The persecution of alleged witches in the medieval and early modern period in Europe and colonial North America has attracted substantial attention, and been the subject of several sensationalized depictions, not least in horror literature and cinema.
The victims of witch-hunts were not always women. Women were sometimes even underrepresented among those victimized. Moreover, once we include other ‘spiritual offences’ such as heresy, apostasy and blasphemy, there is little doubt that males actually represented the overwhelming majority of those persecuted under laws of religious intolerance in medieval and early modern Europe.
Thankfully, however, the burning of witches is a practice that has long previously been consigned to history, at least in the civilized West. Indeed, the last person executed for practicing witchcraft in Europe is said to have been a Swiss woman executed in 1782, over two centuries ago, while the last such execution in North America seems to have occurred almost a century earlier still in 1692.
Nevertheless, the early modern witch hysteria remains something a cause célèbre for contemporary feminists. Even today, some several centuries after the last witch executions occurred, the witch-trials seemingly represent for some feminists both key evidence for, and the quintessential exemplar of, the oppression of women in the West.
On reflection, this is little surprise.
After all, clear cases of unfair discrimination against females, or of female disadvantage, are now all but unknown in the contemporary West, not least because those few (and usually, on closer inspection, rather ambiguous) cases of discrimination against females which were once widespread, have now long previously been done away with, abandoned, or at least declared unlawful, invariably at the behest of feminists themselves. The feminists are, in this sense, victims of their own political successes.
As a result, feminists have been forced, almost of necessity, to look to the distant past in order to furnish themselves with unambiguous examples of discrimination against women.
On closer inspection, however, these unambiguous examples of discrimination against women, even those from the distant past, turn out to be, on closer inspection, rather less unambiguous than the feminist portrayal of them would suggest.
This then brings us to the witch hysteria.
The Scale of the ‘Witch Hysteria’
The first thing that must be said regarding the persecution of witches in medieval and early modern Europe and colonial North America is that the whole scale of the phenomenon has been vastly exaggerated – not least by feminists themselves.
Thus, author Lois Martin credits “women’s rights campaigner Matilda Joslyn Gage” as having “first plucked the wildly inaccurate figure of nine million executions out of thin air and created one of the biggest historical misconceptions still in circulation today”.
For example, in their text, Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History, authors Alan Charles Kors, Edward Peters report that, throughout the entire early modern period, “most recent scholarship rarely allows more than a total of 50,000 victims over the entire period”.
Interestingly, despite the continued interest of Anglo-American feminists on this topic, witch-trials, and executions, were especially rare in the English-speaking world, including both Britain and North America.
In short, the outbreaks of witchcraft hysteria which briefly engulfed East Anglia during the English Civil War and colonial Massachusetts during the late-seventeenth century remain infamous to the day in large part precisely because they were so exceptional even then.
Men Persecuting Women?
For feminists, the witch hysteria represents the paradigmatic exemplar of the oppression of women by men.
However, there are two reasons that this analysis cannot withstand scrutiny – namely:
- The accusers were not all men; and
- The victims were not all women.
In relation to the first point, historian Martin Van Creveld reports, not only were “female rulers… as apt to persecute witches as were male ones”, but “women participated in witch-hunts at least as much as men did” and “most maleficia were directed by women at women”.
This has led Steve Moxon to conclude that “the root of the centuries-long hysteria over the ‘witch’ was the classic phenomenon of ‘female relational aggression’”.
However, this leads us to the second reason that witch-hunts cannot be regarded as a manifestation of the oppression of women, namely that, contrary to both Moxon’s implication and, indeed, to widespread popular perception, the victims of witch-hunts were not always women.
Indeed, sometimes women were even underrepresented among those victimized.
Thus, van Creveld reports, “in the British Isles, men comprised 59 percent of those accused”, while in areas of Switzerland, the figures were as high as eighty percent. Meanwhile, in Italy, clerics seem to have been at greatest risk of being accused of witchcraft, while in Germany prominent men were especially vulnerable, while, from 1500 to 1650, young men were at greatest risk.
Similarly, the current version of the Wikipedia entry for ‘Witch trials in the early modern period’ reports:
“In various instances, it was men rather than women who constituted the majority of the accused. For instance, in Iceland 92% of the accused were men, and in Estonia 60% of the accused victims were male, mainly middle-aged or elderly married peasants, and known healers or sorcerers. In the witch trials of Moscow, Russia, two-thirds of those accused were male.”
The same is also said to have been true in France.
Indeed, overall, Martin van Creveld reports, “before 1350, nearly three times as many men as women were tried for witchcraft” and “for Europe as a whole, between 1300 and 1499 the number of accused men is said to have nearly equalled that of accused women”.
