Essay on Gender Roles in the Salem Witch Trials

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The purpose of this paper is to analyze the writing of Alison Rowlands as she attempts to answer some questions regarding feminism and witchcraft in early modern Europe. These questions include, “Why were the overall majority of those prosecuted for witchcraft in early modern Europe female? What sorts of women were accused and why, and did other factors—age or marital and socio-economic status—influence their vulnerability to the accusation? And why did witch-hunting claim a significant proportion of male victims, and why did the gendering of witchcraft prosecutions vary geographically?” To answer these questions Rowlands relies on the works of other scholars, and she critiques their work and adds her insight to the issues.

Addressing the first question, Rowlands focuses on feminism and why the majority of those accused of witchcraft were women. Rowlands in her research uses authors Marianne Hester and Anne Llewellyn Barstow. Both authors have been known for having radical feminist views when it comes to the research presented. Barstow and Hester believe that it is a man and his sexual violence towards women that gives the main explanation as to why women were prosecuted more often than men. Rowlands dismisses this argument by stating “Academic historians, however, are dismissive of such interpretations, criticizing radical feminists for their assumption that witch-hunting was `woman-hunting” (Pg..451). Rowlands then mentions that Barstow and Hester rely too much on the Mallus and that the authors have an unwillingness to interact with the records of the witch trials. Rowlands then refutes the argument by mentioning how midwives and female practitioners were even accused of witchcraft. The ordinary people saw midwives and practitioners to be healers and were beneficial to society. It could not possibly be due to sexism that these women were targeted too considering how they were important to society.

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After feminism, Rowlands then moves on to how belief might play a role in answering these questions. Rowlands begins with author Sigrid Brauner as this author attempts to connect the Malleus Maleficarum as the “demonology that cemented the idea that witches were women” (Pg.454). Rowlands is appreciative of Brauner as her approach and writing were firmer. Rather than Barstow and Hester who merely scrounged through the text taking samples that linked women to witchcraft. Brauner argues that the Mallus and the idea that women were weaker and more susceptible to witchcraft were influential in shaping these ideas. After Brauner, Rowlands uses author Stuart Clark and his argument that demonologists focused on women because they were weak and more susceptible. Stuart is different because he doesn’t use the Mallus but just focuses on old ideas that women are weak and carnal. Rowlands says that “Demonologists were not arch-misogynists, then, but simply thought and wrote within a system of dual classification, within which they automatically associated women with the negative (evildevilwitch) and men with the positive (goodGodnot-witch) side of any pair of binary opposites” (Pg. 454). As well, Rowlands makes note of authors Lara Apps and Andrew Gow who test the theory of Stuart. They conclude that demonologists have a flexible idea where women were more likely to become witches but men could become witches too.

The next area that Rowlands focuses on is accusation and what sort of women were vulnerable to the accusations. To begin she uses researchers Alan Macfarlane and Keith Thomas who created a model for the accusations in England. They believed that many of the wealthy thought that the economic problems that they suffered were due to their poorer neighbors using witchcraft to make their lives harder. They wanted to believe this because it was easier to explain rather than believing that they had bad crops or bad luck. Macfarlane and Thomas believe that older women, 50 and up, were the most likely to experience accusations since they were poorer and depended on more neighborly assistance. Author Lyndal Roper argues for the model claiming that “old women were disproportionately represented among the victims…because postmenopausal women were feared and reviled in an age that revered fertility.” (Pg.460). Rowlands agrees with Roper’s ideas as they were psychologically instrumental to the fears that led to the accusations. Author Robin Briggs takes it a step further. Rather than focusing on just the age aspect, she uses the idea that women in their older ages were at the pinnacle of their “magical power”. Witchcraft was understood that at this point in a woman’s life, ages 50 – 70, they were to be feared since they reached peak power.

Continuing with the idea of accusations, Rowlands goes on to focus on the psychoanalytic theories that motivated people to make these accusations. Historian John Demos began this approach by “suggesting that accusations by adolescent girls against middle-aged women in the Salem witch trials of 1692 `masked deep problems stemming ultimately from the relationship of mother and daughter” (Pg.462). As well, psychoanalyst Evelyn Heinemann believed that early Europeans had a split perception of their mothers due to “oppressive childbearing practices”. This oppressiveness leads to two ideologies, that mothers were saint-like and great providers. The other ideology is that the mothers were angry and hateful. While Rowlands agrees and sees the importance of these theories, she ultimately believes that there is one ultimate flaw among all of them. This flaw is that “they ignore or downplay the fact that men could be accused of witchcraft and thus fail to incorporate men adequately into their explanatory frameworks”. This makes sense, men were just as likely to fall for the tricks of dark magic, and it is important not to get focused on just the ideas of sexism during these times.

In Rowlands’s conclusion, she agrees that women and gender have shaped much of what we know about witchcraft. Rowlands urges that we as historians need to “bear this in mind and think about gender in more nuanced ways: statistics on the numbers of men and women tried should be the starting point, not the conclusion, of analysis.” (Pg.466). I agree with this statement. It is important that as historians we look to see the whole picture and not go into a subject with tunnel vision. I believe that Rowlands did an excellent job on this topic and was able to see the whole picture whereas a lot of these authors were focused on just the sexist nature of men.

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Essay on Gender Roles in the Salem Witch Trials. (2024, February 28). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 20, 2024, from
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