Religion’s Oppression of Women, Part 2: Christianity

The second part of my two lectures on religion’s oppression of women concerns Christianity.  I have focused on the persecution of witches in Europe in the 15th,16th and 17th centuries, finishing with the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials in 1692 and 1693. The topic of Christianity and its oppression of women is much too large and varied to discuss in an hour, so this lecture is centered on one of its most heinous phases, the social construction, and then the hunting down and execution of women deemed witches by their communities, and by the churches and governments of those communities.

Before I discuss witch hysteria in Europe, I would like to glance at the importance and influence of Christianity on Western culture, because it has been a dominating force with regard to the shaping of our civilization.  We might consider the West to be secular in its governments and its societies, but we must keep in mind that the Judeo-Christian religion has had crucial influence on our laws, our institutions, our ideals and on our education.  Vern L. Bullough states that despite the differences and variations between the different Christian religions, all of them revere Jesus and his moral teachings.  Christian scholars and theologians turn to the various sections of the New Testament and interpretations of it to better understand those teachings. 

Many of them also turn to the writings of the early Church Fathers to gain more perspective on the New Testament.  It stands to reason that both the New Testament’s and the Church Fathers’ attitudes and beliefs about women have had a significant effect on Western views of women.

We have all heard and read a great deal about Christianity being a religion of love and forgiveness.  But we have seen, in this series of lectures, the hate, superstition and misery Christianity has spawned.  The Inquisition, the Crusades, the witch persecutions, the burning of heretics, the suppression of science, are merely the most visible signs of its oppressive tactics.  There have been, both in the past and in the present, religious prohibitions about birth control and abortion, with the predictable aftermath of too many poor families with too many children, exhausted mothers without help to care for their children, and the difficulties experienced by single mothers trying to raise a child on their own.  Many of these unfortunate people, especially the poor families, have been told that god will provide. There is the fear people have that at death they will go to a burning, fiery hell, tortured for their sins until the end of time.  There is the well documented sexual and physical abuse of minors at church schools and in church parishes.  But in addition to being a religion of hate and persecution, Christianity is also one of asceticism and renunciation of the pleasures of this world.

Asceticism has been linked by Christianity to sexual celibacy. Sexual morality and purity became coupled in such a way that the height of righteousness was often assumed to be the renunciation of sexuality.  This notion, carried forward to the present, has had a deleterious effect on our Western culture.  Sexual morality has often come to be seen as more important than other virtues.  Sexual mores most often belong to people’s private lives; this narrow view of judging morality by sexual activity has created a blind spot with regard to public morals.  Our culture suffers much more from dishonest politicians, graft and public corruption than from individual deviations from church ordained private morality.

But the topic of this lecture is the oppression of women by the Christian religion.  The misogyny and sexual phobia of Christianity is well-documented in the writings of the early Church Fathers.  Interestingly, such negative beliefs about women do not seem to have originated with the putatively historical person of Jesus. (Please see Biblical Criticism at for a discussion of the historical reality of Jesus.)  According to the New Testament, Jesus surrounded himself with women, spoke with the hated Samaritan woman, and in order to save an adulterous woman from being stoned, spoke about a man’s sinning in his heart if he should entertain sexual desire for a woman. Not in the New Testament, but in Gnostic tradition, he elevated Mary Magdalene to apostleship. Magdalene, by the way, was probably not a reformed prostitute, but an important figure in the early church. In fact, Jesus’ ideas on sex, marriage and divorce seem to have followed a fairly conventional adherence to Jewish laws and customs.

It was the phrase, ‘sinning in one’s heart,” that was a major stumbling block for the early Church Fathers, the writers and the theologians  who were beginning to painstakingly construct dogma for the church and its community.  As Vern L. Bullough maintains, it was sexual continence that was one of the chief virtues and chief doctrines of the Christian faith.  St. Athanasius stated that the appreciation of virginity and chastity was the supreme blessing and revelation brought into the world by Jesus.  Tertullian argued that the stain on one’s chastity was more dreadful than any punishment or any death.  It would seem that these theologians misinterpreted the phrase about “sinning in one’s heart,” and it was to have disastrous consequences for society.

Sex and women were equated in the early Christian Church, with women being seen as the source of all male difficulties.  The early churchmen were terrified of sinning in their hearts by desiring women.  What could be more human and irrational than projecting unto women the desires that men struggled to repress? Some people are not as bothered by continence as others. Some of the Church Fathers were comfortable with celibacy.  But other churchmen were racked at times with sexual desire and the prohibition against it. It is no wonder that they began to see women as the very foundation of their misery, as temptresses and deviants, who, if they did not exist at all, would make for a better world.  It seems, at times, from their writings, that women only existed to tempt men from virtue.

St. John Chrysostom said: “How often do we, from beholding a woman, suffer a thousand evils, returning home, and entertaining an inordinate desire, and experiencing anguish for many days …the beauty of women is the greatest snare.”

The emphasis on sex and the wickedness of women in Christian doctrine, leading to a downgrading of other moral concerns, did not come from the religion’s founder, Jesus.  From where, then, did it issue? Some of it was rooted in the duality that was a philosophic principle in the ancient world.  The Orphic sects and other groups believed that the soul was more important than the body. 

Plato took this premise to its ultimate.  If you remember from previous lectures, he gave credence to the notion that there were ideal forms somewhere, unchanging and perfect.  The objects of this world, people, animal, chairs and so on, were believed by Platonists to be merely imperfect copies of the Forms, which were perfect, unchanging and immutable.  The copies were thought to be corrupt, imperfect and mutable, subject to death and/or decay. 

The world of the flesh was seen by a small number of classical philosophers as degradation and some of their ideas were adopted by Christian thinkers. In general, however, the classical world believed that moderate indulgence in sexual activity was not harmful, so long as it did not stem from raging, out of control passion. So while there was a definite influence from the ancient world, we need to search further for the roots of the excessive misogyny and abhorrence of sex that became entrenched in the early Church and later Christianity.

It was Paul, the true founder of the Christian religion, who set about denigrating both sex and women. Other Church Fathers agreed with him and their writings complemented his. Women were called “the weaker vessel who were to remain in subjection to their men folk.”  Man was considered the glory and image of god, but woman was considered the glory of man.  If, that is, she followed certain injunctions, such as: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.”  Women were ultimately forbidden to teach in church, and ordered to keep silent.  Any questions they had were to be asked of their husbands at home.  Here is another quotation: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your husbands, as unto the Lord! For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church.”

Women were thought to be the daughters of Eve, and Eve was the instrument of causing Adam to sin in the Garden of Eden. Wicked women, according to the Church, had particularly enraged god enough to send the Great Flood.  Paul believed that women’s seductive powers were so great as to cause angels to sin. There is a passage in Genesis which speaks about angels, or fallen angels, having intercourse with human women.

Paul was not a complete misogynist.  He had to accept the fact that women were necessary for bearing children, and while remaining celibate himself, did not require it of others.  It was Paul who famously said that it was better to marry than to burn.  Most sects of the Gnostic Church, Christianity’s formidable rival, also believed that sex was evil, associating it with the body that had  to be sloughed off to allow the soul to ascend to wisdom.  Gnosticism was labeled a heresy, however, and was stamped out.

