For many, the witch is a symbol of female power. Embodying the fear of women unbowed by patriarchy, the witch is also a symbol of female persecution, as women deemed witches have faced ostracism, torture, and death since the Early Modern era.
At a time when more and more millennial women are engaging in witchcraft, trying out tarot, studying herbalism, and following the primordial cycles of the waxing and waning moon, “witch” has ironically returned as a damning epithet. In the most misogynous election season to date, the witch hunt has been resurrected with perverse, new fervor. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Presidential nominee, former Secretary of State, Senator from New York, and First Lady of the United States, was the witch to be immolated.
A target for her gender, her personality, and her policies, Hillary Clinton has been defamed with the word “witch” for decades. When “bitch” won’t suffice, “witch” adds an element of supernatural evil that has no male equivalent in common use. Public, powerful and controversial women are often branded with the term, and a brief online image search for “Hillary Clinton + witch” will offer a multitude of memes and cartoons featuring the stateswoman depicted with green skin — cackling, melting, or flying high — in full Wicked Witch of the West regalia.
To Republican Presidential nominee Donald J. Trump, his campaign surrogates, and/or his supporters, Clinton is “Crooked Hillary”: a “bitch,” “tramp,” and the “wicked witch of the Left” connected with “Lucifer” who deserves to be locked up in chains or executed in a firing line. She is “Hildabeast Clinton” out to destroy humanity with her “Vagenda of Manocide.”
“Give her a broom so she can fly away, that witch,” scoffed Trump crony and model/actor Antonio Sabato Jr. in an interview on Fox News.
This was hardly the witch’s first appearance in politics, however.
To understand the witch’s transformation from servant of Satan to engine of activism — and back again — requires a look into the early days of the feminist movement, when women were first seeking a figure emblematic of their struggle.
Picture this: Glinda the Good Witch in her spangly crown and frothy, pink tulle gown.
She welcomes Dorothy when the Kansas ingénue shows up in Oz, wide-eyednd frightened. She wields her glittering star-tipped wand with grace, each movement rustling her puffy sleeves and voluminous petticoats. She is motherly, soft-spoken, embodying classic feminine qualities.
“Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” she asks Dorothy, glancing down at Toto.
Parroting back a stereotype which originated in the European witch hunts where a majority of accused witches were over 40 years old, Dorothy replies that she cannot be a witch because “witches are old and ugly.” The Munchkins laugh off camera because little does Dorothy know.
Glinda is one of the first explicitly “good” witches to be depicted in popular media, first in L. Frank Baum’s 1900 book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and later in the 1939 MGM film adaptation, The Wizard of Oz. Some might be shocked to find out that it was Glinda, and not her green-faced, twisted sister, who was inspired by an early feminist and foremother of women’s suffrage, Matilda Joslyn Gage.
One of the more radical of the 19th century suffragettes, Gage was an abolitionist who purportedly offered up her home as part of the Underground Railroad, a dedicated campaigner for women’s suffrage, and a woman vocally opposed to the collusion of church and state. She was also the author of 1893’s Woman, Church & State, a searing indictment of the patriarchal powers that be.
In this radical book, Gage provides an in-depth discussion of the European witch trials and Christian misogyny, humanizing the persecuted witch, and providing inspiration for L. Frank Baum’s characterization of Glinda in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. As Baum’s mother-in-law, the elder stateswoman of early feminism had a major impact on his writing, according to Gage Center Executive Director and historian Sally Roesch Wagner.
Before reclaiming language and stigmatized figures was viewed as a revolutionary tool, Gage was reassessing the legacy of the witch, actively working to challenge conceptions of the witch’s role in history. In Gage’s estimation, witches were not maleficent sorceresses, but women targeted by the Christian state. She theorized that the word ‘witch’ “formerly signified a woman of superior knowledge.”
Gage’s analysis of the witch craze is in line with that of many 20th-century feminist historians, and without her, witches might still be viewed as solely evil in popular culture.
