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Gender Identity: Modernity and the Witch Hunts Research Paper

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Updated: Jul 13th, 2021

During the period of European modernization, which occurred between the 16th and 17th centuries, people experienced a series of persecutions and executions for social, cultural, and political reasons. Witch-hunting is one of the forms of persecution and executions that people suffered and endured as they ushered modernity. Numerous factors contributed to the occurrence of witch-hunting in Europe. Religious reforms increased fears, hatred, and confusion concerning evil as a threat to Christendom and further fueled witch-hunting, leading to significant social-political ramifications (Pastone, 1980). The perception of witchcraft and sorcery as evil resulted in the extermination of witches in Europe. People who were perceived to be heretics were identified and persecuted through the process of witch-hunting. Since women had a significant influence on the workforce, the persecution of witches aimed at the degradation of women and subjecting them to slavery (Federici, 2004a). Witch-hunting increased slavery and the slave trade as vagabonds, beggars, and women were arrested and recruited as slaves. Since witch-hunting has numerous social-political effects, this research paper examines how it shaped gender relations and identities in modern society.

Gender Relations and Identities

Patriarchal System

Although witch-hunting happened in the 16th to 17th centuries, it has contributed significantly to the social construct of patriarchy in families, communities, and societies. Patriarchy is a social system that categorizes women to belong to an inferior gender and men a superior gender (Bridges & Pascoe, 2016). When men observed that women were gaining significant influence in economic, social, and political circles, they employed witch-hunting as a strategy to undermine and offer them inferior social privileges. Federici (2004a) argues that women were scolded as ‘witches’ and severely punished when they unsubordinated the patriarchal system in societies where they lived. Men used witch-hunting as a scheme to promote their patriarchal power and undermine women at family, community, and society levels. Women who got empowered and enlightened during the 17th century were accused of making laws and regulations that focused on curtailing the supremacy of their husbands (Federici, 2004a). Consequently, men and husbands heightened their resolve to use witch-hunt and punish women to disempower them.

As witch-hunting established an entrenched patriarchal system in the 16th and 17th centuries, its effects have persisted up to now. The essence of the patriarchal system is to position men in privileged positions in society and emasculate women to be unequal counterparts in various facets of society. At the family level, patriarchy is evident in modern society because there are still gendered roles in families (Rosen, 2017). While men have taken superior jobs, women are left with inferior job opportunities in most cases. For instance, in leadership positions, women comprise a small proportion when compared to the dominant male counterparts owing to the patriarchal privilege. Women still require affirmative action in political seats for them to match the proportion of the dominant male figures. Moreover, in the families, husbands wield superior powers since they rule and dominate their wives. Hence, the patriarchal system that persists in modern society stems from the witch-hunt and persecution of women during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Domestic Workers

Witch-hunting led to the perception of women as domestic workers who do not contribute to the labor force. The demand for manual labor and the existence of slavery excluded women from the labor force during the 16th and 17th centuries when witch-hunting dominated the labor market. Federici (2004b) explains that women were placed in the lowest status in the labor market because their domestic duties of sewing, brewing, and farming were considered ‘unproductive’ work, while the same tasks performed by men were considered as ‘productive’ work. Whenever women performed tasks considered work, they were deemed to be assisting their husbands in the production process. As a way of disempowering women in society, the government overlooked tasks performed by widows and single women. The witch-hunt ideology that women cannot make significant contributions to the workforce led to their marginalization (Bridges & Pascoe, 2016). For women to join the workforce, they had to explain their needy situations, their inability to get support from their husbands and issue apologies for violating cultural norms.

In the current society, the devaluation of women’s labor is frequent because there are gendered roles in the job market. Witch-hunting ensured that women remained inferior in society and relegated their abilities and roles to domestic levels (Rosen, 2017). Currently, tasks are gendered because men perform more labor-intensive tasks than women. For example, men dominate the construction and security industries because their activities are more labor-intensive than in other industries. Furthermore, in the political arena, men are dominant since society perceives them as powerful and competent leaders, while women remain inferior, less powerful, and incompetent in leadership (Bridges & Pascoe, 2016). In the labor market, male workers continue to dominate in most sectors because society considers the women’s workforce unproductive. Thus, devaluation of women’s labor is persistent in modern society as men do not only earn more than women but also dominate prestigious jobs and workplaces.

