Hillary’s What Happened: The Puritans hated women far less than we do today

In trying to explain how misogyny shaped last year’s Presidential contest, Hillary Rodham Clinton reached for a familiar metaphor. Noting that her opponents expressed a hatred of her and an outrage at the prospect that she might become the first woman president of the United States, she invoked the witch hunts of seventeenth-century New England. Drawing on a long tradition of using the witch killers of Massachusetts Bay to illustrate irrational hatred of women (as well as unfair accusations more generally), Clinton referenced the fanaticism of the witch hunt as a parallel to her own story.

As a professional woman in 21st century America who has confronted my share of modern misogyny but who also studies the seventeenth-century colonies, I find the comparison unfair to the colonists who killed alleged witches. In our current political moment, hatred of woman in some quarters far exceeds anything that the New Englanders expressed against the women even though they did fear some of them had become witches.

As we all know, Hillary Rodham Clinton had the temerity to publish a post-mortem on her almost successful bid for the White House. In a long tradition of post-campaign, first-hand account, she explained her perspective on the campaign and, in one section, took up the question of the role of misogyny in her defeat. She quotes an interview with Margaret Atwood (feminist author of The Handmaid’s Tale) who noted the existence of “websites that say Hillary was actually a Satanist with demonic powers.” Atwood observed “It’s so seventeenth century that you can hardly believe it.” Clinton concurred, adding “The Puritan witch hunts may be long over, but something fanatical about unruly women still lurks in the national subconscious.” (126-27)

No one can fault Atwood and Clinton for the insight that hating and fearing women has an ancient pedigree. Presenting present-day misogyny as a throwback to an earlier, presumably darker time contains a hopeful element as well: if hating women is associated with the fanaticism of four centuries ago, the implication is that we ought to be beyond it by now. They both subtly express a belief in the idea of progress: that the situation has improved—or at least ought to have improved—over time. By implication those who irrationally abhor successful and capable women today are remnants of an earlier, more ignorant time. In this feminism as progress logic, only the forces of benighted tradition stand in the way of women’s success today.

Right-wing Christians who embrace the subordination of women agree that tradition upholds women’s inferiority and subjugation. With the same understanding of the past as Atwood and Clinton, they assert that the tradition of suppressing women ought to be continued, and that moving away from it, as feminists strive to do, is wrong. While they disagree on the advisability of progress, they agree on the image of the past.

Both feminists and anti-feminists misunderstand the seventeenth century, however. Early New Englanders agreed with right-wing Christians that women generally ought to be subordinate, but the latter group also accepted that most men ought to be subordinate as well. (Modern Christian men ignore that part of tradition, happy to believe in male superiority generally.)

Colonial America was a hierarchical society, predicated on the idea that most people were properly subordinate. Theology taught that accepting one’s place in the social hierarchy and performing the duties associated with that place was the way for people to please God. In this hierarchical society, certain women could attain positions of power and authority. Queen Elizabeth offered the obvious example, but other elite women held power, owned property, and commanded the obedience of others (both men and women). This society did not hate women generally or even any women who exercised authority.

It was the case that women were especially likely to be accused of witchcraft, although men also went to their deaths as witches. The common wisdom taught that women, being especially weak willed, were more easily tempted. They might succumb to a deal with the devil in order to escape their social situation, to receive wealth, power or a life of ease. Satan made such promises to the gullible, but being the great deceiver, he rarely followed through. Women and men who confessed to witchcraft in colonial New England reported being tricked and deceived. Satan reneged on his offers. Witches, although they could harm their neighbors with curses, never became all powerful. The witches of Massachusetts Bay—in complete contrast to those in the silly television show Salem—were usually poor, pathetic creatures both before and after they succumbed. Often reliant on their neighbors’ charity, they were discontented with their lots in life. Far from becoming the gorgeous and powerful women of modern witchcraft fantasies, they at best gained enough from their pact with Satan to pester their neighbors with “maleficum”—the power to disrupt health and to cause minor domestic disasters.

We can’t draw a straight line from the witch fears of the seventeenth century to the modern hatred of powerful women, as comforting as that story might appear to those who hope for gender equality. The causes of current misogyny, the resentment and fear of accomplished women, are less rooted in our New England past and more a manifestation of our own cultural moment. Contemporary misogyny arises from the class anxieties festering in the downwardly mobile sectors of our society; from the right-wing media’s efforts to generate hostility against educated elites as undeserving of their positions; and from fantasies of a supposed past when ordinary men commanded the unquestioning obedience of women. The Puritans are not to blame for modern American misogyny, which has shallower and more insidious roots. To combat women hating, we must confront our own society’s demons, not those of our distant past. Hillary Rodham Clinton takes a step toward doing that in What Happened.

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