'In Defense of Witches' is a celebration of women
At the start of Mona Chollet's In Defense of Witches: The Legacy of the Witch Hunts and Why Women Are Still on Trial, readers are asked to think of the first witch that made an impression on them.
For me, this was an interesting exercise because while all the witches mentioned in those first few pages come from literature, in my case, it was my maternal grandmother.
Very old, divorced decades, known for brewing bizarre concoctions for whatever ailed you, and perennially surrounded by dogs, my maternal grandmother spoke to the dead when we drove past a cemetery, had an "off-limits" bathroom that housed spirits, and carried pounds of laminated prayer cards and milagritos — small metal religious charms — strapped to her bra. She also had about five teeth left after a life of fearing the dentist. To me, she was powerful, a real witch, and I loved her. I also ended up loving In Defense of Witches because it celebrates that power.
Today we often hear "witch hunt" in a variety of contexts, but none of them are remotely close to the original witch hunts, which were almost entirely focused on women — and regularly included torture, rape, and death, always at the hands of men. While we no longer burn women at the stake, some of the anti-woman sentiment at the core of witch hunts is, unfortunately, alive and healthy. As author Carmen Maria Machado says in the book's introduction, we no longer burn, hang, or drown as many women now as we did in the past, "but there is no shortage of ways women's lives continue to be destroyed. Women are abused, assaulted, economically disempowered, raped, shoved into the margins, pressured, silenced, ignored, treated as guinea pigs, co-opted, stolen from, misrepresented, forced into pregnancy or servitude, imprisoned, and, yes, sometimes murdered."
In Defense of Witches takes witches — unmarried, childless, strong, independent women in control of their future, their time, and their sexuality — and uses those elements to explore how women who possessed those attributes, or who simply failed to comply with what men wanted of them, were accused of witchcraft and persecuted. Then the book focuses on how modern women who are independent, childless, and elderly must still deal with some of the same pressures as the witches of old did.
At its core, this is a book that deconstructs modern ideas that come from a much more misogynistic time and shows how they are still incredibly common. From religious reasons throughout history — "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Exodus 22:18) — to contemporary events in which witches "take part in the Black Lives Matter movement, put spells on Donald Trump, protest against white supremacists and against those who question a woman's right to abortion," Chollet explores not only how anti-women sentiment is still prevalent but also how some of the ideas that were in vogue hundreds of years ago still oppress women today — and contribute to the perpetuation of patriarchy.
Chollet has a knack for entertaining prose, and that makes this dense narrative easy to read. She looks at the work of researchers, psychiatrists, actors, writers, sociologists, journalists, some of her friends, and even her own experiences and enters into a conversation with them, and with herself and the reader, to make her points. In the process, she asks important questions with a historical perspective — "What if this Devil were in fact independence?" — makes scathing observations about what many call "social institutions" --"It seems that single people dream only of marriage, while the married dream of nothing but escape" — and makes strong declarations that, given the amount of evidence presented, are impossible to argue with:
"Self-sacrifice remains the only fate imaginable for women. More precisely, it is a self-sacrifice that operates by way of abandoning one's own creative potential rather than by its realization."
In In Defense of Witches, witches only make occasional appearances, but they are always there in spirit as Chollet explores what society expects of women. For example, witches were healers and knew things about nature that others ignored. They had the freedom to pursue knowledge because they weren't married and had no kids. In modern societies, we encourage girls to get educated — and then push on them the idea that they are supposed to have children to fulfill their roles as women and to have a full life. Once they have "achieved" motherhood, they should take care of the house and the babies, cook, clean, and make sure their children get an education, but that all happens — and there are plenty of writers talking about that in the book — at the expense of the time these women could spend working on their passions, pursuing more knowledge, or, as in some cases here, writing masterpieces.
"There is room for every view, it seems to me," states Chollet. "I only struggle to understand why the one I subscribe to is so poorly accepted and why an immovable consensus persists around the idea that, for everyone, to succeed in life implies having offspring." This line, simple and personal yet, to some, very problematic, sums up the spirit of In Defense of Witches.
In Defense of Witches celebrates women, offers a plethora of reasons to accept a variety of viewpoints, and shows how women are still expected to act certain ways or be ostracized. Despite all that, the element that overpowers all others is the celebration of feminist minds and their work, our modern witches. Yes, this book will make you angry at the staying power of misogyny, but it will also make you scream "Long live witches!" — and that makes it a must-read.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.
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