Objects of Reproduction

Since women have the power of reproduction, witch-hunting treated them as objects that the state could use to manipulate and control the growth of the population. The decreasing population dwindled the labor force and the primitive accumulation of wealth through slavery. Consequently, the government employed the strategy of ‘witch-hunting to ensure that women reproduce and increase the population. According to Federici (2004a), the government accused women who obstructed population growth as ‘witches’ who offered their children as sacrifices to the devil. Laws that target reproductive crimes were formulated and targeted on women who do not want to sire many children because they obstruct population growth, reduce the labor force, and contribute to poverty (Stabile, 2015). Based on the social axiom that the population determines the ability of a nation to create riches and wealth, the government framed policies that encourage population growth and punished offending women (Bridges & Pascoe, 2016). In essence, women lost their ability to control reproduction because the government viewed them as objects to be manipulated and controlled to increase the population of a country as desired.

In modern society, governments across the world continue to perceive women as objects of reproduction since they target them when controlling the population using contraceptives. With the perception of women as objects of reproduction, researchers have focused their innovations on the production of contraceptives and family planning interventions for women. Stabile (2015) argues that maternal decisions of reproductive health have been subjected to paternal interests and government policies. Although women have the autonomy to make decisions regarding their reproductive health, they have to consider prevailing policies and the influence of paternal pressure. Therefore, as modern society determines reproductive health, it controls women as objects of reproduction.

The Ideal Woman

Before the occurrence of witch-hunt in the 16th and 19th centuries, society had a real woman, as reflected by the abilities and roles. However, witch-hunting transformed a real woman into an ideal woman who fits the demands, needs, norms, and customs of patriarchal society. According to Federici (2004a), the realization that women were powerful and gaining influence over men elicited witch-hunt. The real women were hardworking, independent, influential, and powerful in numerous aspects of life. During the witch-hunt, society humiliated and terrorized women by associating them with demonic and evil practices and forces. Federici (2004b) asserts that witch-hunt weakened political, social, political, cultural, and economic aspects of women, leading to the construction of the ideal women. The weakened women submitted to the patriarchal forces, which demanded them to be submissive, obedient, passive, and chaste. Although during the period of witch-hunt the society labeled women as rebellious, mentally weak, insatiably lusty, savage, and insubordinate, their identity changed once they were weakened and overpowered. Hence, women started to take a new identity of the ideal woman by adapting attributes imposed on them by the patriarchal society.

The ideal woman persists because society continues to impose attributes, values, and characters on women. Federici (2004a) explains that after the witch-hunt, the society sustained their pressure on women to adopt values and attributes, such as obedience, passive, moral, and chaste, for them to attain the ideal state of the modern woman. At present, the ideal woman has become a powerful social construct, which influences the way women attain maturity, realize marriage, manage families, pursue careers, and enter into leadership. Women cannot achieve these varied social statuses without adopting and possessing attributes and values that define an ideal woman. Thus, patriarchy determines attributes, values, and characters that define the ideal woman instead of the real woman.

Slavery

Women were subjected to slavery during the 16th and 17th centuries as witch-hunt focused on disempowering them in society. The decreased growth of population and high demand for labor subjected women to slavery conditions in various agricultural plantations. Witch-hunt caused the mistreatment of women as social outcasts and subjected them to forced labor in sugar plantations. Federici (2004a) reports that convicted and indentured women, as well as those considered not fit for marriage and disqualified as domestic workers were taken as slaves to perform manual labor in the urban service sector, plantations, and public construction works. In essence, women who were considered in low social class were witch-hunted and enslaved to provide cheap manual labor. The white women integrated into the slave community, competed in the production, socialized intimately, and formed their families. However, the institutionalization of slavery relieved the witch-hunt against women as black slaves took over the labor market. Therefore, witch-hunt changed the identity of women as social outcasts and promoted their exploitation in the labor market as productive slaves.

The social-political effects of witch-hunt are evident in the way women’s slavery persists in the labor market, particularly in agricultural plantations. The labor-intensive agricultural activities involving the production of tea, coffee, coffee, and sugarcane continue to exploit women in the production process because they provide cheap labor. The labor industry has classified women as competent manual laborers based on their ability to accept slavery and work in poor conditions (Stabile, 2015). Poverty and the pressure to provide for their families compel women in modern society to work under depriving conditions in the plantations. Owners of extensive plantations in Europe and across the world continue to exploit laborers as slaves, particularly women because they offer cheap labor. The adoption of ethical and legal practices has forced plantations to comply with the demands of corporate social responsibility in the labor industry.

