This is one of many images easily found through a google search for the terms witch +(any female politician’s name)This is one of many images easily found through a google search for the terms witch +(any female politician’s name)
I just completed my second stint on the radio with the ABC, an utterly surreal though mostly enjoyable experience – made more so by the presenter and guest being people I listen to on ABC Radio National every week. In its aftermath and fuelled by too many pre-interview coffees, I am left wanting to say more and to clarify my final remarks, so I thought I would pop my thoughts up here.
Towards the end of the discussion the case of Joan of Arc came up, and I rather felt I failed to make the point I would have liked to have made. My long ago research on Joan as a undergraduate left me with two lasting thoughts, the first was that she knew her catechism backwards and sideways, and neatly sidestepped doctrinal nooses the judges dangled in front of her; and secondly that the real concern was heresy, with witchcraft accusations tacked on because she-is-female-religiously-problematic-and-unfortunately-powerful-so-lets-accuse-her-of-witchcraft-too. Not an unusual tactic when dealing with women in political arenas in either the fifteenth or the twenty-first century.
Witchcraft in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as the ultimate smear, the accusation it is impossible to escape. For women it could be – and still can be, depending on where you live – a dangerous thing to be accused of. It represents, I think, the embedding of a particularly violent and virulent strain of misogyny in our culture, one it seems particularly hard to escape, even in popular movies, books, and TV.
It is difficult to think of a similar accusation today that would invoke those particular images of female religiosity and devilish subterfuge and the real revulsion it invoked in early modern writers. Early modern people were genuinely perturbed and disgusted, a reaction I suspect not dissimilar to the physical chill that went down my spine this evening when I listened to a clip from The Blair Witch Project (1999). When Matthew Hopkins describes in 1645 encountering a witch’s familiar that attacked his greyhound I genuinely believe he was afraid, and disturbed (and unlike Diane Purkiss I don’t think strawberries or strawberry patches had any clitoral connotations for him).
More recently the figure of the witch remains lurking in the background in modern politics, we need only think of placards declaring “Ditch the Witch”, the “Ding Dong” in response to Margaret Thatcher’s passing, accusations of witchcraft, murder and paedophilia against Hillary Clinton and her campaign, or recent memes and images similarly showing Teresa May as a wicked witch. What is it about women in positions of power or seeking them, that recalls the witch to mind?
I am currently working on a chapter on Game of Thrones for a book, and I find myself pondering the strange way in which the ‘witch’ as a figure so often appears in political debates. Everyone from medieval and early modern courtiers and Queens, like Anne Boleyn, to religious figures like Joan of Arc, from Prime Minister Julia Gillard to Secretary of State and Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, women seeking political power and influence have been cast as wicked women, with strange desires for power that seems to their accusers to represent a wholly unnatural and diabolic version of womanhood.
I recently read a piece by Mary Beard in the London Review of Books, where she described the ancient and deep seated roots of our fear of female power, female rule, and female desires. In spite of seeking answers throughout my PhD studies, I end them still wondering about what it is that we truly fear about the witch. I can give you an academic answer rooted in gender theory and based on the ideas I see in early modern texts about male (and female) concerns over female sexuality, female power, theological conceptions of female susceptibility to the Devil etc., yet I am unsatisfied by those answers, and most perturbed when I see it happening contemporaneously – particularly to women who seek or have political power.
Joan of Arc wasn’t a witch. Nor was Anne Boleyn, or Julia Gillard, or Theresa May, or any others so smeared. Nor were the other women, rich or poor, who were accused falsely by their enemies across Europe in the medieval and early modern period, and indeed across the world even today, who face everything from everything from being ostracised to brutal deaths as a result of the word witch being recklessly used against them.
When we use, even for comic purposes, the trope of the witch against female politicians we are buying into a set of beliefs about women’s fundamental nature as one which should not seek power. We are claiming that women like that are dangerous and diabolic, that they should be feared, cast out, destroyed – usually violently. I don’t know any quick answer to this ongoing strain of hatred towards, and desire to blame women for what goes wrong in our society. But I do think the more we discuss it, the better educated we all are in spotting it when it occurs in the world around us. Then we only need the courage to say “That’s wrong”, something it is always easier to do in your mind than it is in real life.
Note: This was originally posted without being edited or hyperlinked, and was edited 08/07/17.