Religious Persecution in Context: Heresy, Apostasy, Blasphemy
However, all these figures are potentially misleading, and moreover overestimate the extent of female victimization, for one key reason – namely, they consider allegations of witchcraft wholly in isolation from other forms of religious persecution.
Yet allegations of witchcraft were by no means the only form of religious persecution in evidence during this period of European history, a period which included two several Inquisitions, the suppression of various heresies and the respective persecutions of Protestants by Catholics and Catholics by Protestants and of Jews by both Catholics and Protestants in various European countries time and time again.
As historian Martin Van Creveld explains
“The problem of witchcraft did not stand on its own. Rather it formed part of a much larger complex of ‘spiritual’ offences that included heresy, apostasy and blasphemy, among others. All were considered to be crimes against God and religion, and all deserved to be punished as harshly as witchcraft. Consequently, witchcraft comprised only a small fraction of the cases brought before the Inquisition. In Venice, the figure amounted to just 20 percent, and the vast majority of those received very light sentences”.
Yet, van Creveld explains, “most of those charged with other spiritual offences were men”. Thus, once other forms of spiritual offence are factored in, including heresy, apostasy and blasphemy, there is little doubt that males actually represented the overwhelming majority of those persecuted under laws of religious intolerance in medieval and early modern Europe.
Indeed, van Creveld reports that “women accounted for only 10 percent of all those executed during the period in question”.
Were the ‘Witches’ Guilty?
It might be objected that those who were accused of, say, heretical beliefs, while it was surely wrong to execute them, were at least, in many cases, genuinely guilty of holding what were, at that time, regarded as heretical religious viewpoints. They were therefore guilty of the offence of which they were charged, even if the offence in question ought not to have been a criminal offence in the first place.
In contrast, the accusations made against witches – e.g. sexual relations with the devil, flying on broomsticks, casting spells that caused victims to drop dead or be afflicted with physical symptoms of disease – are obviously preposterous.
However, this leads to the most paradoxical conclusion of my research on this topic – namely that not all the women (and men) accused of witchcraft were necessarily wholly innocent of the charge.
After all, many victims of witch trials seem to have been employed and made a living as ‘traditional healers’, ‘wise women’ or ‘cunning folk’, being employed by the local community for such purposes as casting spells, combating the spells cast by others, healing the sick etc., a job which rendered them vulnerable to witchcraft allegations, the risk of which seemingly represented an occupational hazard that went with the work.
Given that they provided such services, they must have been either:
- Charlatans, deliberately exploiting and profiting by exploiting the gullibility, ignorance and superstition of those who employed their services; or
- Themselves, like their customers and accusers, genuinely convinced of the efficacy of their spells and of the reality of the supernatural forces they were regarded as capable of invoking.
In either case, they were, in some sense, not entirely innocent.
If such people were charlatans, they were, of course, guilty of fraud, or of obtaining property by deception, in exploiting the superstitions of those who employed their services for their own financial benefit.
If, on the other hand, they were, like those who employed their services, genuinely convinced of the efficacy of their spells, potions and incantations, then they clearly had the exact same malevolent intent (i.e. mens rea, an essential component for most forms of criminal liability) as if these spells and incantation did indeed have the effect which the ‘witches’ themselves believed they had.
If this seems implausible to modern readers, remember that, at this time in history, society at large apparently believed in the reality of the supernatural powers which witches were accused of invoking, including both those who used the services of so-called ‘cunning folk’, and often paid to do so, and, of course, those who persecuted, tortured, extracted bizarre confessions from and executed the alleged ‘witches’ for supposedly invoking such forces.
Is it then any greater stretch of the imagination to believe that the accused ‘witches’ themselves sometimes also genuinely believed in the reality of their occult powers and sought to use them for nefarious ends, or that many accused witches may even have secretly self-identified as witches?
Another Case of Discrimination Against Men in the Criminal Justice System?
We have seen then that the phenomenon of medieval and early modern witch hunting cannot be viewed as a manifestation of the oppression of women by men.
On the contrary, not only did many women participate wholeheartedly in the persecutions, but many of those persecuted were actually male, and, moreover, once other forms of religious persecution are factored in (heresy, apostasy etc.), males represented the overwhelmingly majority of those who were victims of unjust religious persecution.
On reflection, this is little surprise.
After all, to this day, it is men who represent the overwhelming majority of those who come before the courts and are sentenced to a range of criminal penalties and, moreover, women who receive more lenient treatment by the courts when they do find themselves in this situation.
