During this series on food I have been outlining the ways that men took women on, when they usurped control of food. The Western European witch-craze was a water shed. Women had (in men’s eyes) become too powerful and they wanted to redress the balance. Create a “balanced” world where women have nothing.
Today Western women own land, sure, but a rule of patriarchy is to allow women to have things (votes, land) when they’re no longer worth anything. Because women aren’t productive with their land and have lost their knowledge of what works well, they’re still forced to rely on the food supply chain system, and therefore are in no way a threat to the status quo.
But there is another aspect to the witch-craze. Another piece of the puzzle that we need to look at. And that is, the midwives.
How can I put this? The midwives were badass. They were patriarchy’s worst nightmare, and still are in countries around the world.
Take a moment to let that sink in. Why would patriarchy fear and despise midwives? My readers will have to work with me here.
Alongside the women who had land, why would the midwives be the group most targeted?
(For reference, the word “midwife” simply means “with woman”, from the German language. The word “wife” is misleading in English– it suggests a relationship with men. But it actually just means “woman”. She is the woman who is with women while they’re in labour. Germany lost more women than any other country during the witch-craze. It was a killing frenzy over there)
Let’s get out of the way the issue of female autonomy in childbirth. When male Ob/Gyns opened the first birth “houses” in Germany, women would commit suicide rather than be forced by their husbands to enter them. The women weren’t wrong to do so. Survival rates inside these hospitals were abysmal. They suffered tortuous deaths, to be sure. No doubt their dying screams could be heard across the towns. Today, giving birth alone, or at home with a midwife is statistically safer than giving birth in hospital. The astronomically high maternal death rate in the U.S.can be correlated positively with the medicalization of birth. The death rate for women having C-sections is particularly high. When the U.S ranks 42nd in the world, for its survival rate for mothers, there’s no such thing as American women privilege in childbirth. (By the way, I would encourage women to educate each other on the stats about medicalization of childbirth and how this causes deaths. For Americans, Ina May Gaskin’s work is a good reference. The death rate is so high that I see this as a far more pressing and urgent issue than trans. Having watched the trans agenda unfold over the years, I see that western women are stuck in post industrial, post-modernist hell. The measure of it all is that women with spare energy are devoting their activism to fighting trans, when they live in a country that has got more women dying in childbirth than almost anywhere else in the world.) (You can also educate women and girls about PIV and celibacy, or lesbianism, of course). American women are the canaries in the coal mine . The ones to let us know which moves global patriarchy is making next.
So why did men suddenly want to get involved in childbirth? Were they simply jealous that women could do something they couldn’t, and hated the fact they were always on the periphery of reproduction? Was it some porny birth fetish that made them want to watch women in pain? All of these, yes.
But the deep truth is that midwives had power over life and death. That’s how patriarchal powers (correctly) assessed the situation. In certain places around the world, like Papua New Guinea, midwives still retain this ancient female power today.
Silvia Federici writes:
” women began to be prosecuted in large numbers, and more were executed for infanticide in 16th and 17th- century Europe than for any other crime except for witchcraft, a charge that also centred on the killing of children and other violations of reproductive norms (abortion).
“While in the Middle Ages women had been able to use various forms of contraceptives, and had exercised undisputed control over the birthing process, from now on their wombs became public territory, controlled by men and state…
Also the sexual sadism displayed by the torturers to which the accused were subjected reveals a misogyny that has no parallel in history……The execution was an important public event, which all the members of the community had to attend, including all the children of the witches, especially their daughters who, in some cases, would be whipped in front of the stake on which they could see their mother burning alive.
The witch hunt, then, was a war against women; it was a concerted attempt to degrade them, demonize them, and destroy their social power. At the same time, it was in the torture chambers and on the stakes on which the witches perished that the bourgeois ideals of womanhood and domesticity were forged.
In a patriarchal twist, the remaining midwives were turned into handmaidens, who had to report all new births.
With the marginalization of the midwife, the process began by which women lost the control they had exercised over procreation, and were reduced to a passive role in child delivery, while male doctors came to be seen as the true “givers of life”
So this was our last stand. And it was European men’s final stab at conquering women for good. We lost our best women, in battle, no less. But nobody observing us should ever say that we women of the West didn’t try. Tried, and failed. Today we no longer have knowledge of land, food and no longer any power over life and death.
The final humiliation is that nowadays the word “witch” evokes nothing more suspicious than a frivolous woman lighting candles and burning sage in her kitchen.
But she still survives in the madwoman– the woman so struck by the horror that she retreats into her own world, or else she is simply put away because she’s unfeminine, shrill, strident, refuses to care for her babies and husband. The madwoman is the shadowy remains of the witch. Men lock her up because they do fear her. She is dangerous because she’s proof that not all women can be controlled and domesticated , and because she’s unpredictable. But most of all, because she might pose a danger to men, if she lashes out.
But enough about Western women, for now.
In many countries around the world, however, the “witch” still evokes fear, sexuality, dread, danger and power.