But the misogynist tendency of the Christian Church did not wane, rather it grew stronger in each of the following centuries. The Church Father, Origen, castrated himself to avoid temptation.  Tertullian told women that because of Eve’s temptation of Adam which brought death into the world, even the son of god had to die.  All women were responsible for this tragedy, according to Tertullian.

Since a good Christian girl was to be kept in strict seclusion until she married, women were denied education and participation in church affairs.  St. John Chrysostom maintained that man was ordained to regulate woman and his duty was to mold her while young and tame, so she would learn to submit and obey. 

He reminded Christians that women’s bodies, so beautiful on the outside, were repositories of uncleanliness, phlegm and spittle.  He warned fathers to keep their sons away from all women.

The Church Fathers constantly enjoined members that marriage was a painful bondage. They harped on the difficulties of pregnancy, pains of childbearing, the anxieties of parenting and the distractions brought about by wives, children and family life.  The Church, as I have said, did not shed its sexual phobias with the defeat of the Gnostic heresy, but instead, its misogyny and sexual anxiety increased and crystallized with the writings and thinking of its great theologian, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, in the 4th Century.

Augustine had originally been a Manichean, another heretical sect which advocated celibacy.  He had never been able to advance to that group’s first ranks, the elite, because of his sexual desires.  He lived with a concubine, but after converting to Christianity, he gave her up.  He continued to be troubled by sexual urges and wrote continuously about his belief that sexual intercourse was the greatest hindrance to spiritual freedom.  Here he is on women: “I know nothing which brings the manly mind down from the heights more than a woman’s caresses and that joining of bodies without which one cannot have a wife.”

Here is more church discussion on how a proper woman should conduct herself: “She fasts, maintains vigils, meditates on the Scriptures…She is serene, and innocent and sweet…from her interior purity emanate the sweet odor of prayer and good works. 

Everything about her exterior manner bespeaks her angelic holiness- her dignified bearing, her modest decorum, the comely pallor of her sober countenance, the pure virginal blush of her modesty, the chaste restraint of her downcast eyes, and the silence of her closed lips.  When obliged to speak, her voice is gentle, her words prudent.  If she must walk among men, she walks as through a desert, oblivious to all about her.”

The situation, image and subordination of women did not improve with the Medieval Era and the rise of the Church Triumphant.  We contemporary people may believe that gender is, at least in part, socially constructed.  But in Christian Medieval society, biology was believed to be destiny.  If we wish to comprehend that era’s thinking about women and their sexuality, it is important to learn what the seminal medieval texts on sexuality said concerning gender.  Medieval thinkers still retained some ideas from the earlier Graeco-Roman culture, and one of these notions was the belief that women were not only profoundly sexual, but insatiable when having intercourse. Here is a famous quotation from the classical prophet, Tiresias. When he was asked which sex enjoyed sex more he answered: “If the parts of love pleasure be counted as ten, three go to women, one only to men.”

The Medieval view of woman’s sexuality helped the theologians define women’s purpose.  Woman was meant to serve the state as a reproductive citizen.  This idea, too, was a holdover from the Graeco-Roman society.  Medical opinions about women were partially adapted from the ideas of the ancients.  An important difference between the two sexes was conceived as the amount of heat each one generated. This notion was propagated by the  medical sources of the time. 

In the opinion of one contemporary scholar, “Heat was one of the most fundamental factors in the distinction between females and males.  It had a place in pharmacology, astrology and ideas about the production of semen.  It operated as a basis for the conceptualization of the masculine and the feminine both within and beyond reproduction.”

It was thought that women had less heat, so they were believed to be weaker, less able to exercise.  Bartholomew, the 13th Century English friar, explained that the differential heat between the two sexes often defined their essential characteristics.  He stated: “The male passeth the female in perfect completion, for in comparison the male is hotter and dryer and the female the contrary.” It was also believed that women were moist and thus inconstant. A late 13th Century treatise was unashamedly sexist in its conclusions. “Woman has a greater desire for coitus than a man, for something foul is drawn to the good.”  Perceptions of women’s sexuality were ubiquitous in many different kinds of medieval works, from theology to medicine, and such notions about the lesser nature and inferior biology of women had egregious consequences.

Helen Rodnite Lemay has studied many tracts and lectures from the 13th and 14th Centuries on female sexuality. She wrote an interesting paper on the topic, “Some Lectures on Female Sexuality,” in 1978.  She argues that even though the universities studied the medical tracts on women, scholars concluded that women were biologically inferior and dangerous to men.  In her book, Women’s Secrets, 1992, she maintains: “…that by the late Middle Ages, theology had combined with medical views of female sexuality to offer a view of women that justified their persecution of witches.”

Vern Bullough states that the justification of witch hunting was “perhaps the ultimate practical application of beliefs about gendered sexuality.”

It is interesting that during a study Joyce E. Salisbury made of “Seven Female Saints” and the implicit sexual ideas that may be read in the churchwomen’s works and inferred from their lives, she discovered that the women’s writings did not reject physicality and sexuality. The Christian women’s works are in marked contrast to the Church Fathers who denigrated the female, the physical and the sexual to the point of obsession.  It seems that even when using mystical language in the attempt to express the transcendent experience of union with god, the women expressed themselves more in terms of physical passion than did the men. Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th Century Abbess and mystic, wrote very differently from the Church Fathers on questions of sexuality.  She maintained that women were not as lustful as men. 

If the churchwomen’s views had been given the same dissemination and respect as the churchmen’s, might there have been a difference in the sexual attitudes Western society came to adopt?  The women’s rational views might have served to temper the Fathers’ highly misogynist and sexually negative beliefs.  I find it interesting that although these women were devout believers in Christianity and had their roots in the mentality of their times, they were able to overcome much of the propaganda which permeated the Medieval Era with respect to differences between men and women.  The Church Fathers, however, prevailed and we are living with the consequences of those pious men’s ignorant and mistaken medical and religious views of women, their sexuality, their intelligence and their character.

The Church Fathers were not content with denigrating women and trying to control their bodies. These Christian theologians maintained that sex itself was an evil.  Here is a quotation from one of them: “Sex, as we know it, in other words, is like its sister, death, a consequence of sin, an aspect of humankind’s continued rebellion against god’s wishes, a part of the punishment that all humans must suffer as descendants of the first sinners, a depraved craving that we must strive to repress and overcome if we are ever to merit salvation and the friendship of god in the world to come.”

Christianity, from its earliest days, was a sex negative and misogynist religion.  All sex outside of marriage was gradually forbidden; priests were eventually ordered to be celibate and to keep no mistresses and marry no wives. The chaste marriage was considered the highest form of marital union during the Middle Ages.  This was a marriage in which husband and wife lived together and shared all things but had no sexual intercourse of any kind.  There were many unions of this sort.

