Opposition Leader Tony Abbott speaks at the No carbon tax rally outside Parliament House Canberra on Wednesday 23 March 2011. Photo: Andrew Meares
One of the defining images of Julia Gillard's prime ministership is a photograph, not of her, but of Tony Abbott speaking at an anti-carbon tax rally. The then opposition leader is flanked by placards that, among other charming epithets, demanded we “ditch the witch.”
In a testament to the enduringly erroneous stereotype, the sign came complete with the silhouette of a woman dressed in black riding a broomstick.
We, the feminists and the womanists, the child-free and the single mothers, the sex workers and the “sluts”, the unmarried and the divorced, are the inheritors of the legacy of the Burning Times.
I was reminded of this demonisation of the former prime minister when I recently came across this meme on Facebook, posted by a Spanish-language feminist group. The text translates to “We are the granddaughters of the witches you were never able to burn.”
When I shared it on my own Facebook page, a friend inquired if I “considered myself a witch.” Well, that all depends on how you see witches.
The witch-hunts that swept Europe in the Middle Ages and Renaissance lead to the torture and death of at least 100,000 people, 80-85 per cent of them women.
Of course, we were taught way back in primary school that those burned at the sake, hanged in the gallows, or drowned in the lake were not really guilty of casting spells. With the smugness that comes with assuming we live in far more enlightened times, we scoffed at those silly peasants of old who believed in black magic and flying broomsticks.
But what exactly was the mediaeval definition of a witch?
For a long time historians thought the witch-hunts were driven by church officials who whipped up hysteria in order to destroy paganism and the cult of magic.
But while both the Catholic and Protestant churches were involved in the witch-burning frenzy, the reality was probably even more disturbing. As Soraya Chemaly details in her Salon essay on the Burning Times, far from being a controlled campaign run by the clergy, “Witch hunts were a collaboration between lower-level authorities and commonfolk succumbing to garden-variety pettiness, vindictiveness, superstition and hysteria.”
Those most likely to be accused were often the ones who lived on the fringes, including unmarried women. A visit by an elderly woman to a new mother and baby could easily turn into an accusation of witchcraft should (as frequently happened in those days) an illness befall the infant.
Far from slaving over a simmering cauldron brimming with eye of newt, “witches” were more likely to charged simply for not playing along with society's proscribed gender roles:
“(C)harges often amounted to condemnations of being female and sexual … Elaborate fantasies about women engaging in intercourse with the devil were a regular feature of witch trials … women were persecuted for associating with other women, accused of forming covens or holding parties with Satan. Women who came together to celebrate holidays or to share information, trade herbs, gossip or otherwise … hang out together were considered dangerous ... women were punished for being poor and helping the poor … the church was inclined to instruct the desperately impoverished, who made up the vast bulk of the population, to bypass the ministrations of women healers and look to the afterlife for solace while, at the same time, supporting medicine and medical help for the nobility … [women] appear to have been particularly maligned for providing obstetric support and for using empirical reasoning. Lastly, women were charged as witches because they were successful.”
One victim, Jacoba Felicie, was officially tried and convicted for “practising medicine'. Her meticulously recorded case indicates she was quite a gifted healer and for this she was condemned for acting “like a man.”
But what was behind this demonisation of free-thinking women?
In his book The European Witch-Craze, historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote: "When a great fear takes hold of society, that society looks naturally to the stereotype of the enemy in its midst."
Though actual witch-hunts – in the West at least - are a thing of the past, our society is no less susceptible to irrational outbursts of fear.
The decades after the sexual and women's revolutions have seen much backlash against gains made in women's rights, with feminism being blamed for everything from male impotence to mass shootings.
Adhered to by both men and women, these stereotypes sully the image of feminism in a way that has nothing to do with feminism itself. And just as the witch-hunts ensnared many different types of women, the anger society relishes in throwing at women is not limited to those who identify as feminists.
Throughout the ages the women who have been reviled were those who broke the mould, who didn't behave the way the prevailing culture demanded.
Women who didn't keep their house to an acceptable standard of cleanliness were “slovens” from which the word “slut” also emerged.
In the Australian penal colony any woman who was not a “lady” of impeccable virtue was denounced as a “damned whore.”
Even today it continues. Women must navigate a never-ending succession of rules and expectations regarding behaviour, dress, looks, career, family. And those who don't play by the rules are scorned and reviled, be they unmarried prime ministers, girls who “drink too much”, mothers who have abortions or women who are open about their sexuality.
If history teaches us that a “witch” is nothing more than a woman who doesn't know her place, then damn straight, I consider myself a witch.
As I write this, the NSW lower house has passed the foetal personhood law, and as I contemplate this latest assault on the bodies of women, I take solace knowing that women like me have existed throughout history and they have never been able to silence us all.
We, the feminists and the womanists, the child-free and the single mothers, the sex workers and the “sluts”, the unmarried and the divorced, are the inheritors of the legacy of the Burning Times. We are the ones who make our own choices, the women who will decide our own fate.
We are the granddaughters of the witches they were never able to burn.