We've seen unprecedented level of murderous vitriol spewed at the Democratic presidential candidate. But it's just another chapter in a long history of demonizing women seeking power.
“Don’t vote for Crooked Hillary Clinton—she might be a witch!,” says a sarcastic piece in the London Mirror, which went on to mock the reams of hysterical claims that the Democratic presidential candidate practices the dark arts, precisely because there too many individuals who sincerely believe she’s the devil’s handmaiden. Recently, a conservative editor “begged his readers not to elect Mrs. Clinton,” noted biographer Stacy Schiff. “Were she to land in the White House, his health would deteriorate. She would upset his stomach. She would shorten his life.” In short, Schiff concluded, “he sounded steeped in witchcraft texts. Those are classic symptoms of enchantment—in the pre-Enlightenment world.”
A sampling of serious headlines:
“The WikiLeaks disclosures reveal a woman with dark and sinister skills”
“10 Dark Secrets of Hillary Clinton.”
“8 Actual Hillary Quotes That Reveal How Evil and Psychotic She Truly Is”
“Hillary Clinton Is a Witch.”
“Four in 10 Donald Trump supporters think Hillary Clinton ‘is an actual demon’”
Salman Rushdie, the author of the Satanic Verses, comes to defend her, though in this tweet: What more proof do you need?
Numerous think pieces have parsed Hillary Clinton’s likability problem, noting that she’s routinely called “guarded,” “secretive,” “evasive”—and those are the nicer names. Throughout her entire political career she’s been accused of nefarious deeds while laboring under a cloud of suspicion that she must have done something evil, because to be accused is to be guilty, even if you’re innocent. Op-eds mention misogyny, bias in the press, partisanship, and the particulars of Clinton’s personality as reasons she’s so disliked by the American people. Few of them raise the long history of witchcraft because We Are Now Modern. And yet.
Hillary’s long, slow, inexorable transformation into America’s First Witch is in tandem with her rise in political power. As Mrs. Bill Clinton, she was merely a lesbian. As her own person, Hillary, she becomes a unique threat. A numerological analysis of her name reveals that Hillary Diane Rodham’s “inner dream” is literally to be No. 1: She dreams of “being a leader.” She seeks “unconquered heights.” In other words, as the election season wraps up, she is revealed as truly a witch, who is simply any woman who dares to be openly ambitious.
There was a time, not long ago, when men were witches. Witches, not warlocks or wizards or sorcerers. Today, the very idea of “male witches” registers as a gendered deviancy inside the vague malevolence known as witchcraft, which is now tightly and nearly exclusively coded to women. This is not by accident or happenstance. It’s an artifact of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), 1485-6, which arbitrarily decided, with no proof whatsoever, that women are forever and “by nature instruments of Satan … a structural defect rooted in the original creation [of Eve].” Organized religion pursued the witchcraft line with zeal, repeatedly insisting that “every woman was maybe a disobedient witch who might displease her Lord or master.” Therefore, to be female—this means you, lady—is to be guilty of witchcraft until proven innocent. From a legal standpoint, this position presents challenges. Lawyers cannot ask, “Are you still beating your wife?” since you cannot prove a negative case, and answering Yes convicts you, but so does answering No. And so, as Natasha Chart emphasizes:
“Every woman needed strict control to keep her in line and loyal in allegiance to men. The fact that the last two sentences are both true and sound like purple prose from a BDSM story should indicate that these attitudes remain with us.”
To be judged guilty of practicing witchcraft was to risk punishments ranging from excommunication to death. But witchcraft was only truly feared when its practitioners were propertied women who, whether by sheer dint of intelligence or merely by refusing to marry, defied the will of fathers, kings, and priests. On the interpersonal level where petty jealousies (and no real challenges to institutional politics and religion) were involved, “village-level witch-hunting was women’s work”: women denounced other women as a means to accrue status and protection for themselves. But the business of determining guilt was the unique province of men, who were the judges, juries, jailors, and executioners, as well as the beneficiaries of the executed woman’s wealth.
The Salem Witch Trials are textbook examples of malicious Christians accusing innocents of witchcraft in order to take their land. It’s since been well established that “accusing families stood to gain property from the convictions of accused witches,” with inflammatory religious rhetoric successfully masking the most prosaic of deadly sins: Greed. There was nothing supernatural at all. No devils. No demons. Just sadly predictable heinous behavior.
