-confidence, that “spells” can also be thought of as casting words, as in “spelling” (to which it is etymologically related) and that writers, artists, and all women are indeed able to effect change by speaking up. True.
In a chilling analogy to today’s technologies of misinformation, Chollet notes it was that advent of the printing press in 1454 that led to the wide availability of the Bible, with its (likely mistranslated) injunction, “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” and worse, in 1487, to the oft-reprinted “witch-hunter’s bible,” the Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches, launching a “media campaign” to identify and try witches.
Chollet focuses on three traits common to many women then suspected of witchcraft: being elderly, childless, and independent of any man. Such traits among modern women are still suspect, she writes, devoting a whole chapter to vigorously defending the child-free life. While that choice is fundamental (especially at a time when abortion rights are being threatened in the US) mothers need an equally full defense from feminists, especially as the pandemic wiped out their employment gains and consigned them to home for so long.
Chollet powerfully connects her feminism to her long-standing misgivings about rapacious modern civilization, writing, “By setting the accepted history of the witch hunts alongside their interpretation by so many women writers, all has become clear.” She means it is not enough to seek equity within a system of knowledge built to exploit slaves, women, and nature: that intellectual order, at the center of Western thinking, must itself be opposed.
Her book ends with an eloquent appreciation of early ecofeminism, quoting Carolyn Merchant and Susan Griffin from writings dating back, as ours do, to the second wave of feminism. There she finds signs of a search for a respectful accord with nature. To quote Barbara Ehrenreich regarding “birds and cloudscapes and the glittering Milky Way” after a day spent kayaking: “I am not a religious person but I began to understand that I was being drawn into something…. I came to think of it as the Presence, what scientists might call an ‘emergent quality,’ something greater than the sum of all its parts.”
Chollet titles her last chapter “Turning the World Upside Down” and proclaims that a true feminist philosophy would not only free women but also ensure humanity’s well-being through a new pact with nature, “not a Pyrrhic victory over it.”
Deirdre English teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley. She is the former editor in chief of Mother Jones magazine, where she worked for eight years ending in 1986. English was a cofounder of one of the first women’s studies programs in the US, at the College of Old Westbury at the State University of New York. Her work includes For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women, coauthored with Barbara Ehrenreich and published with a new afterword in 2004. Her work with Ehrenreich also includes Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, and Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness. Her essay “The Fear that Feminism Will Free Men First” has been anthologized in numerous collections, most recently in Women’s Liberation! Feminist Writings that Inspired a Revolution and Still Can, edited by Honor Moore and Alix Kates Shulman.
Let’s Stop Taking the Witchcraft Out of Witches
I write this at a time of great peril for women, LGBT people, and sexual freedom as a whole, particularly in my country, the United States. Forces of white supremacy, patriarchy, and theocratic dogma are attempting to use the state for purposes that can be called little else than evil. While she has since been released from jail, the arrest of Lizelle Herrera under charges of murder for having an abortion portends a grim future.
While to those familiar with core feminist principles, the recitation of the value of bodily autonomy and independence might seem tedious, recent history has shown that reemphasizing these principles, especially to younger generations, is extremely important. This is something In Defense of Witches does quite well. Mona Chollet makes the case that many of the oppressive systems women face today can be seen reflected in witches, both as pop cultural figures and as historic ones.
All told, though, there are actually very few references to witchcraft or witches throughout Chollet’s book. By failing to more thoroughly integrate witchcraft throughout the text, one is often left feeling like it’s a shoe-horned reference to cash in on a trend. It is telling that Chollet mostly sticks to pop culture references rather than historical ones when it comes to witches. It’s inarguable that as an archetype, symbol, and trope, witches are used to represent female power with all its allure and danger. However, I couldn’t help but wonder, as I read, if the author believes witches are just a symbol with no historical or modern reality.