Women who were not technically virgins were considered honorary virgins if they entered into matches that were chaste.  Virginity was considered the highest state a woman could achieve.  Somehow the Church construed the marriage of Mary and Joseph, the parents of the putative historical Jesus, as a chaste one and an ideal to emulate.  How they managed to preserve the notion of Mary’s continued virginity was to claim Jesus’ brothers and sisters were Joseph’s from a previous marriage, or were actually Jesus’ cousins. 

Historians of the medieval era explain that there are no manuals on sex from that era we can study or any counterparts for the terms we use, such as “sexuality” and “sexual.” Researchers have had to turn to the confessional literature of the late Middle Ages for relevant information on sex practices and sexual theories. Michel Foucault, that great theoretician on the processes of power, has said that the problematization of sex, power and truth is better understood by studying the confessions of sexual offenses, particularly from the time of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.   

Thomas N. Tentler sees the contents, structure and history of confessional manuals as serving the forces of social control that ultimately came to be what he calls “the culture of guilt.” He summarizes his position in this manner: “When we reconstruct the moral, sacramental and ecclesiastical theology of the summas, manuals designed to instruct confessors in their confessionals, we discover immediately that they are intended to bring guilt down on people who deviate.” Sexual sins were laid out, from fornication to sodomy, with more than twelve types of sin to be dealt with, often at the confessor’s discretion, in these manuals.

What transpired, from the time of the early Church to the Medieval Church of the 13th and 14th Centuries, was a profound rejection of sex and the belief that the female sex was not only sexually insatiable and wanton, but a source of temptation and filth from which good Christian men must keep themselves uncontaminated. Additionally, it was emphasized that good women were chaste, quiet and submissive. We shall learn how active and aggressive women came to be regarded. We shall see how such notions contributed most significantly to the witch fantasies and hunts of the 15th, 16th, and 17th Centuries.

The results of such beliefs were the torture and murder of innocent people, primarily women.

Now that we have examined how early Christianity promoted the negative view of women, of sex and of marriage, I would like to move to 16th and 17th Century Europe and glance at the commonality between two Christian religions which were deadly rivals.  The two competitors were the old and corrupt, but very powerful Catholic Church, and the successful and thriving Protestant Reformation of Luther and Calvin.  Yet both religions were engaged in the same important cause- Christianizing the general populace and wiping out the old peasant beliefs in magic, divination, fairies and so on. 

In order to accomplish this difficult task, there was an increasing movement among the churches to replace such ancient superstitions with the image of a powerful and dangerous devil. At the same time they made sure people would turn to the devil’s nemesis, the still more powerful and benevolent god.  As religion and the state became, for a time, entwined, or what some historians have called the politicization of religion, there was increased emphasis placed on the family. The two religions stressed the notion of the holiness of the family and its ability to withstand attacks from the evils of the world.  But even while both the church and the civil government were attempting to strengthen the family, the clergy began to wage war on mothers. 

Children in many regions were forced into schools, away from the perverting influence of superstitious mothers and their folk tales.

The Church not only believed in teaching the children properly concerning god and belief, but it also encouraged the pupils to report on their own mothers, for signs of doing magic or performing witchcraft.  In general, however, the sins of the mothers were not considered visited upon the children; those women accused of witchcraft did not have their children included as witches as well.

In “The Devil, Part 2” at, I have talked about the terrible climate change in parts of Europe during the time period under discussion which contributed to the hysteria against witches.  Witches were believed to be significantly capable of affecting nature. It was thought they had power over the weather and this notion made it convenient to blame witchcraft for the “little ice age,” as it was called. 

There was also a general breakdown in communal relations, as the old system of lords in manor houses and peasants who worked the land for them, protected and housed in return for their labor, began to break down and pass away. In countries such as England, the fencing off of formerly communal lands was very hard upon women with children.  If they had no man to help support them, they took to the road, in an attempt to find what employment they could.  Women were frequently charged with being vagabonds.  At the same time that there began to be cases of suspected witchcraft, there was also a rise in prosecutions for infanticide.

It was women, whether on the road or living in villages, deprived of making a living, with no husband present, who felt the effects of the general societal pressure most keenly. 

As a matter of fact, it was such women, trying to obtain a little flour or some wood from neighbors in their villages, who were frequently accused of witchcraft, or maleficium. Maleficium meant causing harm and the word was used to describe the evil witches brought about.  Here is a typical example of how an accusation of witchcraft might begin.  The woman would ask for something from a neighbor, perhaps some flour or some wood.  She would be refused and would glare at and/or curse or mutter something to the person refusing her request.

The incident would be remembered when the person who did the refusing or a member of his or her family suffered illness, death or financial reverses. Sometimes harm had come to the family’s livestock, which had fallen ill or died. Unfortunate events would bring out the memory, sometimes years later, of having refused the woman’s request and her subsequent malign behavior.  The afflicted family would accuse the elderly woman of having harmed them with witchcraft. Many witchcraft cases were based on such incidents. It is important to keep in mind that it was often older women who were accused of witchcraft. I shall elaborate on this fact when I discuss the Salem witchcraft trials in 17th Century America.

There is no mistaking the fact that those suspected of doing harm to people or their animals were nearly always women.  We have very good evidence for that claim in the surviving records and accounts of witch trials.  We shall never be sure of the exact number of women put on trial for witchcraft, but there is some relevant data.  The criminal archives suggest that in France, Germany, Switzerland and Scotland, the centers of the witch hunts, eighty percent of the accused were women. 

In peripheral areas, such as England and Russia, the proportion of females was close to ninety five to one hundred percent.  Additionally, there are excellent recent estimates that suggest that three quarters, at least, of people executed for witchcraft in Europe during the 16th and 17th Centuries were women. It is possible there were as many as 40,00o to 60,000 people executed as witches from the 1400’s until the late 1600’s.

The number of cases brought against women testifies to the influence of the enduring stereotypes about them. The peasants, the aristocrats and the scholarly classes of the time believed in the negative characterization of women. There was a popular list drawn up for justices of the peace in Yorkshire, England in 1592.  The very first presumption about witches on the list was: “They {witches} are most commonly weeke women.”  We may take the adjective “weeke” here to mean not physical weakness, but moral weakness, which would make women more susceptible to making pacts with the devil.

In Germany, parts of which suffered from the previously mentioned “little ice age” most severely, the peasant fear and hysteria concerning “weather magic” was fed by the sermons of both Catholic and Protestant preachers.  These churchmen called for witchcraft persecutions.  In the Jesuit province of upper Germany, Peter Canisius excited the general populace with tales of witchcraft and spectacular feats of exorcism.  He equated witchcraft and weather magic in his sermons, as well as claiming that the presence of witches in the region was multiplying. He is now a respected saint of the Catholic Church.

At the same time, the Catholic regions of Germany developed Marian State programs, which used the image of the Virgin Mary as a counter-pole to the witch.  Mary was considered the epitome of unblemished fertility ( see “The Virgin Mary” at The witch was the very female personification of infertility, conjuring bad weather to ruin crops and illness to kill farm animals.  Witches were also believed responsible for still births, abortions, inability to conceive, and impotence.