The idea of every woman as witch — and as political dissident — has its roots in Gage’s work. By the feminist explosion of the 1960s, the time was ripe for the witch to be revived as a political symbol, and the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy From Hell were just the women for the job.
In 1968, the conflict in Vietnam was raging, Martin Luther King had been assassinated, and the women’s liberation movement was diversifying and splintering into a variety of political action groups.
One of these was New York City’s W.I.T.C.H.
Approximately thirteen women created this confrontational coven on Halloween in 1968, including feminist luminaries Robin Morgan, Florika and Naomi Jaffe.
As Alice Echols explains in Daring To Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975, they were inspired by the Yippies (Young International Party), who were known for “organizing through outrageous acts.”
W.I.T.C.H. took guerrilla theater to the next level, drawing on fears of the wicked woman by fashioning themselves in her image. Dressed in Halloween chic shifts, pointy black hats and brandishing broomsticks with comedic flair, W.I.T.C.H. set their sights on capitalism and corporations as the machines driving sexism of the day. Eventually, there were chapters in Washington D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, and other big cities.
Some W.I.T.C.H.es would hex the New York Stock Exchange, don black veils to protest a bridal fair, and fight back against office sexism at a telephone company.
Others would mail nail clippings and hair to a university that fired a radical feminist professor.
Draped in black, W.I.T.C.H. took to the streets, chanting with hands clasped, summoning their collective power to make a scene and mobilize minds.
The group was short-lived, but the witch would continue to transform over the next half century from vixen to hag, healer to hellion, and adversary to advocate — depending on who summons her.
Fast forward to the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the woman-as-witch rhetoric reached a boiling point.
After a virulent display of Clinton-hate which included threats of violence, Clinton’s campaign felt the need to comment with a pointed email.
Titled “a witch hunt,” the message from Christina Reynolds, Deputy Communications Director of Hillary for America was simple. Drawing comparisons between the witch trials of the past and the demonization of her candidate, Reynolds wrote:
I thought the behavior at the RNC couldn’t get a whole lot worse. Tuesday night proved me wrong.
Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey…stood on stage and accused Hillary of being a criminal, bellowing “GUILTY” over and over again as the crowd egged him on.
He had the entire arena chanting “lock her up” — a cry that has become the mantra of the RNC.
If you closed your eyes, you could imagine it being a lot like a witch trial — they were barely one step removed from screaming “burn her at the stake.”
Whatever your views on Clinton as a politician or a person, there have been few smear campaigns as close to the witch hunts of yore as this one.
After Clinton clinched her nomination for president at the Democratic National Convention, Salon published an article putting a new spin on her witchiness, titled, “Kudos to Hillary for playing the woman card: If people are going to call her a witch, she’ll tell them she’s Hermione Granger.”
Writer Amanda Marcotte named dropped J.K. Rowling’s most studious, level-headed witch in the title, drawing parallels between the Harry Potter character and Clinton’s leadership style.
After all, the witch can be used against women, but she can work in our favor, too.
Marcotte raised issue with the kind of denigration Clinton has faced, writing: “The claims that her haters make about her — that she’s mendacious, manipulative, bossy, and shrill — bear no relationship to the woman herself, but sure do sound exactly like the same things people have always said about women who seek power and independence, since the days such women were burned as witches.”
This was hardly the end of threats against Clinton, however, and they keep escalating by the day.
A fitting apotheosis of the witch discourse occurred only this week during the second presidential debate. Disparaging former Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders for supporting Clinton and making “a deal” with her, Donald Trump elevated Clinton’s position within the medieval demonological pantheon from witch to “the devil.”
The “Hildabeast” has finally transformed from Satanic sorceress to Satan herself. No longer just a witch who, following Early Modern thought, gains her powers from the Devil, Clinton is now ruler of the underworld, apparently. Was this an inadvertent admission of her growing power and eventual triumph over Trump? Only time will tell.
***Based on excerpts from Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring The Sex Positive, published by Three L Media, forthcoming in 2017.
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