In Defense of Witches makes a good many important points. The issue I have is that these points have been made many, many times, not just in academic or scholarly work but in wildly popular films, TV shows, and novels. That powerful women are maligned, quite literally demonized, through legal mechanisms such as the witch trials, as well as through cultural mechanisms, and that the witch is a potent symbol of this oppression, is hardly a novel observation, regardless of how important it is. What I long for in feminist discourse is not just an embrace of the witch as a symbol but a deep interrogation of magic and why women have for millennia turned to it as a source of power.What I long for in feminist discourse is not just an embrace of the witch as a symbol but a deep interrogation of magic and why women have for millennia turned to it as a source of power.Click To Tweet
If witchcraft and women are so tied together, going back well before the formal “witch hunt” of the early modern period was established, then it seems worth interrogating that relationship beyond metaphor. Witches such as Isobel Gowdie confessed of her own volition to practicing magic. Ann Watts was found with several grimoires on her while escaping the authorities. While certainly many, perhaps even a majority, of people who were tried for the crime of witchcraft weren’t sorcerers or even cunning folk, many of them certainly were. The fear of this power in the hands of women, this spiritual autonomy, seems to have been as much a call for concern as bodily autonomy.
Will the day ever come when it is okay to posit that since magic provides power, and women are lacking in power, that the attempt to drive a wedge between women and magic is an attempt to further rob women of any power or recourse?
Witches are an undeniable metaphor for women’s power and oppression, but might it be time we stop looking at this power as purely metaphorical, or as simply an aspersion cast against innocent women? Personally, I think we are well past the time of being misunderstood and should start becoming terrifying once more.
Sarah Lyons is a writer, activist, filmmaker, and witch based in New York City. Her writing and herself have appeared in Teen Vogue, Vice, and The CW show Mysteries Decoded. Her first book, Revolutionary Witchcraft, was published in 2019, and her second book, “How to Study Magic,” will be out October of 2022 from Running Press.
“The Only Thing a Woman Can Drive Is a Broom”
In her foreword to Mona Chollet’s In Defense of Witches, Carmen Maria Machado asks that readers “imagine, for a moment, your witch. Not your earliest witch, necessarily, but the one who first captured your attention.” For me, that witch was the one conjured up by a dude who was angry at me. I was twenty years old, working at a glass factory, and had asked to be trained to drive the forklift, a job that seemed much easier than standing on my feet sweeping floors for my eight-hour shift. I was literally holding a broom when he yelled, “The only thing a woman can drive is a broom.” Being called a witch was not a signal that I was powerful, scary, or cool, but that I was beneath consideration, unfit for advancement, and generally only useful for the most domestic (in which “domestic” is intended as an insult) of duties. So I’m hesitant to follow Machado’s suggestion that readers should “grab your broomstick” and embrace the witch within. If the witch in your mind is a powerful sorcerer who takes righteous vengeance as in many recent pop culture manifestations, that may seem like an empowering idea. But if you think about real women in history who were called witches and then imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes executed, it seems less appealing.
With chapters on women who remain unmarried, women who choose not to have children, and women who grow old, Chollet shows that many of the same characteristics that today earn women vitriol in the public sphere and violence in their personal lives are identical to what, in days of yore, would get you burned or hanged (depending on the country and time) for being a witch. It is valuable to trace contemporary manifestations of misogyny back to these historical precedents, and it makes for chilling, often depressing reading.
In contrast to the terrible ordeals faced by real women who were accused of being witches, there are many more possibilities for the witches of our imaginations, those who appear in film and pop culture. While some are dismissed, disdained, or left melting on the floor, many of them emerge triumphant and even beloved in their fictional worlds and in various fandoms. A rash of recent novels reveals a stunning range of possibilities for witches: witches, but make them factory girls in the 1830s (The Factory Witches of Lowell); witches, but make them suffragists in 1893 (The Once and Future Witches); witches, but make them a girls’ field hockey team in the 1980s (We Ride Upon Sticks). These books, and many other pop culture representations, conjure imaginative worlds where witches are powerful and even inspiring heroines. But such stories bear little resemblance to what happened to real women during the witch trials of the early modern Atlantic world. Then and now, in the real world, we don’t have supernatural powers that allow us to cast spells that will vanquish the patriarchy.In the real world, we don’t have supernatural powers that allow us to cast spells that will vanquish the patriarchy.Click To Tweet
The women who were murdered in Salem in 1692 were not performing witchcraft. They were not brewing potions in cauldrons, or if they were, they were not doing so because they were calling upon the Devil to manifest ill for their neighbors. They were just doing laundry. While some of them had some manner of outsider status or may have be seen as rebels, many were simply going about the work of everyday life, like Rebecca Nurse, a 71-year-old woman who was particularly known for her piety and good nature yet was executed as a witch. The most likely thing that was going to get you accused of witchcraft was simply being a woman; you didn’t even have to be a rebel, intentionally or accidentally.