In France, the fear of the devil was intensified by the Catholic clergy.  David Nicholls states that the devil and his cohorts, the witches, were pictured more clearly than in previous eras.  He maintains that “theologians, preachers, printers, painters and sculptors drew on an eclectic farrago of ancient and medieval fantasies which they enlarged upon through sculpture and painting in the churches, mass-produced books, and emotional preaching” to heighten fear of both the devil and witches.  There has been some argument from dissenting historians that much of the witchcraft hysteria came from the general populace, who put pressure on the church and the secular government to bring witches to justice, to force witches to stop their infernal mischief.  Such claims are only partially accurate.  Both the Catholic and the Protestant religions were very responsible for the initiation and the continuation of the witch hunts in Europe.

An interesting phenomenon in England was the rise of witchcraft persecutions in correspondence with the economic competition between men and women in the weaving and beer trades.  I have mentioned the disappearance of the manor house tradition, with the result that the era of the dependent and taken care of farm laborer was slowly passing away.  People had to find new ways of earning a living.  The brewing trade is an excellent example. 

Until about the 15th and 16th Centuries, it was women who brewed beer for immediate consumption by their families and who also brewed beer and ale for sale.  Slowly women began to be excluded from the trade.  The home-based brewing of beer began to be taken over by men.  Men increasingly operated factory-based breweries dominated by a steadily shrinking group of wealthy males.

Most of the change was brought about by means of licensing regulations, but it was also helped along by the popular and negative depiction of the ale wife in prose, poetry, ballads, carvings, sculptures and drawings.  Marianne Hester maintains that the ale wife was portrayed as a “grotesque old witch-like woman,” of dubious sexual morality, who sold her customers adulterated beer.  Here is Hester on the parallels created between the image of the ale wife and the witch. “The construction of the ale wife as deficient and inferior to the male brewer also relied on, like the construction of the witch, on her sexualization or eroticism, and we find allusions to her also being associated with witchcraft.”

Midwives, too, were sometimes accused of being witches.  They were in competition with the newly emerging medical profession for patients.  Women were excluded from the formal study of medicine. Thomas states that there were other women who were likely to be accused as witches and identifies them as some of the most vulnerable in their societies- laborers and widows. Widows were generally older and like women laborers, poor.  But such women were also in competition with men in the trades, especially widows who were freer to work and might have inherited their husbands’ trades or businesses.

It seems that witch hunting became sex specific at that period in Europe because it was one of the ways which men could establish male dominance and power over women.  The patriarchy was in danger at the time, due to the rapidly shifting social institutions.  Edging women out from the trades and crafts and accusing them of being witches helped secure the patriarchal society, which the Church saw as the Christian ideal.

It is interesting that the 15th, 16th, and 17th Centuries saw an increase in the general criminalization of women.  Prior to that time, women’s fathers or husbands were considered responsible when women committed crimes such as theft and other like transgressions.  But during the era under consideration, women began to be considered responsible for themselves when they committed certain crimes.  These crimes were almost always witchcraft, infanticide, or sexual wrongdoing.  A historian has studied cases brought for appeal to the Parliament of Paris from 1565 to 1640.  Witchcraft cases were commonly found alongside cases of incest, adultery, sodomy and infanticide. Furthermore, male witches tended to be either related to a female suspected witch or had committed another additional crime. Men were generally only included during periods of the most intense witchcraft persecutions, when the accusations against witches were greatly expanded.

It is important to keep in mind my primary thesis in this lecture, which is attempting to establish that witchcraft accusations were an integral part of the Christian political ideology, both constructing and being constructed by them.

I would like to go over some assumptions concerning gender relations during the centuries under discussion, as I believe doing so will reinforce the fact that it was religious tenets about the devil, about evil and about women which were a significant influence on the witchcraft hysteria.

There is no getting around the fact that witch hunts and persecutions were both related to and were also specific to women.  The beliefs of the European elite and the framework for conducting witchcraft trials were certainly sex related, and even sex specific.  In almost every part of Europe, there is no question that the peasantry’s beliefs about, and actions against witches were sex-specific.

The pre-witch hunt period, which was engaged in the persecution of heretics, both men and women, by the Church, is often overlooked with concern to the hounding of witches. From the 12th to the 14th Century, Norm Cohn has found that there were local lynchings of witches and the victims all appear to have been women. Furthermore, as the beliefs about witches began to crystallize, the orientation of the witch hunts turned away from men and the more elite classes, to women, and as I mentioned earlier, particularly to older, poorer and often widowed women. Witch beliefs and accusations altered from being sex related to becoming sex specific in the 15th, 16th and 17th Centuries.

From the beginning of the witch hunt hysteria, unequal male-female relationships not only reflected the prevailing negative views of women, but were also constructed and intensified by the emerging notion of the witch. Such concepts did not belong exclusively to the common people, but were held as well by the learned elites of Europe.

The Malleus Maleficarum, published in 1486, was one of the most egregious and misogynist texts of the era.  Female sexuality was considered and presented as inferior to men’s in this Christian text. It helped put the sexual double standard firmly in place during this era of shifting values. The book’s two authors, Kramer and Sprenger, were Catholic inquisitors in the Dominican Order. You will recall from my lecture on the Inquisition, the role Dominicans played in the persecution of heretics. The Malleus went through many printings and some historians maintain that its influence extended over a two hundred year span.

The patriarchal ideal for women during this era was to be quiet, non-scolding, subservient to their husbands and faithful.  We have seen, from the beginnings of the Christian Church, that such an ideal for women was constructed, and advocated, by the Church Fathers. The Church’s criticism of marriage and the ideal of the chaste marriage had altered, however. Marriage was now considered the center of a heterosexual, procreative sexuality, under the husbands’ control, and under the control of the Church who stood behind the men. The concept of the ideal marriage was repeated over and over in pamphlets, sermons and other literature.  Marriage was the only correct place for sexual activity.  This last was an injunction not only for the elite and middle classes, but for lower class women as well. 

Women were prosecuted, and punished, as I have mentioned, for bearing illegitimate children or for fornication.  Fornication was defined as heterosexual sex outside of marriage.  It was often the church courts that conducted the cases. 

It has been noted by historians that there was widespread fear that women were by no means compliant with the submissive ideal, so the reality of women’s behavior was obviously problematic for the society of that era.

The notion of the woman as an actively sexual being was very common.  If she were actively sexual, the common belief was that she was sinful. But moral weakness in women was often construed as a kind of perverse strength.  Let us keep in mind the myth of women being sexually insatiable.  That piece of lore and the additional fiction of women’s lack of moral sense with regard to sex, made it seem likely that women would enter into some kind of alliance with the devil.  There was, in addition, a fearful belief that the devil could satisfy females sexually much more than ordinary males could.

After about 1630, the search for a devil’s mark, some sort of a protuberance or odd-shaped growth on the accused witch’s body, began to be focused on the woman’s genitals.  Previously it had been looked for anywhere on the body, but especially in hidden places.  Michael Dalton’s Country Justice, written about 1613, focused on the genitals as the hidden places where witches’ marks might be found.  After the fourth edition of his book, the pretrial search for the marks tended to concentrate on the genital area.

