When imagining the defining qualities of a witch, contradictory images come to mind: old, haggard and evil like the Wicked Witch of the West or young, beautiful and kind like Sabrina the Teenage Witch from the comic book series and later ‘90s sitcom. 

Despite these contrasting cultural visions, one undeniable feature about witches is that they are always imagined as women, both within pop culture and historical contexts. 

During the infamous colonial New England witch trials, over 78% of the 344 accused witches during this period were women, according to Carol Karlsen’s 1987 book “The Devil in the Shape of a Woman.

The attributes of suspected witches had an indisputable tie to resistance to the social order, which was largely influenced at the time by Puritan beliefs. 

Witches were representations of everything women were discouraged to be in the eyes of the Puritans: disagreeable, lustful and defiant to God. 

Many women accused of witchcraft were known to file grievances with the court involving property, mistreatment and even divorce.

In his 1693 book “On Witchcraft,” Puritan minister Cotton Matther once noted, “Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft,” in an attempt to justify the witch hunts.

During the late 1600s and early 1700s, accused witches were often imprisoned, tortured and even executed.

As much as witch hunts were an attack on witches, they were an attack on women, particularly women who were forward about their dissatisfaction with their lives. 

Today, feminism plays an important role in modern day interpretations of witchcraft. Wicca, a nature-based, neo-pagan religion, has strong ties to activism, according to the History channel

In 1968, activist Robin Morgan founded the radical feminist organization W.I.T.C.H — Women’s

International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, according to Morgan’s website. The organization utilized the witch archetype as a symbol of political action by participating in guerilla theater protests dressed as witches. 

In the popular 1969 book “The Spiral Dance,” eco-feminist Starhawk expressed feminist attitudes about neo-pagan practices and beliefs. “To reclaim the word witch is to reclaim our right, as women, to be powerful,” Starhawk said in her book. 

The witch is an important symbol of triumph for women, one that represents power and liberation. 

Much like women were used as scapegoats for their connection to witchcraft in the colonial era, women today are still blamed for wrongdoings caused by others. 

Accused witches in New England were described as seductresses who lured and entrapped men into participating in sexual deviancies, yet men were never at fault for not being able to control their desires. 

The woman as the seducer who men have no choice but to be aroused by is still a stereotype that is projected onto women today. 

In the 2017 book, “Witches, Sluts, Feminists,” feminist scholar Kristen Solle discusses the implications of “witch feminism” throughout history. For Solle, the legacy of the witch is a tool for fighting back against patriarchal attitudes.  

“The witch is undoubtedly the magical woman, the liberated woman and the persecuted woman, but she can also be everywoman,” Sollee said. 

As much as the witch is a symbol of persecution, it is also a symbol of power and reclamation. With Halloween approaching, take the time to remember that the history of witches is not one without the plight of women and female resistance. 

Follow Paige Nicewaner on Twitter, @indienerdtrash

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