At the end of her book, Chollet considers the #MeToo movement, as well as both individuals and groups who have fought the patriarchy, seeking justice and a better world. In her closing, she welcomes “a reconfiguration of our social universe” and proposes that we need to turn the world upside down. I agree, but I think that should include upending rather than embracing the “witch.” I, for one, am ready to sweep away this figure that gets conjured up as an insult or a joke, or invoked as a badge of courage. Let’s keep her in our stories, and sure, if you want to practice witchcraft or identify as a witch, go for it. But let’s be done with calling women “witches” and let’s stop suggesting that a powerful woman today is somehow channeling her inner witch. I’ll get my broom.
Bridget M. Marshall is an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, where she teaches courses on witchcraft trials, Gothic novels, disability in literature, and American literature. Her most recent book is Industrial Gothic: Workers, Exploitation and Urbanization in Transatlantic Nineteenth-Century Literature. She has published articles on topics including gambling addictions in gothic novels, witchcraft trials in western Massachusetts, phrenology and physiognomy in the gothic novel, comic books in the classroom, and plagiarism in popular culture.
I am deeply grateful to Maryse Condé, Deirdre English, Sarah Lyons, and Bridget Marshall for taking the time to read and review my book, and to Signs for making this happen. It is especially moving for me to read Condé’s and English’s words, as their books and their visions of witches mattered so much to me and nourished my writing on the subject. I had the feeling of a virtual companionship and dialogue with them at the time, and I never imagined that they would one day read the result. Yes, I loved I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, and, beyond this particular book, I vividly remember my first encounter with Condé’s writing as a teenager, in the French magazine Je Bouquine, which made a very strong impression on me.
I understand Condé’s reproach: it’s only in my last book, Réinventer l’amour (Reinventing Love), about heterosexual relationships, that I frontally address the issue of the patriarchal family, in a chapter about the mechanism of domestic violence. I benefited from the rich and structured collective feminist reflection that was born in France, as elsewhere, from the #MeToo movement, a reflection that emphasizes how family remains “the cradle of dominations” – to quote Dorothée Dussy’s book about incest. In Defense of Witches was written mostly before the Weinstein case and everything that followed, in a more solitary and scattered way.
I totally agree with Deirdre English about the fact that feminism should defend mothers – meaning the vast majority of women, who often pay an exorbitant price for their desire to have children. The way society celebrates motherhood and praises mothers while at the same time making life impossible for them is revolting. But I also wanted to make the case for the child-free life, especially in France, which is a very pro-birth country and where this choice is still not very well accepted.
The disagreement that appears between Deirdre English and Bridget M. Marshall, on one side (“women were never actual witches”), and Sarah Lyons, on the other (“women were and still can be witches”), is now familiar to me. Since my book was released, I’ve been alternately accused of encouraging irrational and fanciful ideas about magic and of denying the actual importance of magic. Clearly, my purpose here was to study the witch not as a reality but as a misogynistic lunacy, a fantasy of powerful men made up to persecute any kind of woman. I wanted to show how society remains suspicious of certain types of women, and not especially powerful ones –single women, childless and child-free women, old women—who all evoke the figure of the witch, even when people nowadays don’t clearly think of them as witches.All oppressed and despised groups may be torn between the need to insist on their normalcy and the need to reverse the stigma.Click To Tweet
But still, I believe very much in the power of role models, and I’m always interested and relieved when I see this hateful archetype being reclaimed and turned into a positive and exciting figure. All oppressed and despised groups may be torn between the need to insist on their normalcy and the need to reverse the stigma. I like the boldness and flamboyance of the latter attitude, even if I’m aware of the risk that it will single women out even more. I honestly don’t know if I believe in magic as a practice, but words, art, literature, imagination—are all forms of magic to me, and I think they are enough to give us powerful tools to fight oppression.
Mona Chollet is a Swiss and French journalist and author born in 1973. She grew up in Geneva, Switzerland, and has been living in Paris for twenty-five years. She works as an editor for the French monthly newspaper Le Monde diplomatique. She has published seven books, mostly about feminist issues, including In Defense of Witches, which was released in France in 2018.