Perpetrators of Infanticide

The decreasing population in Europe and the increasing demand for labor and markets for products made the government advocate for policies aimed at boosting reproduction. During witch-hunt, as women were perceived as major perpetrators of infanticide, they were criminalized for violating reproductive policies and norms. Federici (2004b) explains that women were accused of infanticide and reproductive practices of birth control and pro-creative sex were criminalized and demonized to encourage population growth. As a consequence, women lived at the mercies of unfair government policies, which hindered them from enjoying their rights to reproductive health. The belief of human sacrifices to appease the evil through witchcraft and sorcery contributed to the accusation of women as the perpetrators of maternal infanticide (Postone, 1980). In ensuring that women do not commit maternal infanticide, strict surveillance was undertaken to prevent the termination of pregnancies. Owing to witch-hunt, even midwives were not trusted to deliver women. As a result, male doctors were allowed to control and supervise the delivery process, while midwives were given a passive role in the delivery rooms (Federici, 2004a). Hence, witch-hunt permitted the state to violate the reproductive rights of women during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Comparatively, in modern society, the issue of abortion is a continuation of the witch-hunt process. Since the focus of the witch-hunt was to deny women their rights, the emotive and controversial topic of abortion in modern society stems from historical practices. While some countries consider the importance of maternal health, other countries insist on the overriding significance of fetal health. Essentially, modern society continues to accuse women of infanticide and abortion, irrespective of maternal health conditions and medical advice. To overcome prejudice associated with reproductive health, women hide their medical issues and do abortions secretly.

Communal Good

The witch-hunt led to discrimination of women in society, making them earn the identity of communal good. Following the devaluation of their labor and economic efforts, women were subjected to impoverishing conditions of life for they could not access labor markets and offer productive labor to employers and slave masters. Men exploited and expropriated women for the social-sexual contract. According to Federici (2004a), women became communal goods since their activities were treated as unproductive work, bodies became sexual objects, and human labor was perceived as a natural resource for everyone to exploit and derive selfish benefits. Since women were languishing in poverty, they had no power to prevent exploitation and abuse by men, employers, and slave owners. The social-sexual contract predisposed women to sexual abuse and prostitution since the patriarchal society allowed men to dominate and undermine women. Therefore, witch-hunt ensured that women became helpless and venerable to exploitation and sexual abuse by men who enjoyed economic and social privileges in society.

Currently, women possess the identity of communal good because men, employers, and society collectively abuse and exploit them for selfish reasons. For example, prostitution is still present despite the empowerment of women in various facets of life. Men exploit women sexually by perceiving them as sexual objects, which they purchase and consume to satisfy their selfish interests. Whenever women try to object sexual advances, men employ witch-hunt tactics, such as denying empowerment privileges at work and using assaults (Stabile, 2015). In the labor market, women receive poor and skewed treatment for employers to assign them manual tasks and pay them miserable wages, especially in the informal sector where labor laws do not apply. Given that women are weak, they do not have physical, financial, legal, and political powers to agitate for their rights. Consequently, men enjoy impoverishing and undermining women by taking them as communal goods for leisure and pleasure.

Dependents

During the 16th and 17th centuries, women gained the identity of dependents because they relied on their men for social, economic, and political support. According to Federici (2004a), women were classified as wives, mothers, daughters, and widows who are dependents of employers and men in a patriarchal society. Women did not attain a respectable social status in society without getting married and accepting to depend on a man. From the economic perspective, women did not have the privilege of working and earning wages since their work was treated as unproductive and insignificant. Men used family as a social institution in concealing and appropriating women’s labor, as well as excluding them from businesses and property ownership (Federici, 2004a). In the political arena, women were denied to hold leadership positions because their tasks were confined to family and domestic activities. In essence, independent women were perceived as rebellious and insubordinate to patriarchy.

Modern society considers women as dependents of men owing to the entrenched patriarchal order. Since the family is the fundamental social unit, it comprises of a man as the provider, in addition to women and children as dependents. The work of the man is to ensure that his dependents get the basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing, and social protection from adverse elements in society. Married women are recognized and respected because they have submitted themselves to men, independent women are ignored and disrespect for they appear rebellious and insubordinate to the patriarchal order (Stabile, 2015). Moreover, men have dominated the labor and commercial sectors, leaving women as not only assistants but also dependents. In politics, women depend on men to enact affirmative legislation for them to get elective and selective positions. Overall, for women to make significant social, economic, and political achievements, they have to depend on patriarchal powers, which permeated every sector in society. Therefore, the identity of dependent paints struggles that women undergo in emancipating themselves from the patriarchal system.

