Last Thursday, Kristen Sollée, writer, editrix of the sex-positive feminist website Slutist, and lecturer at the New School, visited the Museum of Contemporary Art to speak about her book, Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive. According to Sollée, witches are having a moment (politically, aesthetically, and spiritually), and it’s no coincidence that this comeback is happening now.
To help explain how we got here, Sollée broke down the history of the witch archetype, starting with the Hindu goddess Kali, the Egyptian goddess Isis, and the Sumerian goddess Inanna, and continued onto the Malleus Maleficarum, aka The Hammer of the Witches, published in 1486 by a German-Catholic friar. Sollée described it as “the InfoWars of its day” due to its explicit, fear-mongering statements about women and witches.
Abolitionist and suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage countered such negative views of the witch in her 1893 book Woman, Church and State. While Gage’s work was largely ignored, her son-in-law, L. Frank Baum, was inspired by Gage’s framing of the witch and wrote a good witch into his novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. When the book became a movie in 1939, this led to more images of good or “slightly naughty” witches in pop culture. One example is Samantha from the TV show Bewitched (1964-1972). Sollée confessed that while she wasn’t always a fan of the show, she came to realize that Bewitched was actually using magic as a metaphor for feminism. In the show Samantha’s husband Darren hates that she’s a witch and asks her not to use her powers. He’s intimidated, Sollée explained, “clearly because he’s threatened by her having this agency outside patriarchal structures, outside the marital structure.”
On Halloween in 1968, just four years after the premier of Bewitched, the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, or W.I.T.C.H., was formed in New York City. They identified capitalism and corporations as the driving forces behind sexism and harnessed the witch image for political action, dressing as stereotypical witches with capes and brooms, and hexing the New York Stock Exchange. Sollée showed more recent pictures of women from a Women’s March in New York and a protest in Boston who had also employed occult symbolism for political purposes. According to Sollée, these activists are taking some of the venom out of the word “witch.”
Though the majority of Sollée’s talk was focused on the Anglo-European, Christian archetype of the witch, there was also discussion of the French author Maryse Condé’s 1986 novel I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem and how Condé used the racism and sexism in the Puritan era to talk about racism and sexism in the 80s. Like The Wizard of Oz, I, Tituba reframed and broadened the archetype of the witch.
Sollée also made it clear that while the commodification of the witch has democratized and increased access to the craft, it’s also removed the sacredness and has led to the appropriation of different practices just for aesthetics, as opposed to real cultural appreciation. “I think there needs to remain the intersectionality and diversity of each of these practices,” she said.
Sollée finished her talk by bringing to light witch hunts that are still going on around the world in Ghana, Tanzania, Papua New Guinea, and the Indian state of Assam. “It’s important to note that this is really happening,” said Sollée. “As these real witch hunts continue around the world, the witch archetype, of course, continues to be harnessed in activism to challenge racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia and Christian-hetero patriarchy [in the United States].”