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What the Salem witches can teach us about how we treat women today

June 10 marks the anniversary of Bridget Bishop’s hanging in 1692 for being a convicted witch, the first of 19 hangings in Salem, Mass. (Some accounts put the total at 20 people executed.) Thirteen of those executed for witchcraft and devil worship were women, many of whom made people uncomfortable by being “unruly.” Married three times, Bishop was known for dressing exotically (by Puritan standards), drinking at taverns, fighting publicly with her husbands and generally disregarding Puritan societal standards. Bishop declared her innocence at her execution, to no avail.

Centuries ago, the Salem witch trials targeted those most vulnerable in colonial society, forcing women like Bishop to pay the highest possible price for nonconformity. While the legal system has changed since the days of Puritan rule, one thing remains the same: Vulnerable women pay the price for circumstances that are often beyond their control.

The witch trials happened during a period of economic unease, with some Salem families faring better than others. Salem society was permeated by interpersonal conflicts, many of which stemmed from competition over resources. Historian Edward Bever has noted that such conflict included “gossip, insults, scolding, threats, curses, ritual magic, legal action, and various forms of physical assault.”

In this environment, women were consigned to rigid roles — mother, wife, caretaker. They had one job: producing obedient, religious children. Women who stepped outside these rigid boundaries were seen as working with Satan. (Why else would a woman reject her expected role?)

As descendants of Eve, the original woman to fall from grace, women were viewed by the Puritans as vulnerable to temptations like desire for material possessions or sexual satisfaction. Being homeless, poor or childless was cause for concern, and these were the women targeted by the trials. ...

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