Last night on my drive home from performing in a staged reading of The Seagull and dinner with a friend, I heard this story on WGBH, Boston Public Radio about the first witch trail in the Hamptons. What interested me was a study that found those accused of being witches were often women about to come into inheritance, thus making them independent women. Women, who were accused of witchcraft, “often were spinsters, barren, ugly, extremely successful, independent, reclusive, litigious, or willful” (http://www.angelfire.com/mi4/polcrt/SalemTrials.html).
In Connecticut, there are known to be 35 witch trials “between 1647 and 1697, as well as two more in the 18th Century, of which a total of eleven resulted in executions” (http://www.witchcraftandwitches.com/trials_connecticut.html). We also know of the case in the East Hamptons in 1658. And approximately 80 people were accused between 1648 – 1663 in Massachusetts, executing 19 of them. The numbers vary, but the closest “guesstimate” is about 30 women and a few men were executed during this time. (Compared to thousands in Europe prior to this). Women who did not confess to witchcraft were the ones most often put to death. Those who did confess were given a break but then ostracized from their communities.
So why am I carrying on today about the witch trials, other than the fact that it’s Halloween? If we look back and see that most of those executed were women and that “most of those women had somehow manifested an independence or insubordination deemed inappropriate and even potentially disruptive or dangerous, should provide one of the most telling explanations of all. It is also worthy of note that most of the accused were middle-aged, without sons or brothers; they thus stood to inherit property and to live as autonomous spinsters, an existence that in and of itself threatened to defy or unseat the carefully maintained and cherished patriarchal order of this seventeenth-century society” (http://www.shmoop.com/colonial-new-england/gender.html).
We are about to possibly elect some Republican men who would probably fit in quite well in 17th century New England. Let’s do a quick recap of the last few months. Todd Akin, a congressman running for U.S. Senate in Missouri, said rape survivors don’t need abortions because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Joe Walsh, a House incumbent in Illinois, asserted that “with modern technology and science, you can’t find one instance” where abortion is necessary to protect a woman’s life or health. And most recently, Richard Mourdock, the Indiana state treasurer and Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, who Mitt Romney has endorsed, stated that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen” (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/frame_game/2012/10/todd_akin_and_richard_mourdock_banning_abortion_for_rape_victims_is_the.html).
This complete dismissal of women owning their bodies feels like we’ve traveled back in time to Salem. And the misogyny of these Republican candidates is not just about rape and reproductive rights. It is also about the old evil spinster who will live into her 90s and have no access to Medicare or Social Security because her benefits will be destroyed. Most of the policies being proposed by these men are about keeping women in their place, witch is exactly what the witch trials were about. When asked about pay equity for women, Romney could not answer whether he thought it was important, but that women needed “flex time” so they could get home to their children to make dinner. What I surmise from this statement is that he is not concerned with women getting equal pay, but concerned that we stay in our “proper place.”
So on Halloween I ask you to pause and reflect on all the women (and men) who were killed in the name of Patriarchy and to think hard about what choices you will make next week at the Polls. Will those choices include expanding the rights we have as citizens (equal pay, medical marijuana, national healthcare, reproductive rights, marriage equality, euthanasia, gays serving openly in the military) or will it be about shrinking those rights and sending women back to a time when speaking our mind could end in burning at the stake or a long trip to the insane asylum? Happy Halloween!