Because of what was construed by some theologians as Eve’s sexual deviance in the Garden of Eden, so were her daughters, her descendants, believed to be deviants as well.  In the god-fearing and deeply superstitious societies of 15th and 16th Century Europe, sexual deviance was believed by many to be witchcraft.  James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, wrote a seminal volume on witchcraft. 

He was very religious and fearful because of the many plots against his throne. In Daemonologie, 1597, he wrote of women’s vulnerability to the devil: “The reason is easie: for as that sex is frailer than men is, so it is easier to be intrapped in these grosse snares of the Devil, as was well to be true, by the Serpent’s deceiving Eve at the beginning, which makes him homlier with that sex ever since.”

It was very much to men’s advantage, states Hester, to link the notion of women being different from and inferior to men with the notion of the witch.  Men could then be seen, by themselves and by women, as morally, physically, socially and intellectually superior to women. Their self-proclaimed superiority, reinforced by church doctrine, also helped give them greater access to trades and crafts than women, as we have learned earlier in the lecture.

There is an important volume, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 1973, by Keith Thomas that makes the argument that women accused other women of witchcraft and that women also took part in searching for the witch’s mark on accused women’s bodies. He maintains, therefore, that witchcraft accusations were not gender specific. But I have discussed, in Part One of “Women Oppressed by Religion,” the process by which women internalize the negative view of themselves that is constructed by male religious figures and writers.  A most egregious example is in the Middle East and North Africa, where women perform clitoridectomies on other women, often their young relatives.  Older females are given the “privilege” of carrying out this heinous act.

I should point out that Muslim theologians argue that clitoridectomies are a cultural, rather than a religious practice.

As Hester argues, women are quite often placed in the position of moral gatekeepers who control other women’s behavior.  There are many pressures on them to do so, especially if controlling other women gives them some semblance of power.  They, of course, place themselves more firmly within the power structure of men when they oppress other women, but many are so imbued with the “rightness” of power relations decreed by society and religion, they do not recognize the significance of their actions.

The women who took part in the 15th, 16th and 17th Century witch hunts were also proclaiming themselves as “good women,” not aligned with the inverse values of the witch, who was a threat to Christian families, Christian communities and the entire Christian social order. Women who did not fulfill the duties of being good wives who bore and nurtured children, but who were independent and aggressive, did not meet the societal standard. Such women were often identified as witches.  Female security resided in conforming to the religious and social ideal, and there were women would have had no trouble accusing another woman of being a witch.  The accusing females were often proclaiming their compliance with the positive social model.

Now that we have learned something of early Christianity’s misogyny and how it extended and intensified in Medieval Europe, culminating in witch hunts and burnings, I would like to shift to 17th Century America. I am gratefully indebted for my information and many insights to Carol F. Karlsen’s The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, which is listed in the Bibliography.

This portion of the lecture will examine how the negative view of women came to America with the religious groups leaving the old world for a new beginning.  As the French say, “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” 

During the time period of February, 1692 and May 1693, the town of Salem and some surrounding areas of the American colony of Massachusetts, conducted a by now infamous series of interrogations and trials of people accused of the crime of witchcraft.  Nineteen people were hanged for the offense, thirteen of them women.  One additional man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death with heavy weights because he failed to enter a plea.  At least four other prisoners died in prison while awaiting trial, three of them women.  There were likely thirteen others who died in prison, but the records are unclear on this point.  Approximately 185 to some 200 people were accused before the witch hysteria had subsided, 141 women and 44 men.  Of the accused, 52 women and 7 men were tried and 26 women and 5 men were convicted.

Before I discuss the reasons for the preponderance of the number of women accused as witches in the Salem area, I would like to glance at the contribution religion made to the outbreak.  Charles W. Upham, a respected politician and member of the Massachusetts Historical Society, wrote very eloquently of the heinous role played by Increase Mather and his son, Cotton Mather, in raising people’s fear of the supernatural in general, and of witches, in particular. Let us keep in mind that Increase and Cotton Mather were very influential Puritan ministers and writers.  When I was at University, we were assigned samples of their work to read. 

In Salem Witchcraft and Cotton Mather: A Reply, 1869, Upham accused both Mathers of raising community fears and increasing superstition with their continued reportage of “diabolical” possession, “diabolical” agency and apparitions. Upton charged that father and son encouraged other divines to report on what were called “wonders,” resulting in repeated tales of ghosts, hobgoblins, specters, evil spirits and the infernal Prince of them all, the devil.  Upham scoffed: “No wonder the alleged witchcrafts were numerous.”  He went on to state his conviction that Cotton Mather “got up” one of the first instances of possession, that of the Goodwin children, in 1688.  We shall be looking at this case in a few minutes. 

In 1684, Increase Mather published a title, “An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences,” a long exegesis on the reality of the existence of “apparitions, witches, diabolical possessions, and other remarkable judgments upon noted sinners.” Some of his reasons for writing this lengthy treatise were to intensify people’s belief in Satan, and to alert them to take heed of their wrongdoings.  He wanted to remind New England citizens of their traditional view of witchcraft. He probably believed the reminder was necessary, because in England the passion for prosecuting witches had begun to wane with the passing of belief in them.  The Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 and the end of Puritan rule in that nation must have been disquieting to the Puritan divine. Charles II was known for his interest in science and for conducting scientific experiments. Encouraged by the positive reception of science, English intellectuals had begun attacking witchcraft and other superstitious beliefs.

Increase Mather was not willing to let superstition wane in New England.  He wanted to be sure New Englanders remained aware of the threat from witches and the devil. His publication reported stories of diabolical possession, but it did not stop there. The minister pointed out additional signs of the devil’s work, which he said was aimed at getting people to turn away from god.  There had been unusual storms in the area and Mather saw them as portents of god’s anger.  He also blamed the sins of the people of New England for the Indian Wars (less than 70 miles away) and for the arrival of the Quakers, which were a bane to the Puritans.( For more on the Quaker problem in Massachusetts, see “Blasphemy”

Cotton, Increase Mather’s son, witnessed what he believed was the possession of the four Goodwin children in 1688. This prosperous family belonged to Cotton’s own church.  The oldest girl, Martha, and then the three younger children, began having strange fits.  Their Irish washer woman was accused of being a witch and bringing on the children’s attacks.  Although she did not speak English well, Mather and others found “… the Hag had not power to deny her interest in the Enchantment of the children.” The interpreters probably misunderstood the servant and believed she had confessed to “covenanting with the Devil,” and other crimes.  In reality, she may have been talking about her Catholic god and citing garbled religious belief, and the Puritans mistook her confused ideas as heresy.  She was hanged as a witch. 

The Goodwin children continued to be attacked by fits of possession for months after her death.  Cotton Mather took Martha, the oldest, into his home and carefully observed her.  She finally recovered. 

