The term “witch hunt” has become a common refrain, used to criticize a wide range of situations from impeachment inquiries to allegations of corruption. However, when powerful individuals cry “witch hunt,” they are not referring to the stereotypical image of green-faced women with pointy hats but rather to historical events like the Salem witch trials of the 17th century, during which 19 people in Massachusetts were executed on charges of witchcraft.
The use of “witch hunt” to decry allegedly baseless allegations often overlooks a crucial aspect of American history: witch trials did not target the powerful but instead persecuted society’s most marginalized members, particularly women. Across New England, where witch trials occurred periodically from 1638 to 1725, women far outnumbered men among the accused and executed. In Salem, for instance, 14 of the 19 individuals found guilty of and executed for witchcraft in 1692 were women.
The prevalence of gender in these trials is a key aspect often overlooked. In Puritan society, women were expected to fulfill specific roles, such as having children, managing households, and displaying Christian subservience to their husbands. Stepping outside these prescribed roles often led to accusations of witchcraft, and women who deviated from societal norms became targets. Even when men faced allegations of witchcraft, it was usually due to their association with accused women, such as being their husbands or brothers.
In this deeply religious Puritan community, women held a precarious and mostly powerless position. Their roles were confined to domestic spheres, and any deviation from these roles was met with suspicion. The term “witch hunt” doesn’t just refer to unfounded accusations; it’s also about a justice system that escalated local grievances to capital offenses and targeted a subjugated minority. Women were both victims and accused in this dark chapter of American history, caught in a society shaped and controlled by powerful men.