How Women in America Are Still Haunted By Our Puritan Past

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For the millions of Americans who marched at the Women’s March on Washington, January 21, 2017 will be remembered as the day when the largest march in American history took place. We came together in solidarity to air our grievances and register our collective concerns about attacks on women, POC, the LGBTQ community, unions, and initiatives to fight climate change and discredit science. But for Jim Bakker, the TV evangelist ex-con, who created “Doomsday survival gear” for purchase, it will always be the day he felt “the most evil spirit” once the “women came to town driven by demons.” Everyday, Bakker sits in what could be considered a pulpit to discuss prophetic and Biblical revelations about today’s world on his eponymous show The Jim Bakker Show. He’s been called the “pioneer of Christian television” and claims he dreamed of hosting a night-time Christian talk show with the hope that he could be the equivalent of Johnny Carson. Unlike Carson, though, Bakker’s show is unintentional comedy because his zealotry is borderline fanatical.

In the clip, he and guest Billye Brim go on to describe how Trump and those ushered in with his Inauguration are “generals of God” and now, the day after this holy day, “women, women in pink, women with cat ears” are trampling on Trump’s anointed glory the first day of his presidency. Both Bakker and Brim agree that these hats mean something “dirty” because they did their research, so surely they must know the facts. I guess they missed Pussygate.

Towards the end of the show, Brim helps paraphrase what Bakker’s saying, describing his experience as seeing “darkness and light” and then offering her own opinion that we “must take authority over the kingdom of darkness.” At this point, it’s difficult not to laugh. I mean, really, hearing these two evangelists spout out fire and brimstone at this level is hilarious in its absurdity. But it’s also frightening because their specific rhetoric evokes images of exorcism and other torturous methods used to rid the pure of the demonic. They sound out of place in the 21st century because they’re referencing a simplistic binary of good versus evil that seems like it’s long been dissolved in America’s increasingly secular society. As it turns out, though, they’re echoing a rich history of religious zealotry and paranoia that’s part of the story of America itself.

For centuries women and other marginalized groups have faced fierce accusations of dabbling in the dark arts, disavowing the Judeo-Christian God, or being in cahoots with Satan if they dissented from the hegemony. In fact, in many ways, it’s a grim patriarchal tradition. And in times of extreme religious fervor, accusations such as these often resulted in social ostracism, brutal torture, or death of the accused. The most powerful moment in American history that exemplifies the depths of extreme religious hysteria is, of course, the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93. Around the time that the prevalence of Europe’s witch trials began to decline, those across the pond were just getting started. Salem and the rest of the Colonial American community were composed of religious refugees hoping to build a pure, Bible-based society. They believed that mankind existed for the glory of God and that Jesus Christ was the center of public and personal affairs, exalted above all other names. Their cosmology held that those on the side of God were always facing off against Satan and his henchmen ( i.e. demons, ghosts, and witches). Because of this, Puritans lived closely with a sense of the supernatural. So the idea that someone could truly be possessed by the Devil and do his bidding on Earth was a real possibility.

So real, in fact, that 20 suspicious people were executed—14 of whom were women—and over 200 were accused of practicing witchcraft during this period of mass hysteria. Grounds for accusation were not all that complicated since those accused were generally social deviants or perceived outsiders who didn’t necessarily conform to the strict social conventions of the era. This could range from anyone who didn’t regularly attend church to common thieves to an unexpectedly intelligent or overtly sexual woman. For Puritan women—whose most important role was motherhood and rearing the next generation of Puritan children—behaving in any way that could be considered a potential threat to this social expectation was dangerous. On top of this, as a society, Salem and other colonial towns were facing the added stresses of adapting to an entirely isolated, new environment far from England. So the fear that some uncontrollable force would break apart the relatively fragile community only continued to grow with each accusation. These charges were not only a flimsy attempt to restore social order, but also a tactic designed to help secure the survival of a “pure” community. Those accused of practicing witchcraft in any way during the Salem Witch Trials were all too frequently easy targets based on their “unconventional” social behavior, and could thereby take the fall for an entire community’s spiritual paranoia.

The fact that the majority of those accused were women, though, is of course no coincidence. Women have historically occupied a complicated social space in that we’re at once limited in what’s socially permitted of us yet held accountable, as if we had ultimate socio-political agency, for many of the reasons why particular events happen as they do. In other words, women have been the scapegoat for others’ actions and beliefs for centuries.

The Puritan foundation upon which many aspects of American society are built has remained visible throughout different periods in history, inspiring artists’ work and informing the culture of those times. For example, nearly two hundred years after the Salem Witch Trials, novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne grappled with the social implications of Puritanism in his enduring 1850 classic The Scarlet Letter. Set in 1640s Boston, only fifty years prior to the Salem Witch Trials, Hester Prynne, independent heroine who has an extramarital affair and a resulting baby girl, undergoes the same type of public humiliation and social isolation many of the accused witches endured years later. The novel opens with Hester standing on a public scaffold in the town center for three hours, wearing a scarlet “A” for “adultery” on her dress as a branding of her shame. Despite being made into a spectacle, Hester refuses to name Pearl’s father and doesn’t appear frightened, as an identified adulteress should, but remains dignified, angering many in the gawking crowd.