Mather then published his famous, or perhaps I should say, infamous “Memorable Providences relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions,” 1689,  detailing Martha’s case and throwing in other so-called proofs that devils and witches were real.  Worse yet, he claimed that these satanic creatures were determined to destroy people’s souls.  There was a popular belief that possession was a sure sign that the devil had arrived in a community, and Mather’s work heightened and confirmed the colony’s’ fear.

During this era, Salem was experiencing social tension, religious confusion, and economic stress.  People had become unsure how to behave to other people, their relatives and fellow citizens.  There were economic tensions as the people who were refugees from the Indian Wars migrated to New England, competing with the original settlers for property. Massachusetts’ Bay Colony Charter was revoked in 1684. The Revolution in England in 1688 brought new monarchs to rule over England, adding to the economic fears of the American colony. By 1692, Satan seemed to have arrived with a vengeance to Massachusetts.  Since both the clergy and the populace believed fervently in witches, and their maleficium, power to harm, both groups worked together to destroy these minions of the devil.  The results were horrific.

It is correct that Increase Mather ultimately realized that the accusations against witches were not truthful. His effort to stop the persecution in an important essay will be discussed a little later.  But it is also quite certain that both the Mathers had a significant role in helping stoke the hysterical belief and fear of both the devil and of witches.

How did the Puritan portrayal of women help lead to the witch trials? The view of women in Puritan society was a divided one.  Carol F. Karlsen states that the accepted characterizations of the New England witches were never stated openly.  She has found that the taken for granted characteristics emerge when one examines the patterns found in the numbers of the accusations and life histories of the accused.  She explains that the stereotypes of women are not visible in the content of individual accusations or even in the ministerial literature.  “New Englanders,” she states, “did not openly discuss most of their widely shared assumptions about women-as-witches.  But earlier, in the 15th and 16th Centuries, writers and people were quite open, as we have seen, in delineating women’s flaws, their proclivity to be taken in by Satan and why they were more apt to form a covenant with him.  What created the change in depictions of women-as-witches in 17th Century New England?

I have mentioned the changing social ideas coming from Europe, especially England, to the American colonies.  One of these concepts was the post-Reformation view of women that was in serious conflict with the notion of women as the daughters of Eve. The earlier daughters of Eve concept described women as rebellious, sexually insatiable, wicked creatures, temptations to men and spoilers of both men and god’s order. But the new thinking about women was more positive and at the same time, more complex.

The Puritans may have been in rebellion against the established church and state in Europe, but they were equally as concerned as Europeans about order in society and they were fearful of social and private insubordination.  

One of the most serious reasons for the Puritans’ separation from the European established church and state was that they sincerely believed that the existing authorities were worldly, ineffectual and unworthy.  They felt that what was needed was internal self-control and then complete submission to god’s will.  Such submission and right behavior was located, they believed, primarily in the Puritan household, with the husband in submission to god and the wife in submission to her husband. Women’s souls were considered equal to men’s souls, unlike the beliefs of earlier eras that women’s souls were inferior to men’s.

Women, when in submission to their husbands, were extolled for being helpmates. The new vision of godly men who would bring order out of social and religious chaos seemed to demand helpmates for them- wives who were voluntarily subjected to men’s rule. The conflicts between the new concept of the ideal marriage with women elevated to helpmates and the old view of the wicked nature of the female were difficult to resolve. Many people still privately believed in the earlier negative characterization of women.

But as the sociologist Mary Douglas and other researchers have discovered, there are unspoken assumptions in every society, along with information that societies relegate to self-evident truths.  In this manner, by keeping certain ideas implicit, the implicit is quietly affirmed and there is no apparent conflict with more advanced views. This covert practice is a typical strategy in the social construction of knowledge. The implicit belief in women-as- witches and in women’s evil nature remained in Puritan society along with the newer view of woman as man’s helpmate.  In Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion, 1692, Cotton Mather expressed the concept quite definitively. 

“Handmaidens of the Lord should go so as to distinguish themselves from Handmaidens of the Devil,” he told women.

That same year, 1692, Mather published Wonders of the Invisible World, his major justification for the Salem witchcraft trials and persecutions.  While in Ornaments, he had focused on a woman’s dutiful, submissive, chaste and deferential comportment, in Wonders he delineated the behavior of witches and their complicity with the devil. In Wonders Mather particularly focused on women helping Satan in his attempt to destroy the churches of New England. Scholars believe the release of the two works in the same year was not coincidental.  Women who accepted their lot in life, who “repressed the witch in themselves,” were lavishly praised. Mather and New England society could then unleash their fear and hate on witches, women who were viewed as evil and disorderly.

A witch not only put the cherished values of her society in clear relief by being the opposite and by violating those values, she also helped solve the Problem of Evil, both natural and societal. (See “Arguments for and against the Existence of god” at  It was the witch who was responsible for making children die suddenly, for minor and major accidents and illness, the illness and loss of domestic animals, storms, fires, crop damage and so on. Witches caused abortions, miscarriages and sterility. They also caused beer being brewed to spoil, did not allow women to spin and make clothing, caused cows to stop producing milk and prohibited hens from laying eggs.  The Puritans believed all these notions.

It was a given belief that witches caused impotence in men. But they were responsible as well for a different harm specific to men.  The witches would enter a man’s bedroom and choke, bite, smother, sit or lie on him. Does this picture resemble a rather boisterous sexual encounter, one the Puritan man would not be likely to have with his demure wife?  There was an even more upsetting detail in this nighttime scenario. Women-as-witches were imagined as literally on top of men.  Such an event was truly a nightmare for a New England male at that period. It exacerbated the patriarchal hierarchy’s worst suspicions.  The historian Natalie Davis has called this masculine fear “the vision of women on top, women as willing agents of the Prince of Evil in his effort to topple the whole hierarchal system.”

Before I begin to discuss the concept of witches and who they were believed to be in New England, I would like to segue into a brief description of the accused witches’ imaginary victims, and what those unfortunate women had in common. There were various ways possession could come about. Frequently, but not exclusively, the victims were those women who had been enticed, either by the devil in person or by his witches, to join him.  When his blandishments failed, Satan proceeded to curse the women and torture them, not only mentally but physically. The symptoms have been described and can be found in many references, but some of them were falling into fits, feeling a great weight on one when in bed, speaking of your disbelief in ministers and/or of god, and so on. While most of the accused witches were old, forty years old or more, with women over sixty being particularly at risk, their putative victims were young.

We have a very clear picture of the possessed young women.  Scholars of the Salem trials have uncovered many demographic facts that help to clarify and shed light on some of the questions that previously were regarded as unanswerable. The demographic age, economic class and so on, of non-possessed female accusers was very similar to that of their counterpart male accusers.  But studying the similarities between the possessed accusers is most helpful because these facts advance our understanding of women’s lot in New England in the late 17th Century.

