In recent years, signs and T-shirts bearing the slogan “We Are the Granddaughters of the Witches You Couldn’t Burn” have popped up at political protests and rallies for a variety of causes, from #MeToo to reproductive rights. While hardly historically accurate — individuals convicted of witchcraft in early America were hanged, not burned — the phrase powerfully evokes the history of witch hunts as attacks on politically active women.
Just in time for Halloween, the Center for Women’s History at the New-York Historical Society (where I am associate director) has opened a new exhibit, “The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming,” which is on view through Jan. 22. Originally organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., the exhibition features original objects from individuals affected by the witch trials of 1692 and two creative responses by contemporary artists who are Salem descendants. The juxtaposition invites viewers to challenge their assumptions about the familiar story and search for new meanings — including thinking about how generations of women’s rights activists have looked to the history of witch hunts as a call to defy gender norms.
In 1692 in Salem and elsewhere across early America and the Atlantic world, witches were thought to have made a pact with Satan to unleash “maleficia” — or harmful magic — upon their communities, causing sickness, misery and death. Accusations were overwhelmingly hurled at women, particularly those who were poor or older. Trials engaged the entire community as a form of popular entertainment and visible social control over women’s behavior and authority. The trials in Salem stand out among other witch trials in colonial America because they were so lethal and extreme: Within less than a year, 19 individuals were hanged, six others died in legal custody and hundreds suffered from the damaging legal accusations.
But the accused and their families did not passively accept their fate. During Elizabeth How’s (also spelled Howe) legal examination, for example, the mother of six insisted, “If it was the last moment I was to live, God knows I am innocent of anything in this nature.” Even after she was executed, her family fought to restore her honor. Family members of the falsely accused began submitting petitions asking for their loved ones’ convictions to be overturned within a few years of the trials, pushing the legislature to exonerate the falsely accused in 1711. How’s daughters Abigail and Mary were paid restitution shortly after.
In subsequent centuries, activists continued to point to Salem and other witch hunts as defining moments of injustice and misogyny. In 1893, Matilda Joslyn Gage — an ardent suffragist, abolitionist and advocate for Indigenous rights who held more radical views than many of her contemporaries, including her once-collaborators Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton — published a book, “Woman, Church & State,” which identified the “witch” stigma as a historical source of women’s oppression. Gage contended that “the extreme wickedness of woman” was “taught as a cardinal doctrine,” with “witchcraft being regarded as [woman’s] strongest weapon” against Christian society. Gage decried these beliefs and pointed to how the persecution of witchcraft produced acts of physical violence against women, as well as causing great psychological, spiritual and economic harm. “It is impossible for us at the present day to conceive the awful horror falling upon a family into which an accusation of witchcraft had come,” she wrote.