A huge number of studies have found that female defendants are sentenced more leniently than male offenders, even after controlling for such factors as the severity of their offence as well as the extent of their prior criminal record.
For example, in the most recent and rigorous such study of which I am aware, Sonja Starr found that, even after controlling for prior criminal history, convicted women are only half as likely to receive custodial sentences (i.e. jail time) as men convicted of the same offences, and, even when they are sentenced to incarceration, receive, on average, 60% shorter sentences.
Thus, if men are treated more harshly and unfairly than women before the criminal courts, and the family courts, to this day, it is little surprise that the same was true also before the ecclesiastical courts, lynch mobs and Inquisitions of ages past.
In short, women are always treated better than men, especially by men themselves, for the simple reason that men are naturally protective and chivalrous towards women.
This then perhaps explains the continued feminist fixation on witch-hunts that occurred many centuries ago. As historian Martin Van Creveld explains:
“The witch-hunting episode… is perhaps the only time in history when more women than men were charged with a serious crime and executed for it.”
Contemporary Witch-Hunts in the ‘Developing’ World
I began this post by observing that, bereft of genuine examples of unfair discrimination against women in contemporary western societies, feminists have been forced, of necessity, to look to the distant past in order to furnish themselves with unambiguous examples of discrimination against women, examples which, as we have seen, turn out, on closer inspection, to be rather less unambiguous than the feminists themselves suppose and suggest.
However, this begs the question: Is the phenomenon of witch-hunting wholly confined to history, or does it continue, in any sense, in the contemporary world?
The answer is an unambiguous ‘Yes’.
In the first place, witch-hunts, in the literal sense, continue in the so-called ‘developing world’. Again, here the victims seem to be of both sexes. For example, Gendercide Watch reports that in Kenya “the witch-hunts appear predominantly to target males”, while, similarly, “a trend of predominantly male victimization may also be evident in West Africa, where a bizarre wave of accusations of ‘penis-snatching’ has come to light”, whereas in Tanzania and Zimbabwe “the gender of the victims may be more even”.
In short, in the contemporary ‘developing world’, as in early modern and medieval Europe, both sexes could become victim to witchcraft allegations.
Metaphoric ‘Witch-Hunts’ in the ‘Developed’ World
What then of the ostensibly civilized and secular so-called ‘developed world’, where religious superstition and bigotry is, supposedly, meant to be a thing of the past?
Here, while witch-hunts in the literal sense may, thankfully, now be a thing of the distant past, ‘witch-hunts’ in the metaphoric sense remain very much a contemporary phenomenon.
Of course, perhaps the most notorious twentieth century metaphoric ‘witch-hunts’ were the McCarthyist ‘Second Red Scare’, when individuals were accused, and denied employment on the basis of, allegations of communist sympathies. The analogy between the two forms of oppression was, of course, made explicit by Arthur Miller‘s famous play ‘The Crucible’.
However, undoubtedly the greatest ‘witch-hunts’ of the twentieth centuries were not conducted in the name of rooting out or persecuting communists, but rather in the name of communism itself, such as the Stalinist purges and the Chinese ‘Cultural Revolution’.
These were not only conducted on a far greater scale than the McCarthy hearings, but also the consequences for victims were far greater, the latter often losing, not only their jobs and perhaps reputations, but also often their very lives.
For example, Wikipedia reports that “According to the declassified Soviet archives, during 1937 and 1938, the NKVD detained 1,548,366 persons, of whom 681,692 were shot – an average of 1,000 executions a day”, but that “Several experts believe the evidence released from the Soviet archives is understated, incomplete, or unreliable”.
Similarly, the Wikipedia entry on the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in Maoist China reports that “Estimates of the death toll, including civilians and Red Guards, vary greatly… [and] range upwards to several millions”, with some reputable estimates putting the death toll as high as “five to ten million”.
The victims also seem to have been overwhelmingly disproportionately male.
For example, Robert Conquest, in perhaps the most celebrated and authoritative work on the Stalinist purges, points to census data showing an exceptionally imbalanced sex-ratios (even taking into account war deaths) in the population at large in certain age groups as evidencing the gendered impact of the purges.
Thus, Conquest concludes:
Drawing on this and other data, the website Gendercide Watch tentatively estimates that, of the almost ten million Soviet citizens who perished in the purges, 98% were male.
Metaphoric ‘Witch-Hunts’ in the Contemporary West
Narrowing our focus yet further, what then of the contemporary West?
‘Witch-hunts’ certainly occurred – indeed, occurred on a greater and bloodier scale than ever – in the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc during the twentieth century, did they also occur in the Eastern bloc’s Cold War era competitors, namely the capitalist liberal democracies of Europe, North America, Australia New Zealand etc. (i.e. states populated primarily by the descendants of white Europeans)?