We need to keep in mind that the entire hysterical outbreak of the Salem witchcraft accusations began near the end of 1691.  A small group of girls and young women had gathered around a makeshift crystal ball to find out some facts about their future husbands, especially the trade that each man might be working in.  We shall see that they had good reason to be concerned about their future.  But the ball yielded a frightening vision, described as “a spectre in the likeness of a coffin.” Not too long after, several of the girls, including a daughter and a niece of a very respectable minister, began to have fits and to exhibit signs of possession.  On the advice of several ministers, the girls’ families and employers waited to see if the fits would pass.  But instead, the fits spread to more young women in Salem.  A local physician decided the possessed were under “the Evil Hand,” and many of Salem’s community agreed with him. 

By February, 1692, three witches had been named by their victims.  The accounts of the Salem witch trials are well documented, so this talk will not detail the progression of events that led to so many executions in so short a time period.

The concern of this lecture is with the motives and beliefs that led to the accusations of witchcraft , why the accused were primarily women, and what kind of women they were. I am also establishing the large responsibility religion bore for the murderous debacle, as the purpose of my two lectures is to emphasize how religion has oppressed women through the ages.  Both women-as-witches and their accusers were victims of the fear and superstition which had been stoked and intensified by the religious divines who were enmeshed with the patriarchal hierarchy of Salem.  

One historian has noted that these young women, in a very short time, went from being a group of friends to a group of juvenile delinquents.  Their behavior at many of the initial trials seems to justify the observation, as they fell into fits and accused innocent people of various perfidious acts and appearances, which helped seal some of the defendants’ fates.  But an examination of their circumstances will shed light on some of the motivation for their unconscionable allegations. We contemporary people know that most of them were in the grip of hysteria and not under the power of Satan, as the Salem community believed. 

Many of these possessed girls, a total of twenty-four, were all single at the time of the trials. We have a good share of information about twenty-one of them. Seventeen had lost one or both of their parents, an unusually high group number for even that period when people died young.  The parental deaths were primarily from the Indian Wars, especially along the Maine frontier.  Several of the girls had witnessed the violent deaths of their parents.  Most of the possessed girls were employed as servants.  Many of them lived in their employer’s homes. It was very common for servants to live where they worked.

Even if there had been other lodging that would have been acceptable for them, their small salaries would have made it impossible to live on their own.

 These young women were in difficult straits, not knowing if they would ever marry.  Some of the money their families had accumulated had vanished with the Indian Wars.  Many of the girls had no dowry, which made it extremely difficult to find a husband.  They had no real sexual outlet. We can infer this because they did not have blemished reputations due to sexual misbehavior.  Unmarried young women who engaged in sexual activity with men risked pregnancy.  By that era, the father of a woman’s child might well not marry her or take any financial responsibility for her. 

Interestingly enough, many of the girls had been reared by, or were employed by, some of the godliest homes in Salem. The godliness surrounding them seemed to prove no hindrance to the wiles of Satan, which correspondingly caused even more fear and dismay in the community. We know now that possession frequently affects collective groups, as well as individuals.  It is more common in women, and when it spreads, spreads to groups of women.  During the era under discussion, some doctors recognized the symptoms of possession as a form of hysteria, with natural causes, but thought it was augmented by the devil.

According to Karlsen, the possessed girls’ symptoms and behavior, as well as their accusations, were part of a cultural performance. 

Ilza Veith’s 1965 volume, Hysteria, and the research of Clifford Geertz have made it clear that the girls’ performance was very likely “a symbolic religious ritual through which a series of shared meanings were communicated- by the possessed women themselves, by the ministry who interpreted their words and behavior, and by the community audience for the dramatic events.” However, no matter how much we are able to intellectualize and explain what happened in Salem, the town’s cultural performance resulted in real torture and death for many of the accused, and enduring misery for many who were not convicted but remained under the collective suspicion that they were witches. We need to mark the fact that the show was, and I repeat, a symbolic religious ritual.

Karlsen believes the girls were not mentally ill, but conflicted and involuntarily articulating the cultural beliefs of their community.  The poor young women’s fears about their future were correct.  From the little we know of their subsequent lives, those who were able to marry, married rather late and never reached the economic levels of their deceased parents. The women were not imagining their very real economic and class peril, but unfortunately the only response open to them was to succumb to hysteria.  Acting out their possession and making witchcraft accusations also gave them temporary attention and power. Hysteria and hysterical possession frequently represent a rebellion against a submissive woman’s lot.  But it ultimately results in defeat, in surrender. One is forced to continue with the possession or give in and become a submissive member of a patriarchal society.

Now let us turn to the women-as-witches themselves. Most of the possessed accusers did not personally know the witches they named.  This fact is in marked contrast to the non-possessed accusers, who knew the so-called witches personally and had often been in disputes with them over various issues. The possessed young women received their knowledge of the women-as-witches from the gossip and rumor circulating around the community.  Not all the accusations “stuck,” however.  Some women were accused and the matter was ignored.  Sometimes a hearing was conducted and charges were never brought.  Rarely, but it did happen, an accuser was punished for bringing false charges.  What was the difference between those women about whom witchcraft charges were not believed and those about whom they were? Who were the women that gossip had already begun to condemn? It was certain types of women who were most frequently accused of witchcraft, and from there, to charges, convictions and even death by hanging.

The first characteristic of a woman said to be a witch was that she was over forty.  As we have mentioned, women over sixty ran the greatest risk.  Younger women who were accused were often daughters, or more rarely, granddaughters of a witch.  It was thought that the daughter learned witchcraft skills from her mother.  Men who were accused of witchcraft were generally the husbands, sons, friends or public defenders of an accused witch.  Men, even when they confessed, were frequently let go with a fine, a short prison sentence, or were simply not believed and released.  The height of the Salem Trials saw more men charged and/or executed for witchcraft than was normal.  In reality, it was older women who were the prime targets at all times.

Women over forty and into their sixties had lost their reproductive ability in a community where reproduction was very important. Older women were in a very vulnerable position, as they were useless as child bearers and therefore useless to the society.

Widows, too, especially older ones, were more likely to be accused of being witches.  Without the protection of a husband, or grown sons, a woman was more apt to be convicted as a witch.  Older women without husbands could not meet the role women were supposed to play in a godly society.  They could not bear children, had no husbands they could be helpmates to, and might even be practicing sex outside of the bonds of marriage.

Even though many of the women accused of witchcraft were poor,  those women who inherited sizable portions of their husbands’ or their parents’ estates were at risk of being accused of witchcraft, especially if they had no male heirs.  If a husband died intestate, a wife, by law, received one third of his estate.  But many husbands made out wills leaving the bulk of their estate to their wives. A woman who inherited usually only had the use of the estate which   was expected to pass down to her heirs, so she could not diminish it.  Frequently women did not have full access to their money, only what was doled out to them by administrators of the will.  Women were dependent on their husbands, and if their husbands were deceased, their sons.  But their genuine lack of power over their inheritance did not make them safe from accusations.

In a striking number of cases, witchcraft accusations and/or charges were linked to property disputes.  A pattern has emerged from the demographics studied.

The Salem community was invested in men being “on top,” in charge of money and land.  As Karlsen states: “However varied their backgrounds and economic conditions, women without brothers or sons, who were widowed, stood in the way of orderly transmission of property from one generation of males to another.”

