Are witches the ultimate feminists?
A new book argues that witchcraft’s proponents were among the first to champion the cause and compares their treatment with that of Hillary Clinton.
Men have always feared powerful women, Kristin J Sollee argues in her new book, Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive, and the witch is the ultimate personification of that terror. “Witches, sluts, and feminists are the trifecta of terror for the patriarchy,” Sollee explains. “To me, the primal impulse behind each of these contested identities is self-sovereignty … witches, sluts, and feminists embody the potential for self-directed feminine power, and sexual and intellectual freedom.”
Sollee’s book positions itself as a whirlwind history of the witch in America and her shared history with sexually liberated women and radical liberationary politics. It’s a bite-sized grimoire than spans centuries, name-checking mythological menaces like Hecate, the Greek goddess of witchcraft, alongside historical heroines such as Joan of Arc and modern-day figures such as Malala Yousafzai. There’s also plenty of space for midwives, satanists, sex workers and the wise brujas holding court at local botánicas. Sollee guides the reader through centuries of mania, magic and malice. She also unreservedly dives into the thornier political issues of intersectionality, sex workers’ rights and the unique oppression faced by witches of color.
In the chapter Hex Sells: Feminist, Capitalism, and the Witch, Sollee sojourns to a vast Urban Outfitters in southern California, counting up black lace shawls and artisan smudge sticks while navigating the complexities of appropriation and its functionality as a gateway for would-be witches. “There will always be capitalist appropriation of identities and movements that were once relegated to the fringes. I believe the first line of defense is raising awareness about where these symbols originated from, and why they ring hollow when co-opted for corporate gain,” Sollee says.
Hillary Clinton – the Wicked Witch of the Left – is given her own chapter. During the contentious 2016 presidential campaign, the Democratic candidate was dubbed “a witch with a B” by the conservative talkshow host Rush Limbaugh, taunted by Trump supporters who vilified her “vagenda of manocide”, and maligned by Bernie Sanders supporters who cried out to “Bern the Witch!” Clinton’s flaws as a candidate have been discussed to death, but the vehement hatred which she was shown was undeniably owed in part to her gender and to her perceived audacity in grasping for power.
The rampant misogyny, white supremacy and bigotry of her opponent’s campaign and current administration have won Trump few friends on the left – or on the left-hand path, as the Women’s March (where some black robe-clad protesters carried “Witches for Black Lives” and “Hex the Patriarchy” signs) and the phenomenon of mass hexings that followed his inauguration showed. Groups of witches across the country gathered to cast spells of resistance against Trump, re-upping their efforts on 20 June, the summer solstice. While many of these gatherings were largely symbolic, their intent was deadly serious. In an interview with Broadly, Lucien Graves, the founder of the Satanic Temple, characterized these spell-casting sessions as a form of protest, referring to them as “symbolic expressions of ritualized discontent”.
Sollee sees this kind of magical community building as a positive outlet for collective catharsis. “Regardless of whether you believe in magic or the collective consciousness or any of that, these mass hexings create community through shared intention,” she explains.
“Witches have always been politically radical, in my opinion, but it seems that even more American witches are these days because the internet allows for a new kind of organizing on a larger scale.
“It’s no coincidence that the reclamation of the witch as a symbol of female power and persecution started with the suffragettes, and later saw a renaissance in the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s,” she continues. “In this new age of sexist turmoil, it’s fitting she be resurrected once more to teach us, inspire us, and remind us how far we’ve come – and how much further we have to go.”
There’s no one way to be a witch, as Sollee stresses, and our own pop cultural icons – from The Wizard of Oz to Elvira and American Horror Story: Coven – have taught us. Her book is not meant to define any of its subjects; instead, it’s more of a primer, or an enticing peek behind the curtain. Personally, she sees the witch in broad terms, defining her as “someone who can shift perceptions and create change. The identity can be conceived of in so many ways, it’s all about discovering what kind of witch you already are – or desire to be.”
Solle is also careful to note the very real danger that still faces witches – and accused “witches” – in some parts of the world. To this day, witch trials result in violence against women, including murder, as they have done since time immemorial – from the hangings at Salem and violent 15th-century European witch hunts to the the 500 “witches” killed in Tanzania each year and the continuing persecution of “witch children” in Gambia.
“People fear what they can’t control. It reminds me of that quote about equality feeling like oppression to those who have always had the upper hand. The threat of gender parity is a frightening prospect – all those rabid, untamed women on the prowl for bodily autonomy,” Sollee says. “But we can use it to our advantage by embracing our deviancy in ways that confound those who seek to silence us. Their fear can become our power.”