Of course, as already alluded to, the most familiar example of twentieth century metaphoric ‘witch-hunting’ occurred in that most western of countries, namely the USA, in the form of the ‘Second Red Scare’ and the McCarthy hearings.
Yet, ironically, it is often the self-same individuals who complain loudest about the alleged persecution of communists in the McCarthy era who are themselves engaged in analogous forms of persecution in the present day, namely the left and self-styled ‘liberals’.
Many journalists, public figures, political commentators, activists, scientists, academics and ordinary people have faced ‘blacklisting’ in recent years, and often faced censure and the sack, or been obliged to issue grovelling and embarrassing apologies, as a result of voicing politically incorrect opinions with respect to such issues such as race differences, gender differences, intelligence, underage sexual activity and Jewish influence in the media and over American foreign policy.
“While commentators, documentary filmmakers and other professional damned fools never tire of condemning, without fear of reprisals, a form of McCarthyist witch-hunt (i.e. anti-communism) that died away over half a century ago, few dare challenge the Modern McCarthyism that operates right here in our midst, namely political correctness.”
Indeed, conservative author David Horowitz asserts, “the era of the progressive witch-hunt has been far worse in its consequences to individuals and freedom of expression than was the McCarthy era”, and that “unlike the McCarthy era witch-hunt, which lasted only a few years, the one enforced by left-wing ‘progressives’ is now entering its third decade and shows no signs of abating.”
Indeed, far from McCarthyist witch-hunting representing a relic of the past, recent developments in social media have been accused of facilitating the process and apparently made recreational witch-hunting and public shaming a popular pastime for many social media users that can be engaged in from the safety and comfort of your own living room with the aid of a laptop or smartphone.
Feminists themselves have, of course, been at the forefront of this modern McCarthyism.
In short, it seems feminists have all too readily moved from whinging about witch-hunts in ages long past, to leading witch-hunts all of their very own, torch and pitchfork proudly in hand.
In short, at the same time as they complain loudly and incessantly about witch-hunts that ceased several centuries ago, feminists have begun leading witch-hunts all of their very own.
Admittedly, nobody yet has been burnt at the stake.
“[These days] all one has to lose by unpopular arguments is contact with people one would not be terribly attracted to anyway”.
However, Goldberg underestimates, not only the psychological consequences of social ostracism, but also the magnitude of the persecution to which some feminists will resort.
True, no one, as yet, has been burnt at the stake. However, but many individuals have been the victims of violent threats and intimidation, physical assaults, and, as in the McCarthy Era, lost their jobs.
For example, Erin Pizzey discovered to her cost that her impeccable credentials as the founder of the world’s first refuge/shelter for so-called ‘battered women’ did not protect her from a campaign of violent intimidation involving murder and bomb threats and ultimately culminating in the shooting of her pet dog on Christmas Day when she made the candid admission that many of the women who entered her shelter were as ‘prone to violence’ as the men from whom they were ostensibly escaping.
Meanwhile, a similar fate befell academic researcher Suzanne Steinmetz for publishing some of the first hard data conclusively confirming Pizzey’s anecdotal observations, namely that women are as liable to perpetrate acts of ‘domestic violence’ against their male intimate partners as men are against their female intimate partners, a finding now confirmed by literally hundreds of studies, such that it has been described as “one of the most emphatic in all of social science”.
Steinmetz, like Pizzey, was the victim of death and bomb threats and of attempts to disrupt her speaking engagements with terrorist threats.
Meanwhile, another prominent female critic of mainstream feminism, Camille Paglia, reports that “she receives so many death threats, her answering machine announces that she doesn’t personally open packages sent to her”.
Meanwhile, author and journalist Neil Lyndon reports that he was hounded out of his job as a journalist, physically threatened for authoring a series of articles and a book critical of feminism.
As in the age of ‘Modern McCarthism’, other individuals have lost their jobs, including Harvard President Lawrence Summers and, most recently, Google employee James Damore, both for suggesting that innate differences in personality, preferences and cognitive ability might have something to do with women’s underrepresentation in certain specialized and technical fields, an imminently defensible position compatible with much biological evidence.
In short, it seems feminists have all too readily moved from whinging about witch-hunts in ages long past, to leading witch-hunts all of their very own, torch and pitchfork proudly in hand.
In conclusion, then, I would suggest that feminists concerned with the plight of the victims of witch-hunts ought perhaps to turn their attention away from the distant past and to look a little closer to home in order to find victims worthy of their sympathy.
 Kors, AC & Peters, E Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History (University of Pennsylvania Press; 2nd edition, 2001): p17.