Let’s take a look at what is happening to women who are being accused as witches in India today, to give us an idea of what our ancestors went through, and to remind us that the reason the witch-craze is still ongoing around the world is because in many places women haven’t been broken and retain power and knowledge.
In my last post I looked at Basi behen in India. In her case, the accusation of being a witch was a clear-cut example of her brother-in-law wanting to steal her land. Feminist groups in India are onto this and as we see in Basi behen’s case, female lawyers are able to effectively legislate on behalf of the women.
I don’t know what percentage of the European witch craze was about land, but because land and power go hand in hand, you can be sure every witch who was accused held and managed some land, even if it was a smallholding or a garden. Midwives would have been offered gifts from the grateful mothers they helped, would have been able to amass resources. I stand by the assertion that the witch-craze in Europe was a “land-grab.”
Suttee has been outlawed and is illegal in India today, but the practice of widow-burning still exists. When a woman’s husband dies, she is sometimes burned on the funeral pyre with him. Mary Daly looked at this atrocity in detail. But a little known fact is how it came about. In an interview with a Sikh in London years ago, I heard suttee being defended on the grounds that “women tend to kill their husbands, so we have to put methods in place to prevent them from doing so. If women know they will be burned if their husbands die, they will desist”. When I first heard of this justification, I was of course appalled. But now I’ve researched the ways that women have resisted patriarchy, I wonder, are Indian men being paranoid when they assume women will kill their husbands? Or are they not…?
Indian women are feared for the likelihood they might kill their husbands, while western women are sucking their husbands’ cocks. And I don’t mean that facetiously. I’m saying: look at what they’ve done to us, and look how far we’ve fallen. While Indian men are worried their wives might kill them, European men are worried about how best to convince their wives to enthusiastically agree to anal sex.
Of course in many articles, you will see suttee being regarded as a woman’s way to express her devotion to her husband. This overlooks the fact that a widow would be treated badly by society, and I believe most women figured they’d rather burn alive than live out the rest of their days in humiliation.
But again suttee can also be traced back to land. Although women of all castes were affected:
historically, the practice of sati was to be found among many castes and at every social level, chosen by or for both uneducated and the highest ranking women of the times. The common deciding factor was often ownership of wealth or property, since all possessions of the widow devolved to the husband’s family upon her death.
Islamic moguls tried to ban the practice of Suttee on the grounds that it was barbaric. But it persists today. In May 2006, Vidyawati, a 35-year-old woman allegedly jumped into the funeral pyre of her husband in Rari-Bujurg Village, Uttar Pradesh. In August 2006, Janakrani, a 40-year-old woman, died on the funeral pyre of her husband in Sagar district. In October 2008, a 75-year-old woman committed sati by jumping into her 80-year-old husband’s funeral pyre at Checher in Raipur.
Let’s be clear, I’m not justifying suttee– for people who have a habit of accidentally on purpose misunderstanding me. I’m saying: these women still have life in them yet. Not zombies. Not hollowed-out shells. Those of us here who dread the nursing homes that await us in the Western world are right to. They’re terrifying. Are we freer because we live out our days in rooms smelling of piss, with dementia confused men, locked inside, with tasteless food and rapey staff, with a weekly board game night to look forward to, drugged so we don’t complain, a monthly visit from the adult children who put us in there? Which of us would jump on the fire rather than face this fate? No western woman today, that I know.
There is plenty of information on the witch-craze in India.
Many of the accusations have roots in property disputes, local politics, and disease, which then develop into allegations of witchcraft and then to violence. In recent years, there has been a concentrated effort to help women who fled their villages because of persecution. But according to Al Jazeera, there are only three Indian states that have legislation to address accusations of witchcraft.
The similarities with the European and American witch-craze are astounding:
In India, a person accused of being a “dayan” or witch can be tortured, raped, hacked to death, or burned alive. Victims are often single older women, usually widows,
But I think European men had the edge over Indian men. Systematically whipping the witches’ daughters, as they were forced to watch their mother burn, is quite something.
What I’m trying to say is this. It has already happened to us in the West. It has happened, and it changed us, and there’s no going back, as far as I can see. It doesn’t happen anymore because there’s nothing left of us. Western women are the descendants of the women who have already been conquered. All men need to do now is tweak things a little. Domestic violence and rape here and there, a couple of women murdered every week in the UK by their husbands. No great fanfare. No sensational burnings at the stake. No dramatic martyrdom and parading of women naked through villages anymore. No women throwing themselves on funeral pyres to escape poverty. No. In the U.K, our oppression consists of the quietly ignored, effortless ongoing murder of already docile wives (two women murdered a week, in fact), the killing of women in childbirth (of women who are so lost and removed from knowledge of their own bodies that they are convinced of the fact that men are helping them, even as they lay dying on the hospital bed) and the drugging of the leftover madwomen. Nowhere to grow food, nowhere to harbour friends or women wanting somewhere to stay. We have nothing.