In a word, Debora Geary’s A Modern Witch is charming (pun intended). It’s particularly charming for those smitten by tales of witches living among mere mortals, like Macbeth and Harry Potter, especially if the reader also happens to like Chick Lit. The story begins with a 28-year-old woman stumbling upon the fact that she may be a witch after meeting a group of witches in an online chat room. This group of witches, concerned about the possibility of an untrained witch on the loose in Chicago, dispatch a male witch (not called a wizard) to assess whether the young woman is indeed magical. So, a handsome, powerful man meets an equally (or more) powerful, attractive woman and, as it turns out, they’re not meant to be together. I love that deviation from the typical Chick Lit script. Overall, it’s a light, humorous story with likeable characters. I look forward to seeing what happens to them next in this series.
I found Geary’s brief references to the past persecution of witches interesting. At one point, in response to a question about whether men can be witches, a character responds by saying, “Many of history’s most talented witches are men. The world fears a powerful woman most, so it’s women who have been most noticed, and most hunted.” Scholarship on the history of witchcraft in early modern Europe and in colonial America has established that, while men outnumbered women as the subjects of some witch-hunts, the vast majority of those persecuted for perceived witchcraft were women. As Edward Bever, a historian of early modern Europe, writes, “While in some regions and certain trials men predominated, overall women constituted 80% of the people tried.” In colonial America’s Salem witch trials (1692-1693), which happened after a group of girls claimed that witches had tortured them, women outnumbered men among those convicted of witchcraft. Fourteen women and five men were hanged, and an additional eight women were convicted but not executed. A man was also pressed to death.
Historians disagree over the reasons why these individuals were accused, pointing to different socioeconomic factors, such as Puritanism, sexism, racism, and classism. Historian Mary Beth Norton, describing the work of Carol Karlsen, Professor Emerita of History and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, explains:
Karlsen contends that many accused witches were seen as outspoken trouble-makers (or potentially so) in their communities, thus taking issue with a more common view of the accused as scapegoats for community tensions and fears. Karlsen’s witches often seem to be early protofeminists or at least women who did not act in conventionally feminine ways.
So, these women may have been vilified for breaking traditional gender norms over 300 years ago. I suppose the fact that we no longer execute strong women is a sign that we’ve made quite a bit of progress in three centuries, but I continue to believe that many Americans still view powerful women with suspicion, and the battle over affordable health care reminds me of that fact.
As just about everyone knows by now, President Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed constitutional muster (for the most part) under the Roberts Court’s interpretation of the US Constitution, meaning that health care reform will finally become a reality by 2014 (if Republicans don’t get their way). Hallelujah! I am thrilled by this long overdue development. I have often wondered whether we would have had a version of health care reform two decades ago, in 1994, if the initiative hadn’t been led by a woman. I remember all too well, despite my tender age at the time, the media’s vilification of Hillary Rodham Clinton and her attempt to give Americans health care. Public opinion of Hillary Clinton plummeted, largely because she did not fit the stereotypical, gendered role of the First Lady. Americans were so suspicious of a First Lady who did not want to babble about china patterns that we decided to stick with our high mortality rate and high healthcare costs rather than give her health care initiative a chance. I would like to say that our view of powerful women has improved since then, but the limited role women continue to play in American politics suggests otherwise.