 This quotation is taken directly from the current version of the Wikipedia page on Witch Trials in the early modern period. The main source cited by the Wikipedia article is Scarre and Callow’s Witchcraft and Magic in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century Europe (second edition) (Basingstoke: Palgrave 2001), which I have not consulted directly.
 This claim is made by Kors & Peters in Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History. However, the authors also inaccurately claim that France was “the one exception” in Europe which “shows more males than females executed” (p17). However, as we have seen from a preponderance of other reliable sources, this claim is not true.
 Hedderman & Hough (1994) Does the Criminal Justice System Treat Men and Women Differently Home Office, UK; Daly K, Bordt, RL (1995) Sex effects and sentencing: An analysis of the statistical literature Justice Quarterly 12(1); ; Shapiro, A (2000) Unequal Before the Law: Men, Women and the Death Penalty American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law 8(2): 427-470; Spohn, C and Beichner, D (2000) Is Preferential Treatment of Female Offenders a Thing of the Past? A Multisite Study of Gender, Race, and Imprisonment, Criminal Justice Policy Review, 11(2): 149-184; Mustard DB (2001) Racial, Ethnic and Gender Disparities in Sentencing: Evidence from the US Federal Courts, Social Science Research Network XLIV: 285-314; Streib VL (2001) Sentencing Women to Death Criminal Justice Magazine 16(1); Streib V (2002) Gendering the Death Penalty: Countering Sex Bias in a Masculine Sanctuary, 63 Ohio State Law Journal 433; Jeffries, S, Fletcher, GJO & Newbol, G (2003) Pathways to Sex-Based Differentiation in Criminal Court Sentencing Criminology 41(2): 329–354; Curry, TR, Lee G and Rodriguez, SF (2004) Does Victim Gender Increase Sentence Severity? Further Explorations of Gender Dynamics and Sentencing Outcomes, Crime & Delinquency 50(3): 319-343; Rodriguez, SF, Curry, TR, & Lee G (2006) Gender Differences in Criminal Sentencing: Do Effects Vary Across Violent, Property, and Drug Offenses? Social Science Quarterly 87(2): 318; Streib V (2006) Rare and Inconsistent: The Death Penalty for Women, 33 Fordham Urban Law Journal 609; Blackwell BS, Holleran D & Finn MA (2008) The Impact of the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines on Sex Differences in Sentencing Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 24(4): 399-418; Embry R & Lyons P (2012) Sex-Based Sentencing: Sentencing Discrepancies Between Male and Female Sex Offenders, Feminist Criminology 7(2):146–162; Starr, SB, Estimating Gender Disparities in Federal Criminal Cases. University of Michigan Law and Economics Research Paper, No. 12-018 (August 29, 2012).
 Starr, SB, Estimating Gender Disparities in Federal Criminal Cases. University of Michigan Law and Economics Research Paper, No. 12-018 (August 29, 2012).
 Shapiro, A (2000) Unequal Before the Law: Men, Women and the Death Penalty American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law 8(2): 427-470; Streib VL (2001) Sentencing Women to Death Criminal Justice Magazine 16(1); Streib V (2002) Gendering the Death Penalty: Countering Sex Bias in a Masculine Sanctuary, 63 Ohio State Law Journal 433; Streib V (2006) Rare and Inconsistent: The Death Penalty for Women, 33 Fordham Urban Law Journal 609.
 In The Second Sexism, David Benatar reports “in the United States, fathers gain sole custody of children in about 10% of cases and women in nearly three-quarters” and “in cases of conflicting requests for physical custody, mothers requests for custody were granted twice as often as fathers”, while “in 90% of cases where there was an uncontested request for maternal physical custody of the children the mother was awarded this custody”, whereas this was granted “in only 75% of cases in which there was an uncontested request for paternal physical custody” (p50). Although the Supreme Court declared in 1979 that discrimination against men in custody disputes was unconstitutional, the courts and legislatures easily evaded this proscription by favouring instead the so-called ‘primary caregiver’ (The Privileged Sex: p177), a clear case of indirect discrimination, given that ‘primary caregivers’ are overwhelmingly female.
 For a regularly updated database of such studies, see Fiebert, M References examining assaults by women on their spouses or male partners: an annotated bibliography (an earlier version was published in Sexuality and Culture (2010) 14 (1), 49-91); see also Archer, J (2000) ‘Sex differences in aggression between heterosexual partners: a meta-analytic review’ Psychological Bulletin 126(5):651-80; and James, TB Domestic Violence: The 12 Things You Aren’t Supposed to Know (Aventine Press, 2003).