The labeling of women as witches is a global phenomenon. It exists across geographical scales within which the context varies from positive to negative interpretations of this label. In the European context, the labeling of a person as a witch came with the possibility of death via the judicial system or mob behavior. The existence of witches is only possible under a patriarchal rule. Under male dominated conditions, women are discouraged from being active in society beyond their given roles.
The system patriarchy originated between 8000-3000 BCE1. With the development of agriculture came the origin of surplus as well as the importance of the controlling them. By using physical force, men were able to take control and use that power to have women be subservient and continue work as laborers2. By keeping women busy and focused, men were able to construct a system of obedience and self-benefit that protects them from varying opinions form women. When this structure comes under attack, a systemic method of punishment is an easy way to deal with women who rebel. In this way, witch trials and the idea of rebellious women as witches was poised to threaten and scare women off from rebelling against a system that benefited off their oppression.
Within the popular culture of Europe and places with European societal norms, the witches recognized by many are women who seemingly possess magical powers3. This idea stems from originally pagan traditions4. Europe and the new colonies in North America were ruled through a system of intense and deliberate patriarchy. Male rule was pervasive when considering men were the providers of the household and, even at the top of the government, the monarchs of Europe were preferentially male. Women were simply deemed as less than. Any disobedience from women was swiftly and abruptly punished.
The patriarchy in Europe was able to use common punishment as a through line to unify women away from rebellious behavior. This was also done to discourage behaviors that were deemed unbecoming in the traditions of religious beliefs. In the case of sexual deviance, women deemed as witches were deemed the source of sexually transmitted diseases5. Through a system of power in which one sex has complete control, blame can be put on the other with little to no backlash. Syphilis was said to be the spawn of witches6. This is particularly interesting because of the sexual behavior of men and women of the time, with men being more unfaithful in their marriages7. This likely led to men being the group that spread syphilis to a greater degree. Though this may be the case, supporting the patriarchy is far more important to those in power so a blame on women is an escape from the societal retributions that would come from public knowledge. Further, putting blame on witches and having a public display of punishment would not only discourage women from adultery but also discourage rebellious behavior in general.
More than not, people who were labeled as witches were women. About 90% of witches were women8. Of the remaining witches who were men, most of them were effeminate and engaged in homosexual behavior9. In order to maintain social power and structure, witch trials were put in place to convict women deemed rebellious or powerful. These women were capable of social change which was unacceptable in a male dominated society. Any social upheaval, led by women, was to be avoided. A death sentence was an easy way to get rid of women who were a threat to powerful men.
Witches were outcasts of society. The danger of a powerful and rebellious woman was poignant to men in power. By creating a false narrative of evil around, otherwise, normal women, they could wield their power to turn a society against them with fear.
Omvedt, Gail. Review of The Origin of Patriarchy, by Gerda Lerner. Economic and Political Weekly 22, no. 44 (1987): WS70–72. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4377665.
Steadman, Lyle B. “The Killing of Witches.” Oceania 56, no. 2 (1985): 106–23. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40330856.
McGough, Laura J. "Demons, Nature, or God? Witchcraft Accusations and the French Disease in Early Modern Venice." Bulletin of the History of Medicine 80, no. 2 (2006): 219-246. doi:10.1353/bhm.2006.0069.
Cott, Nancy F. “Divorce and the Changing Status of Women in Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts.” The William and Mary Quarterly 33, no. 4 (1976): 586–614. https://doi.org/10.2307/1921717.
Pócs, Éva. "Why Witches Are Women", Acta Ethnographica Hungarica 48, 3-4 (2003): 367-383, accessed Nov 15, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1556/AEthn.48.2003.3-4.5
John Allen, “The Book of the General Laws For the People within the Jurisdiction of Connecticut: Collected out of the Records of the General Court” (Connecticut; Hartford; Cambridge, October 1672), CO 5/537, https://www.colonialamerica.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/Details/CO_5_537_001;
Lara Apps and Andrew Gow, Male Witches in Early Modern Europe (Manchester University Press, 2003), https://doi.org/10.9760/mupoa/9780719057090.
Daniel Defoe, “A System of Magick; or, A History of the Black Art. Being an Historical Account of Mankind’s Most Early Dealing with the Devil; and How the Acquaintance on Both Sides First Began. - 80,” accessed October 17, 2022, https://digital.library.cornell.edu/catalog/witchcraft040_80.
Edward Ward, “Minutes of the Committee upon the Laws of the Massachusetts Bay” (Boston Massachusetts, June 4, 1695), https://www.colonialamerica.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/Details/CO_5_906_067.