We delude ourselves into believing we’re beyond this. If anything, superstitions and faith-based belief systems are more entrenched than ever. The ulterior motives haven’t changed, just the language used to denounce women who seek power and progress. The witch is the new bitch.
“She’s a witch! Burn her!” This meme-worthy line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail satirizes the absurd misogyny of witch hunting, which is now understood as a cultural strategy and political fiction deployed as a means of social control. In real life, thousands died as a result: Beliefs aren’t just “ideas” but have consequences in real life. In the film, the accused woman is a witch simply because the men say she is. She looks like their idea of one because they dressed her up in a ridiculous costume. The serfs bring her to their master so he can pass lawful judgment on her. However, they have no proof that she practices the dark arts. They just dislike her. The master reasons that witches burn because they’re made out of wood, so if a woman weighs more than a duck, she’s a witch! (Also: no fat chicks.) Here are a few of the comments:
“She makes loud obnoxious noises and flaps her limbs about, just like a duck!… So logically, Hillary is a witch and must be burnt.”
“Just referenced on CNN as Trump’s rationale for Hillary’s guilt.”
“She is a witch.”
Exasperated, a commenter named “Cameron” wrote: “Why the hell are half of these comments about unrelated political issues.” The point is that when Hillary became the Democratic presidential nominee, she turned the film into “Monty Python and the Campaign Trail” in the same way that the witch turned the serf into a newt: through the suggestive power of words. Were Jon Stewart still on the air, he’d surely be putting together a compilation of Trump surrogates and liberal pundits as they opine:
“She’s surrounded by a cloud of corruption.” (She’s a witch!)
“I don’t trust her.” (She’s a witch!)
“Her screech! Stop yelling at us.” (She’s a witch!)
The deeply entrenched legacy of villainous witches in the Western cultural imagination (Wicked Witch of the West, Morgan Le Fay, The Evil Queen, etc., all of whom happened to be older nulliparous women wielding considerable political power with zero patience for dolts) helps explains why the most recent polls continue to show that voters across the political spectrum continue to think that Hillary is far less trustworthy than Trump, a man who lies so often and so easily that his fabrications pose “an existential threat to a key principle of democratic discourse,” this key being a belief in demonstrable truths. Meanwhile, the discovery of a Trump computer server in exclusive communication with a Russian bank may provide further evidence that Trump is Russia’s stooge, making him an actual threat to national security. For a presidential candidate to pose a security risk of this sort is unprecedented. Yet The Intercept cautions that not enough is known about this latest Trump-Russia link, and therefore the press must refrain from “making the exact same speculation about the unknown that’s caused untold millions of voters to believe Hillary’s deleted emails might have contained Benghazi cover-up PDFs.” It’s wrong, you know, to impugn motives by fostering innuendo. Still, it’s amazing how principled journalists become when the target of speculation is Trump, especially since it’s not a conspiracy theory connecting him to Russia but good old-fashioned proof.
American democracy used to have some expectation that the press reports the news and its presidential candidates believe in facts. This is already no longer a valid premise. On November 8, it may well turn out that a majority of Americans voters will prefer Trump’s lies rather than countenance the prospect of a woman as president. The reason why is simple.
We don’t trust women. We don’t trust women. We don’t trust women.
So it’s the 21st century, and we’ve become accustomed to magical things such as microwavable bacon, Dippin’ Dots ice cream, and free WiFi at Starbucks, and yet when a woman approaches the presidency, half of the electorate reacts as if she’s literally the Anti-Christ and “the devil incarnate” (see above, re: 40 percent of Trumpers believing that Hillary is an actual demon). Gender norms are stubborn things. Today, it’s still expected that men will be ambitious, President Obama noted, and yet when a woman shows ambition,“[people ask] why?” So if Clinton is to be called a witch, let’s be clear about what and who a witch is. It’s not a “nasty” woman. It’s a woman. Period. And it may well be the women’s vote that carries Hillary into the Oval Office, confirming what scholars have long suspected to be true: that “witchcraft” is what happens when enough women find power in numbers and get gloriously, ferociously political.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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