The witch panics that have occurred throughout history have had deadly consequences, resulting in thousands of executions. Treatises like Heinrich Kramer’s “Malleus Malleficarum” (translated as “Witches’ Hammer”), which offered theological justifications for persecuting witches and ways to identify them, quickly spread throughout Europe, influencing and instigating witch trials. The Salem witch trials, which took place from 1692 to 1693, offer us a paradigmatic case study.
But why women were accused of witchcraft remains a complicated question.
Kramer wrote about the midwife witch, whom he ranked as the most dangerous witch. Throughout his treatise he describes witches snatching babies and using them for ritual purposes. The midwives were closest to the delivery. The idea of the witch-midwife permeated other treatises and literature on witches from the mid-1400s through the early 1700s, but scholar David Harley determined that the witch-wise -wife was a fictional idea.
Yet most of those accused of witchcraft were women. John Demos analyzed the Salem witch trials and further discovered that many men accused of witchcraft were the husbands or fathers of alleged witches.
And these so-called witches? The similarities around them are still unclear, but at least in the Salem witch trials the defendants stood out in some way from their Puritan neighbors. Besides gender, women were often accused because of their religion, economic status, age, influence in society, or a combination of all of the above. Teenage girls were the age group most often targeted, but 4-year-old Dorothy Good was also interrogated and accused of being a witch during the Salem witch trials.
Not all of the witchcraft accusations arose during the trials either. Anne Hutchinson, who started Bible study groups with women in Massachusetts Bay Colony and began questioning some Christian teachings on grace, has been accused of engaging in the devil’s work because she had helped deliver a stillborn child.
Other girls like Tituba, whose age is unclear, have been charged without the accusers giving clear reasons. Tituba was an enslaved woman who was the first witch accused in the Salem Witch Trials. Historians have considered race as leading to accusing Tituba of witchcraft.
Although precise similarities were not revealed between all of the alleged witches, it appears that most of the factors surrounding the witchcraft accusations were related to power. Women had little legal power in many societies – when this added to economic status, race, religion and the fact that women cultivated influence and power when possible, this made women easy targets. They stood out and did not conform to the rest of society.
Cotton Mather, an influential figure in the early Salem witch trials, wrote a treatise on his idea of a virtuous woman. He described how virtuous women were submissive, beautiful, but not too loud and not too immodest. Descriptions of so-called witches were often diametrically opposed to the idea of a submissive woman: these women tried to stand out or influence society in some way, and they were punished for it.
It’s hard to craft a precise narrative about why women have been accused of being witches, but it seems to come down to the fact that women are brave enough to be different and claim a place in a society that doesn’t. offers them neither power nor legal protection.