Agents of Witches

During the 16th and 17th centuries, women were considered agents of witches as they exercised practices and activities associated with sorcery and witchcraft. Thousands of women were accused and persecuted for witchcraft and sorcery based on the perceptions of men who had identified themselves as ‘witch-finders in the society (2004b). The prevalent of witches during that time allowed identification of their practices and activities. The typical charges listed for the trial were infanticide, the engagement in perverted sexual practices, copulating with the devil, participation in orgies, and production of abnormal erotic passion (Federici, 2004b). The dominant belief was that the devil easily persuades a woman and manipulates their minds to undertake evil activities in society. The seven steps that witches employ in infecting humans are corrupting minds of men to perform inordinate passion, hindering the generative power in men, eliminating men accommodated to evil acts, transforming men into beasts, terminating the generative power in women, obtaining an abortion, and ultimately submitting children to the devil for sacrifice (Federici, 2004b). Consequently, men were wary of the potential of women to become agents of witches and perpetrate evil acts in society.

The persistent witch-hunt in modern society has placed the identity of women as agents of witches. In reproduction health, men continue to blame women for medical issues related to impotence and infant mortality. In modern society, men consider impotence as an issue that affects based on their social and cultural practices. From the perspective of a witch-hunt, society considers impotence as a curse that inflicts women who engaged in evil activities. Likewise, infant mortality is an issue that modern society associates with evil and immoral activities of devil worship.

Healers

Despite the accusation and persecution of witches, witch-hunting led to the revelation that women played a significant role as healers in society. Good witches exploited their skills and knowledge in the provision of treatment remedies for the people. Federici (2004b) holds that good witches were midwives, soothsayers, and medicine women who played a significant role in society for they helped individuals, communities, and society. An ordinary woman had many roles, including laundering, making perfumes, treating patients, and creating artifacts. Significantly, women provided treatment using natural oils, herbs, and concoctions, which proved to be effective remedies for various diseases.

The healing knowledge of women has been transmitted from one generation to another until modern society. The emergence of science stems from the accumulated knowledge and skills derived from women healers. In modern society, science borrowed medical knowledge and skills from women who provided treatments using natural oils, herbal extracts, and concoctions. Women healers continue to obtain natural remedies for various diseases from plants, oils, and natural resources. Similarly, science has realized that the natural environment offers infinite resources, which provide effective treatment remedies when exploited and appropriately used.

Conclusion

The examination of the witch-hunt, which dominated Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, reveals that it had numerous social and political consequences. The witch-hunt created diverse gender identities, resulting in significant implications for modern society. Witch-hunt created a patriarchal system, which depicts men as powerful figures and women as weaklings in society. The formation of gendered roles makes women domestic workers, but it positions men as professionals. In reproduction, the witch-hunt brands women as objects to be manipulated to increase the population and provide cheap labor for capitalism. The entrenched patriarchal system creates an ideal woman with attributes and features that favor men and allow them to be slaves. Society still perceives women as perpetrators of infanticide due to high incidences of abortion and infant mortality. From a social perspective, men perceive women as communal goods for sexual exploitation and abuse, making them dependents without the ability to access decent jobs, earn wages, and gain independence. Ultimately, society identifies women as witches with the capacity to engage in evil activities. However, witch-hunting led to the discovery that women have contributed a lot to modern science because they can heal people using herbs, natural oils, and concoctions.

References

Bridges, T., & Pascoe, C. J. (2016). Exploring masculinities: Identity, inequality, continuity, and change. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Federici, S. (2004a). The accumulation of labor and the degradation of women in Caliban and the witch. In. S. Federici (Ed.), Caliban and the witch: Women, the body and primitive accumulation (pp. 61-132). New York, NY: Autonomedia. New York, NY: Autonomedia.

Federici, S. (2004b). The great witch-hunt in Europe in Caliban and the Witch. In. S. Federici (Ed.), Caliban and the witch: Women, the body and primitive accumulation (pp. 163-218). New York, NY: Autonomedia.

Postone, M. (1980). Anti-semitism and national socialism: Notes on the German reaction to “Holocaust.” New German Critique, 19(1), 97-115.

Rosen, M. (2017). A Feminist perspective on the history of women as witches. Dissenting Voices, 6(1), 21-31.

Stabile, B. (2015). Ethics of regulating reproductive technologies: Women as child bearers, rights bearers, and objects of paternalism. Public Integrity, 17(4), Web.

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