Photo credit: National Education Association
BY ERIN COUGHLIN HOLLOWELL
Alse Young of Windsor, Connecticut was the first person to be executed for witchcraft in America in May of 1647. Her trial took place during an influenza epidemic. There’s not much else in the history books, except that she had no male heirs and was therefore eligible to inherit her husband’s estate. Some records indicate that this might have been a factor in the accusations against her.
I grew up in the late sixties and early seventies, the beginning of the “Women’s Liberation Movement.” On the evening news, in addition to the constant roar of the Vietnam War, there were women marching with their fists in the air, burning their bras. My mother, who worked only in our home, was scornful of these women. “They’re not real women,” she would say. “Real women become mothers and take care of their children.” Then she would turn back to the stove where she was preparing Rice-a-Roni, just like every other Tuesday night.
In the mid-90s, I worked in the IT departments of several investment banks and ad agencies. Often I was the only woman in department meetings or gathering after work for drinks. If I positioned my stool against the wall of the bar, I could fade into the background as I listened to the men discuss their day. It would surprise no one to know how deeply derisive they were of the administrative assistants, all women learning to navigate new technology. I never weighed in, but I was sure that when I wasn’t around, I was subject of the same kind of belittling.
Enter Hillary Clinton. As her husband ran for president in 1992, Clinton ran afoul of the patriarchy with her famous quote, “You know, I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.” The horror, a woman who doesn’t like to stay home and bake cookies! The media could not let this gaffe go until they made Clinton take part in a “first lady’s favorite cookie contest” first held, not-coincidentally, during the 1992 election cycle.
Enter Hillary Clinton as witch. Misogyny took center stage in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Clinton was branded as the “Wicked Witch of the Left.” T-shirts at her opponent’s campaign rallies read “Trump versus tramp” or “Life’s a bitch, don’t vote for one.” I can’t be the only person who had friends, politically “progressive” friends, who told me that they just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton. That she was too shrill, or too political, or too….too.
Even though there were plenty of genuine concerns a voter might have had about Hillary Clinton, the rhetoric surrounding the 2016 election was chilling, especially for women. If this over-prepared, experienced woman candidate could not get elected, what woman could?
The phone rang late in the evening and when I answered it, a friend was sobbing on the other end. “I’ll never see a woman become president in my lifetime,” she said, tears garbling her voice.
Earlier that day, election day 2016, I had been putting groceries in the trunk of my car when a young woman walked by in short shorts. Two grown men got out of their pickup truck next to me and one immediately began making sexually explicit comments towards her. “Not today,” I said in a voice much louder than I felt, “Not any day.” I was shouting at a man in a parking lot. Luckily his friend pulled him toward the store, thereby sparing me further confrontation.
Why were women crying as the election results came in? We knew what would happen. 33% of the Supreme Court judges and 30% of the appellate court judges appointed by an administration that hated women. The Trump administration seeded extremely conservative judges into a system that many thought was the bulwark against politicization. The judiciary is the branch of our government that is meant to be nonpartisan (even if there are signs that it has not ever been so).
June 24, 2022. The United States Supreme Court officially reversed Roe v. Wade thereby declaring that the constitutional right to a woman’s bodily autonomy, upheld for at least a half of a century, no longer exists.
This is where I insert the traumatic story of my own sexuality/assault/reproductive mishaps/abuse/etc. Stories of the numerous times I’ve been called a bitch/witch/hysterical/crazy woman. The number of times men have laid hands upon my body without my consent. The number of times I’ve been the only woman in the room, invisible, so that I hear the words without the “nice guy/not all guys” filter. This geyser of stories happens regularly on social media when these topics come up. Women pour out the stories of their own pain. It’s performative for a reason, to convince people that these topics, autonomy, abortion, sexual assault, rape, transgressions on the bodies of primarily women are commonplace.
I won’t do it anymore.
It doesn’t work.
The United States is hewing dangerously close to a society in which powerful women are burned at the stake. We are already a society in which powerless women are sacrificed to the machine of capitalism, forced to carry children they do not want and cannot support, shunned and destroyed for daring to raise their voices against powerful men who happen to also be sexual predators.
It would be easy to say to you that voting for women candidates would make this problem go away, but it most certainly will not. There are plenty of women, especially white women, who have such deeply ingrained misogyny, who have such a high stake in seeing white supremacy and the patriarchy continue, that they are willing handmaidens to the system that will see their rights removed. After all, I live in a state where Sarah Palin is an actual choice on the ballot this fall.
I think instead to turn to the amazing Octavia Butler who wrote in her important novel Parable of the Talents, “Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought. To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool. To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen. To be led by a liar is to ask to be lied to. To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.”
To move forward, our culture must move away from valuing only money and power to valuing compassion and autonomy for all. That’s a long road to a probably unreachable final destination. Ursula Le Guin said, in her National Book Award speech, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”
So we start with each vote (from the most local elections all the way up to presidential elections). Resist apathy. Vote and serve and create art that makes the world a larger more diverse and joyful place. Be ready to put out the flames around the feet of women, anyone, who speaks truth to power.