Women who were economically successful at domestic production, such as brewing, dairying or clothing, were also at greater risk of being accused as witches.  Midwives, too, as in Europe, were accused of being witches. Remember, they were in competition with doctors and being women, excluded from medical studies.  However, both in Europe and in the American colonies, there were fewer midwives charged with witchcraft than historians once thought.

Witches were believed to try to lure young women into trysts or covenants with the devil. According to Christian ministers, they did so by appealing to the girls’ licentious natures. Notice it was the girls’ natures that were supposedly licentious.  Licentiousness was still perceived as essentially female. The aura of sexual wrongdoing also hovered around women-as-witches prior to their being accused.  When historians have delved into the background of alleged witches, in many cases they have discovered evidence of real or alleged sexual offenses.  Cotton Mather stated that a “lewd and naughty life” was a probable sign of witchcraft. 

In many of the accused women’s pasts, when they were young, there had been suspicion of their having committed fornication, adultery, infanticide, abortion and so on.  Many alleged witches were suspected of, or they confessed (many under torture) to sexual encounters with the devil. 

The link between sexual crimes or transgressions and witchcraft accusations are quite clearly linked, so women whose sexual transgressions had received some public notice were at risk for being charged with witchcraft.

Finally, there were personality attributes which put some women at risk of being thought witches. It is very difficult to list all the numerous ways in which a Puritan woman might display traits which departed from the ideal image of the contented, submissive wife who was a handmaiden to her husband, her society and the god that society believed in.  Some of the so-called sins were those of envy, anger, lying and being a scold.  But discontent with one’s lot was a very serious transgression, considered only second to pride. Pride was the very worst sin a woman could display.  Pride was considered by the Puritans as the sin of Satan, who defied god’s rule.  Here is Cotton Mather again on the wickedness of a woman displaying spirit: “Knowing their duty to live according to God’s rules, but discontented with those rules, witches refused to obey them, and in the process, they rose up against God.  Pride in a woman is often manifested by challenging her husband’s authority or the authority of the ministers and magistrates.” Mather concluded: “Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.”

Then, the witch hysteria of Salem, of Fairfield and other areas in Massachusetts faded. The possessed accusers had begun to name people at the very highest levels of Massachusetts society.  Increase Mather, either alarmed by such accusations against the wealthy and powerful, or genuinely convinced that many witchcraft investigations were not just, released an important publication, “Cases of Conscience,” 1692. His publication made clear that he did not believe all the accusations that had been made.

He was so involved in politics, one must question if his essay was a political maneuver to keep the support of the Massachusetts hierarchy.  He never repudiated the judges or the trials, only the spectral evidence that was used. His involvement with the witch trials put a large stain on his reputation, which remains to the present day.  Revisionist historians have tried to exonerate Mather of much of the responsibility for Salem’s witchcraft hysteria and point to his renunciation of it.  However, the record is clear.  Increase Mather, and his son, Cotton Mather, both bear grave responsibility and blame for the Salem Witch Trials.

My second lecture on Women Oppressed by Religion, has once again demonstrated that religion supports the social structure. The social structure reciprocates by giving religion significant license to define the concepts of heresy, blasphemy, witchcraft, apostasy and other crimes against faith. Religion is often given carte blanche in suppressing and punishing what church doctrines and churchmen  perceive as transgressions against dogma with torture, prison and sometimes, too often, death.  Religion controls men and men are given permission to control and dominate women.  I have discussed misogyny and suppression of women by religion in both these lectures, using Islam, Hinduism and Christianity as examples.  But make no mistake, wherever there is religion, with very few exceptions, there is egregious, ignorant and obscurantist subordination of women. 

I would like to end this lecture with a quote from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, 1880.  The Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition is speaking in the following passage about converting the world to a future theocracy. 

He gives a lengthy description of the measures the religious elite will use to keep people happy and dependent. I will only quote a line or two. “We will allow them (mankind) or forbid them to live with their wives and mistresses, to have or have not children, all depending on their obedience, and they will submit gladly and joyfully…we shall finally convince them not to be proud; we shall prove to them that they are feeble, that they are only pitiful children…”    Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is a Catholic, but he speaks for all religion in this passage.  We have seen the pernicious effects on society from the ascendancy of religion time and again in this series of lectures.

It is time for mankind to grow up, to renounce the false comfort of believing in an imaginary god.  It is time for both men and women to leave behind them the longing for the mythical innocence of the Garden of Eden. Men and women must take charge of themselves, their lives, their laws, their morals, their decisions and their societies.  It is only then that both sexes will lose the frustration and fear that perpetuates the suppression of women and of children. 

Women must demand that they be treated as equals, not as handmaidens.  We have made great strides in the secular West.  We must not stop; we must continue the struggle and not succumb to the politicians and priests who would turn us into guilty little children, dependent on their largesse.  Women must turn their backs on religion and the fatuous dogmas that reside with belief, and which culminate in the perpetuation of oppression. 

Religion suppresses men, but it is even worse to women. Research has shown that female sexuality is fluid and shaped by the combined effects of nature and nurture. Women must resist being essentialized by biological explanations of our sexuality, a concept held dear by Christianity and by evolutionary psychology.   We women cannot stop, and we will not stop, until we have achieved all our rights and all our freedoms. Do not let authority figures and experts, whether churchmen or psychologists, define our natures. It is past time for men and women to begin living more authentically, and, as a result, more sanely, more productively, and more happily.

Video of Lecture: Religion’s Oppression of Women, Part 2: Christianity

Lecture: Religion’s Oppression of Women, Part 2: Christianity

Video of Discussion: Religion’s Oppression of Women, Part 2: Christianity

Discussion: Religion’s Oppression of Women, Part 2: Christianity


There are additional references in the bibliography at Religion’s Oppression of Women, Part 1.


Bullough, Vern L. and James Brundage, Eds. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996.

Bullough, Vern L. Sex, Society and History.  New York: Science History Publications, 1976.

Bullough, Vern L., Brenda Shelton and Sarah Slavin. The Subordinated Sex. Revised Ed., Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 1988.

Cadden, Joan. Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Foucault, Michel.  The History of Sexuality, Vol.1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley.  New York: Vintage Books, 1978.

Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998.

Oldridge, Darren, Ed. The Witchcraft Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.


Behringer, Wolfgang. “Weather, Hunger and Fear: Origins of the European Witch-Hunts in Climate, Society and Mentality.” In Darren Oldridge, Ed. The Witchcraft Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. 69-87.

Brundage, James A. “Sex and Canon Law.” In Vern Bullough and James A. Brundage, Eds. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. New York and London: Garland Publishing Company, 1996. 33-51.

Hester, Marianne. “Patriarchal Reconstruction and Witch Hunting.” In Darren Oldridge, Ed. The Witchcraft Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. 276-289.

Holmes, Clive. “Women: Witches and Witnesses.” In Darren Oldridge, Ed. The Witchcraft Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. 303-323.

Larner, Christina. “The Crime of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe.” In Darren Oldridge, Ed. The Witchcraft Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. 205-213.

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