When you hear the word "witch," what do you think of? A fictitious character that pops up in Halloween décor and children’s stories, typically female, wearing a black cape and a pointed hat, riding a broom toward the moon while cackling?
Or do you picture an evil woman, someone you vehemently dislike—maybe a former coworker, a snarky relative or an ex-friend?
For author Kirsten J. Sollée, she pictures herself. And she is neither vehemently disliked nor is the owner of any pointed hats. Instead, she is a feminist, a teacher and “someone who’s deeply invested in unpacking the misogyny people are experiencing today.”
In her book, Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive, released earlier this year, Sollée, a self-proclaimed witch who teaches gender studies at The New School and is the founding editrix of Slutist, a feminist website, talks about the idea of reclaiming the word “witch,” in the same way some feminists have reclaimed “slut” or “bitch,” taking it from a derogatory term meaning “evil” and transforming it into something more positive.
What Is a Witch Today?
Sollée says women who “dare to take up space and live their lives outside their … socially prescribed roles” are often referred to as “witches.” In a culture where violence against women is an epidemic—one out of every four women will experience violence at some point by a partner they love and trust—Sollée says using words like “witch” and “slut” pejoratively is just another way to perpetuate misogyny.
“Witch is the most evil name for a woman who doesn’t submit to patriarchal power,” she says.
In reality, witches are “kind of like feminists,” says Sollée. “They’re nature-based practitioners. They can be of any gender identity, any religion. It’s just someone who’s … grounded in respecting the Earth, not working against it. Someone who is working in harmony with the rest of the world.”
Today, groups of witches meet in a new type of coven, writes Sollée, sometimes still known as “consciousness-raising groups,” a holdover term from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Simply put, they’re gatherings of those who identify as witches who want to create community and enact change. One such example is Girl Cvlt, a secretive online gathering with more than 5,000 members worldwide. They gained recognition in 2016 for mobilizing massive letter-writing events to unseat the judge who gave Stanford student and convicted rapist Brock Turner just six months for his assault.
Where Witches Got Their Bad Rap
The root of witches as evil started back in the 1400s when these individuals, mostly women, were thought to be servants of Satan. They were made to blame for every misfortune that came about, from poor crops to infertility, says Sollée. “There was no occurrence too large or too small to attribute to sorcery.”
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They were from all places and of all ages, but, writes Sollée, “a disproportionate number of accused witches were over forty years of age, which coincides with waning fertility, the criterion by which a woman’s worth was measured in early modern society.”
Starting as far back as the 15th century, such witches were “hunted.” Around the world, some 200,000 individuals accused of witchcraft were killed, usually by hanging, between 1500 and 1800. The Salem Witch Trials were perhaps the most well-known prosecutions in the U.S., taking place in the late 1600s, but they were hardly the most brutal. They resulted in the executions of 20 people yet they’re regarded as one of Colonial America’s most notorious cases of mass hysteria.
What Sollée points out in her book, however, is that while we may want to believe witch hunts were a part of a history long since passed, they’re actually still alive and well today.
Modern-Day Witch Hunts
“When ‘bitch’ won’t suffice to denigrate a woman, ‘witch’ adds an element of supernatural evil that has no male equivalent in common use,” writes Sollée.
The connections between such a destructive label as “witch” and the power and control that comes with domestic abuse is clear. Using this term, says Sollée, is yet another way today’s culture continues to perpetuate the acceptance of dominance over women.
“These words are used to dehumanize and police behavior, and give you the opportunity to treat someone like they’re not human or less than,” says Sollée.
Back in the day, witches were often thought to hold some sort of sexual power over men. If a man was seduced by a woman, it was not of his choice, but rather that of the devilish power of a supernatural witch. The woman—the “witch”—was punished accordingly.
“There was this benevolent sexism in the Witch Trials,” Sollée says. “It was thought that women had to be saved from the evil devil that had gotten into them.” Today, some abusers use religious scripture to justify their abuse, while others shift the blame for their choices onto their victims.
Can ‘Witch’ Be Reclaimed?
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Lindy West wrote in an article for The New York Times after Hillary Clinton lost the election in 2016, “We as a culture do not take women seriously on a profound level. We do not believe women. We do not trust women. We do not like women.”
If that is true, there is a lot of work to be done. Sollée agrees.
“Women doing anything out of the ordinary … it’s thought that it has to come from the devil. It can’t just be of this Earth. It has to be negative. A lot of people who are called [witch] are just trying to live their lives,” she says.
If SlutWalks are any evidence, “witch” too, can be reclaimed for good. The annual SlutWalk movement that was inspired by a police officer’s comment that women could avoid harassment and assault if they just “stopped dressing like sluts,” has since spurred walks around the world, supporting a discourse on preventing sexual assault.
“With the women’s movement where it is now, there’s the ability for many more of us to talk about the repercussions of [these words],” says Sollée. “But it’s not a perfect process.”
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