An old story being retold

Friday November 16, 2012

This election season was heavy with lots of talk about the rights of women: threats to de-fund Planned Parenthood, outlaw abortion and so many other looming threats against reproductive health and rights. A number of my friends and acquaintances would often say to me with glazed disbelief in their eyes, "I know you may not care much for Obama, but if we don't vote for him, our rights are going to be taken away." I would shrug my shoulders and respond calmly, "They are always threatening to take away reproductive rights during every election cycle. This is nothing new."

It is not that I don't care, but this is a very old story. One that has been retold throughout history starting with the gradual demotion of goddesses (from powerful deities to mere domestic divas) all the way to the witch trials and other subtle means that we witness today. In other words, it is less about access to rights and more about the fear that we have had since the beginning of time. This fear goes by the name of female sexuality.

It is not by sheer coincidence that we have spent most of the 20th century and now the early part of our 21st century debating over a woman's right and ability to give birth. If we take a quick glance at the stories within mythology, religion and literature, we see a common motif:

Lilith, a character from early Jewish folklore, was Adam's first wife who refused to be subservient. In many variations of her story, she eventually births demons and is later accused of stealing the sperm of men; The story of Circe who enchants Odysseus's men and turns them into pigs; The "1001 Arabian Nights" which includes a cautionary tale within its opening pages about the deceit betrayal, and distrust of female sexuality; Ayesha of H. Rider Haggard's "SHE" is a powerful immortal who resides as queen within a mythical city in Africa. Ayesha is known among the locals as an extremely beautiful woman striking both attraction and fear within all who crossed her path. There are many more tales in which the mere existence of a woman, and the power of her sexuality via her beauty, her ability to affect those around her, etc., is enough to arouse suspicion. These factors also signaled danger and the need to control that which threatened social construct.

This need or want to contain female sexuality has been socially manifested in many ways. During the late 19th century for example, as more women started to engage in and/or demand access to higher education and access to other public spheres, the medical community vehemently warned of the dangers. Many articles and reports written during the time claimed that a woman's access to these things would harm their reproductive organs and perhaps their future children. Additionally, there are a ton of parallels that can be made between our fixation to restrict women's rights in relation to the formation of the witch. Long before we have come to know birthing or even access to women's health in a doctor's office, households were served by what society appreciatively called "wise women." They cured ailments with their knowledge of herbs, delivering babies and providing the earliest forms of in-house counseling. While scholars still debate and remain puzzled by possible reasons the shift that happened, these wise women instantly became threats to the social structure. Instead of continued praise, these wise women, midwives and any woman doing similar work became the target of suspicion and fear. Midwives, for instance, were viewed as having a connection to the witch due to their direct involvement with the birthing process. Other later social and political shifts, especially during the early 20th century, effectively took birthing out of the hands of midwives (though we are starting to see a shift back to home birthing and the use of midwives).

The Maleas Malafacaram (which means "The Hammer of the Witches"), not much different than some of the laws that have been created to police women's bodies/rights, was a manual that instructed individuals how to spot a witch. Detailed descriptions that included specific marks to the behaviors were described. Witches were guilty of everything from stealing male bodily fluid to having the power to enchant/entrance. During the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, part of identifying a witch included the need to have the accused (generally always female) undergo a strip search to find these identifying marks. No, we are not dragging women out of their houses nor are we encouraging neighbors to keep an eye out for the dangerous female form. However, what we have done ever since the decision of Roe v. Wade was institute rules and regulations that depict female sexuality as untrustworthy and as something to be contained: mandatory waiting periods, abortion only in specific instances, lack of access to birth control and other health services, and varying degrees of regulations over how women chooses to give birth. We have swapped the literal strip search for one that involves government attempting to stick its hand in ... well you get the picture. In short, everything about the female form, especially a woman's sexuality was and still is a direct threat to society. In other words, anyone else who in the political arena has been spouting what should and should not happen for women and their bodies is just the same echo that we have been hearing for quite some time.

Thus, this is nothing more than a recurring witch hunt or a high drama where we fear that which we do not fully understand and therefore seek to control. Only this time, the targeted witch, female sexuality, whom we have put on trial is writing her own narrative and speaking out in her own voice.

Shanta Crowley writes from Brattleboro. You can follow her writing at


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions