BY GIANNA STANLEY
When you think about witch trials, the first thing that comes to mind is the Salem Witch Trials, where 19 people lost their lives. Interestingly, 14 of these victims were women. In a society where men controlled every aspect of life, and were indoctrinated by strong religious beliefs, women were often the targets of persecution. The witch trials were not about fighting off the devil’s work, they were about silencing the powerless.
In 1692, when 9-year-old Betty and 11-year-old Abigail began experiencing violent twitching and uncontrollable screaming, a local doctor diagnosed bewitchment, with other girls soon experiencing similar symptoms. The authorities targeted Tituba, the family’s South American slave, a homeless beggar, and a poor, elderly woman, and accused them of bewitching the girls. Notice how these are all women in the lowest echelons of society – the easiest to be targeted. Even on the slight occurrence when men were accused of being a witch, it was often because they were associated with women; the Puritan brothers or husbands of these supposed witches. When accused women named other supposed witches, it was merely because they were tortured and feared the outcome of these lies.
The witch trials were not about fighting off the devil’s work, they were about silencing the powerless.
Puritans had very specific ideas about what a woman’s role in society is. They were to have babies, raise children to be good puritans, manage the household, and be subservient to their husband. They also believed that women could be more easily influenced by the devil due to the ‘original sin’ brought about by Eve and the forbidden fruit. Therefore, it is clear that as soon as women stepped outside the boundaries of these prescribed roles, they would instantly be oppressed. It even reached the absurd point that having too many children indicated a deal with the devil, but too little children was a curse. Indeed, it was the unfortunate women who did not have a man as a safeguard, or were of different ethnicities, that were instantly victims. These harsh constraints created an impossible life.
Interestingly, most Puritans who claimed to be victims of witchery were women, and often young girls. The initial two victims of the Salem Trials were daughters of a popular reverend. Many suggest that the girls faked their symptoms, as seen in The Crucible, where the protagonist targeted the wife of the man she was having an affair with. However, it all comes back to the men; the ones in power. Tibuta was shamed for being the one teaching young girls this evil magic, but given her position as an enslaved woman of colour, her confession was very likely coerced. Unfortunately, these racist ideas are still apparent, and Tibuta’s persecution can be compared to modern-day unjust political systems that target people of colour.
These harsh constraints created an impossible life.
This is why witch trials were not about saving people from ‘black magic’, but rather about a justice system who was more ready to accept male misconduct than women who did not fit into the Puritan stereotype. Almost 400 years later, women and people of colour still face disadvantages, subjugation, and fear, merely for existing. Women have been casualties of a society dominated by men for far too long, but we are slowly closing the gender parity.