June 10 marks the anniversary of Bridget Bishop’s hanging in 1692 for being a convicted witch, the first of 19 hangings in Salem, Mass. (Some accounts put the total at 20 people executed.) Thirteen of those executed for witchcraft and devil worship were women, many of whom made people uncomfortable by being “unruly.” Married three times, Bishop was known for dressing exotically (by Puritan standards), drinking at taverns, fighting publicly with her husbands and generally disregarding Puritan societal standards. Bishop declared her innocence at her execution, to no avail.
Centuries ago, the Salem witch trials targeted those most vulnerable in colonial society, forcing women like Bishop to pay the highest possible price for nonconformity. While the legal system has changed since the days of Puritan rule, one thing remains the same: Vulnerable women pay the price for circumstances that are often beyond their control.
The witch trials happened during a period of economic unease, with some Salem families faring better than others. Salem society was permeated by interpersonal conflicts, many of which stemmed from competition over resources. Historian Edward Bever has noted that such conflict included “gossip, insults, scolding, threats, curses, ritual magic, legal action, and various forms of physical assault.”
In this environment, women were consigned to rigid roles — mother, wife, caretaker. They had one job: producing obedient, religious children. Women who stepped outside these rigid boundaries were seen as working with Satan. (Why else would a woman reject her expected role?)
As descendants of Eve, the original woman to fall from grace, women were viewed by the Puritans as vulnerable to temptations like desire for material possessions or sexual satisfaction. Being homeless, poor or childless was cause for concern, and these were the women targeted by the trials.
Such was the situation for two of the initial Salem accused witches: Sarah Osborne, a poor elderly woman, and an Indian slave named Tituba. Osborne was a widow who, after her husband’s death, took in an Irish immigrant as a farmhand, whom she would later marry. Then by claiming her deceased husband’s estate for herself instead of her children, she challenged the standard practice at the time of inheritance and land tenure. In fact, it was the accusation of witchcraft that ended the legal battle with her children.
While Osborne protested that she was innocent, Tituba confessed that the devil had asked her to serve him, and that she had agreed. In fact, it was Tituba’s claim that there were other witches like her that were working to destroy the Puritans that provided investigators enough evidence to justify launching a witch hunt. That Tituba was American Indian, a culture that Puritans feared, helped lend credibility to her confession.
Sarah Good was another accused woman who did not behave according to the standards expected of proper Puritan women. Like Bishop, Good was unruly. According to some sources, Good and her husband were poor and known to fight with other townspeople, making the couple unpopular in the community.
Good was, unsurprisingly, angry and resentful at being falsely accused of witchcraft and the subsequent loss of her family’s land. Her neighbors found her ungrateful and lacking in humility when they offered assistance — for which she had to beg — in the way of food or shelter. Some of them spearheaded the campaign against her, claiming she pinched children, used witchcraft to sicken or kill their livestock and appeared at night naked and covered in blood. Good was found guilty, sent to prison and later executed. But it didn’t stop there. Her very young daughter Dorothy (also known as Dorcas) Good also was subsequently found guilty of using witchcraft to exact revenge on her mother’s accusers.
Being poor, vulnerable, unruly and sexually promiscuous turned these women into targets of the criminal justice system.
Today, the criminal justice system continues to punish the vulnerable women in society. Most women who end up under supervision of the U.S. correctional system, whether through probation, jail, prison or parole, come from a poor background.
They are vulnerable because, more so than their male counterparts, female criminals often have extensive histories of victimization and trauma. A girl facing physical or sexual abuse at the hands of parents, relatives or family friends may opt to run away, thereby becoming a criminal by leaving her home as a minor. Once a runaway, a young girl faces bleak potential outcomes. Many runaways often fall prey to pimps, leading to prostitution. These prostitutes, in turn, make life bearable by retreating into drug and alcohol abuse.
It’s only a matter of time before they get caught up in the justice system, which is traditionally male-oriented and run by men. Correctional facilities are at times ill-equipped to receive female inmates, having traditionally been designed with male inmates in mind. While there are some correctional facilities specifically designed for women (for instance, ones that allow them to have and keep their babies while incarcerated), these are not the majority of facilities.
Like the Puritan witches before them, women offenders are also unruly because they behave in ways that “good” women do not.
As Pauline Brennan and Abby Vandenberg have noted, good women include wives and mothers who are “nurturing, emotional, and non-aggressive … passive, cooperative, chaste.” “Good” women and girls do not run away from home, even if fleeing an abusive home life. They do not turn to drugs to cope with a life on the street that may include prostitution. They do not steal to support a drug habit. Unruly, criminal women do these things. Like Bishop, Good and other accused Salem witches, modern female offenders often get removed from society via arrest, conviction and sentencing.
So what do we do about “witches” today?
Framing women as witches (or in modern thinking, as criminals, convicts or felons) and throwing them away (for instance, by placing them in prison) demonizes women and minimizes the circumstances that molded them. Of course, powerful women who have broken glass ceilings often also incur the title of witch as well, including Hillary Clinton, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
In a surprising turn, however, some women are trying to take ownership of the term “witch,” transforming its meaning into something that extols women’s empowerment and pushes back against patriarchy. In her response to director Woody Allen’s statement that women coming forth with sexual harassment allegations had created a “witch hunt atmosphere,” Lindy West wrote, “The witches are coming [for sexual harassers and rapists] … we have our stories, and we’re going to keep telling them.”
For better or worse, it seems that the intertwining of women and witches, and the legacy of the Salem witch trials, are here to stay.