As a Romani woman from a long, matrilineal line of healers and magic workers, how could I fail to be intrigued by Kristen J. Sollée’s book, Witches, Sluts, Feminists. It’s a scintillating, wry, and accessibly academic overview of the witch archetype in relation to the European and American witch hunts, and to the festival of misogyny in current American politics. Sollée, a professor of Genders Studies at The New School, teaches a popular class on the same topic. In the book, Sollée explores the deadly interplay of women’s financial and social autonomy, and sometimes sexual liberation, during the inquisition and the days of colonial America. Today, though sex and power can still be damning for women, they can also be quite a combination for activism and protest art.
Linked to the archetype of the witch is its sister archetype, the slut, and Sollée scours European and colonial American history and present-day art and activism for women who transform condemnation into a movement of liberation. It was surprisingly enlightening to understand the ways in conservative, often white, men, have condemned “othered” women as witches and sluts, and how feminists have reclaimed these labels to deconstruct their toxic rhetoric and assert their power. This feels particularly pertinent in Trump’s America, where women’s bodies have been villainized as something to be controlled, regulated, and ultimately, deemed as a preexisting condition and thus unfit for care and coverage. Sollée provides resources for those of us who may be curious about witch/slut activism and want to do more, and for many, these movements may be both a refuge and a platform in our new political climate. This is especially true for marginalized women, but often, both witch and slut movements tend to leave out women of color, misappropriate their traditions, and ignore cultural/colonizing reasons why "slut" and "witch" may not be empowering words to reclaim for all. Sollée acknowledges this too, and starts to move the witch/slut consciousness toward intersectionalism.
It’s important to note that Sollée’s book does not pretend to be more than it is, which is a survey of the witch in European and colonized American history, and its myriad present-day manifestations. At the same time, Sollée acknowledges that modern day Paganism is sometimes (often) deeply informed by an appropriation of colonized black and brown spiritualities, and makes a point of addressing these issues through the chapter, “Tituba’s Legacy.” This chapter focuses on the contributions and appropriation of “brown and black girl magic,” as well as Tituba, the indentured servant from the Caribbean first accused in the Salem witch trials. Sollée thoughtfully explores how Tituba’s social position affected her testimony, and acknowledges the power dynamics of survival when most of the history books do not. She discusses how the appropriation of Voodoo, Yoruba, South Asian, East Asian, and Native American spiritualities further alienates, others, and marginalizes sisters who have to fight even harder for equality, and so it’s crucial to be mindful of how our word choices and behaviors affect others.
This has felt especially true in my experience. The Roma, a diasporic ethnic group of Indian descent, more commonly but insulting known by the racial slur “Gypsy” (as in “gypped”), have consistently been typecast as witches and sluts, and pitied by feminists who know just enough about us to be dangerous. The amount of bullshit “Gypsy Magic” books I’ve found just browsing Barnes and Nobel that reinforce harmful stereotypes about Romani fuckability and our magical, animal-like qualities, and don’t say a word about our history of persecution, the crushing Romani and Sinti genocide of WWII, and the current human rights crisis, is astounding evidence of this. We can honor other culture’s power without appropriating and perpetuating harmful stereotypes that add to their oppression.
Sollée connects this to the commodity of the witch, and the way that capitalism is cashing in on an inherently anti-capitalist way of life. Other fascinating topics include witches in film, covens and community, the digital witch, the queer witch, and witch fashion. There are so many delicious reasons to read this book, including the opportunity to discover “flying ointment,” the herb-infused pussy salve that had witches flying high and terrifying the Catholic church way back when. If you’re looking for a thoughtful, informed look at the origins of European witchood and slutdom from past to present, then you have stuck gold with Witches, Sluts, Feminists.
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Jessica Reidy is a Brooklyn-based writer and professor, and an editor for The VIDA Review. She won The Penelope Nivens Award for Creative Nonfiction, and her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in Narrative Magazine as Short Story of the Week, The Los Angeles Review, Prairie Schooner, and other journals. She is a Kripalu-certified yoga instructor offering yoga classes as well as yoga and creative writing workshops. She is also an artist as well as an art model working with a number of artists and studios in the city. Additionally, she continues to work her Romani (“Gypsy”) family trades, fortune telling, energy healing, and dancing. She is currently writing her first novel about a Romani family, haunted houses, and Nazi hunting. Follow her on www.jessicareidy.com, on Twitter @JSReidy, and on Instagram @Jezmina.Vonthiele.
Photo credit: Oscar Fuertes