For Hester, the “A” serves as physical reminder of her sin and her painful social isolation, just as the villagers want it to. And her daughter, Pearl, the result of Hester’s adultery, remains fixated on the “A” to the point where she won’t let the reader forget about its existence and her connection to it. Although Hester herself is never overtly accused of witchcraft, Hawthorne positions her as occupying a similar social space as the witches of Salem did—and facing similar consequences. She’s ostracized for her sexual independence and for creating such a capricious, untamable child whose mercurial behaviors pose as potential obstacles for Hester to raise her as a Puritan woman should.

The villagers regard Pearl as being wicked, born from the Devil’s work. In their eyes, she’s an embodiment of Satan’s mark through her dress—Hester sews ornate clothing for her that brightly contrasts the drab utilitarian Puritan garb—and her uncontrollable temper tantrums. When the other Puritan children mock her, even her yelps and defenses are said to sound like “a witch’s anathemas in some unknown tongue.” As far as this Puritan Boston community is concerned, evil is alive and well in Hester and her daughter and they both must be removed.

Hawthorne’s precise reasons for writing The Scarlet Letter may be complicated, but the novel certainly functions as a critique of the rigid conventions that structured 19th-century American society as a whole. During this time, the social value system of the middle and upper classes largely revolved around the Cult of Domesticity, which emphasized particular ideas about femininity, the woman’s role within the home, and family dynamics between work and family. According to this ideology, the “true woman” was supposed to possess four cardinal virtues: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. She was the center of the family and considered the “light of the home” and “angel of the house.” The opposing female archetype was the “fallen woman” who lost her innocence and had thereby fallen from the grace of God. In order to be socially and morally acceptable, a woman’s sexuality and experience had to be reserved for marriage alone, and she needed to be supervised by an authoritative man. By 19th-century terms, Hester Prynne would most certainly be considered a fallen woman who had morally rejected the submissive domestic duties expected of her. Hawthorne’s use of her character as this archetype undoubtedly resonated with many of his contemporaries, functioning as a metaphor for the patriarchal oppression of women. So, if 19th-century America was still haunted by their Puritan past, how far have we advanced in the 21st century? Not as far as one might think.

As evidenced in Robert Egger’s directorial film debut The Witch, examining our current culture against a Puritan narrative shows how our still-patriarchal society wields power over women’s bodies. The film tells the story of a 17th-century American family banished from the Puritan community for a religious crime that’s never explained. They must relocate on the edge of a dark forest and completely start from scratch. Thomasin, the eldest daughter who is on the cusp of womanhood, helps to rear her brothers and sisters and take care of the farmstead. While she plays peek-a-boo with her baby brother, he disappears quite literally in the blink of an eye. Thomasin frantically looks around and realizes he’s been taken into the woods by an unknown dark force. For the remainder of the film, the family’s fear that an evil witch has cursed them grows as they painfully try to maintain their existence on the unforgiving land. Their crops begin to die, resources diminish, and the oldest son becomes possessed by a demonic force that must be exorcised. These horrors push each family member into a state of religious paranoia and they look to Thomasin as the cause of their hellish tragedy; it becomes increasingly apparent that they’re as afraid of her burgeoning womanhood as they are of a wicked witch. The family quickly falls apart and each member meets a fatal and brutal ending—except for Thomasin, who rises as a beacon of feminist agency once she’s fully removed from her toxic family and joins a coven of witches.

The film’s focus on a community’s fundamental fear of women’s bodies feels all too relevant in the twenty-first century. It was released in February 2016, in the middle of the Republican primaries where a group of patriarchal, oppressive men stood on stage in a jousting match arguing about what would be best for women’s reproductive rights, among other hot-button issues. To say hearing this as a woman was both deeply insulting and terrifying is an understatement. Their obsession with women’s bodies, though, points to a larger cultural fear of female power and the agency wrapped up in our physicality. As the fear goes, if she is a fully realized sexual individual who thinks beyond her biological capabilities, she may not be heterosexual, she may actually enjoy sex, and she may not want to have children. Her sexual independence could prevent men from using her as an incubator for their seed. This is a ridiculous fear, one that’s steeped in sexism and misogyny, but one that’s nonetheless been apparent for centuries. We have seen this play out time and time again in different legislations targeting women who are considering getting an abortion or who go through with it. We see it in the proposed bill that would force a woman to obtain permission from the man who impregnated her in order to terminate the pregnancy. And we see it yet again in our government’s multiple attempts to take away any socio-political agency from the LGBTQ community because any threat to the heteronormative, sexist social order is viewed as a danger to the continuation of humankind.

As these art forms’ treatment of Puritanism suggest, we’re still fixated on what power women hold and the challenge they present. We still fear the intelligent, sexually independent woman because she dissents from the notion of womanhood our Puritan past gave us. And perhaps most disturbingly, we see how men’s fear of “woman” runs so deeply that we’re facing the regression of social progress with the possibility of Roe v. Wade—the most empowering law for women—being overturned. The concept of “woman” has always been political, a social space fraught with fear and power. The evangelists who express this fear by condemning dissenting, intelligent, sexually independent women echo the zealous forefathers who did the same. And as we see, the oppression of women is wrapped up with the fundamental struggles of the nature of the republic itself.

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