“Self-sacrifice remains the only fate imaginable for women. More precisely, it is a self-sacrifice that operates by way of abandoning one’s own creative potential rather than it’s realization,” (Chollet 83).
Feminist writer Mona Chollet explores which type of women were accused of witchcraft in history and how that has adapted to the modern world. Looking particularly at independent women, childless women, elderly women and the different way society villainizes and attempts to control these women.
I did think there would be more about witchcraft and witch trials in Chollet’s book. Based on the title and cover, I definitely had a different idea for what In Defense of Witches would be focusing on, but I was happy for the read nonetheless. Instead of focusing on witch hunts from the past that were common in Europe and America, Chollet draws parallels on what makes a woman a witch. What is it that society deems scary or incorrect that women do that makes them seem unwomanly? What choices do women make that don’t follow the status quo that makes them a threat?
Chollet does this by looking at independent women in relation to women who choose motherhood and how many women, sadly, lose their own identities when becoming mothers. Chollet mentions one American author who realized that when she was eating crackers with her husband and child she would eat the broken pieces and save the whole pieces for them, a small quote but one that says so much in such a few actions. Chollet also talks about voluntarily childless women who are often seen as less than by their choice not to be mothers, as if there is no other thought to a woman’s mind than being a mother and goes into detail about Orna Dornath’s study on Regretting Motherhood which revealed that while many women love their children they wish that they had never had them. She talks about old women, women who proudly show their white and grey hairs, wrinkles, and signs of aging and how women aging is a reminder of death or seen as letting oneself go in comparison to men who are often hailed as “silver foxes.” In the final section, Chollet talks about the most modern example of witch hunts with women in the form of fertility and the attempt to control it and how women are often ignored when seeking medical attention or reveal traumatic birth stories, the only good birth that matters one where the mother and child survive (which, honestly, should be the bare minimum).
Chollet offers a lot of great insight and discussion into an important topic, but she lost me at times. I’m not sure if it was the translation or just that some of the paragraphs went on and on, but I did struggle at points, especially in the last section “Turning the World Upside Down.” But overall, the book offers a wealth of information that I’m happy Chollet chose to talk about.
One of my favourite parts (and I’ve returned the book to the library so I, unfortunately, can’t share the exact quote or page number) from Chollet is when she talks about how women are often defined in relation to others. The word woman itself had man inside of it, wife identifies her in relation to her husband (talking in a cis/heteronormative sense), mother identifies her in relation to her children, but the title witch is all her own. A witch is not connected to or part of anyone, she is her entirely own person and I thought that quote was such a powerful one and is definitely going to stick with me. I also enjoyed her thoughts on how feminism and witchcraft have been capitalized on for consumerism and the problems with that.
In Defense of Witches is an important discussion and study on how the oppression of women continues today and how important it is to be aware of it. While women are no longer crushed to death with stones or burned at stakes, oppression and violence comes in many forms and Chollet does an excellent job showing this to readers.
Publication: September 13th 2018/March 8th 2022
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Pages: 320 pages (Hardcover)
Genre: Nonfiction, Feminism, History
My Rating: ⛤⛤⛤.75
Centuries after the infamous witch hunts that swept through Europe and America, witches continue to hold a unique fascination for many: as fairy tale villains, practitioners of pagan religion, as well as feminist icons. Witches are both the ultimate victim and the stubborn, elusive rebel. But who were the women who were accused and often killed for witchcraft? What types of women have centuries of terror censored, eliminated, and repressed?
Celebrated feminist writer Mona Chollet explores three types of women who were accused of witchcraft and persecuted: the independent woman, since widows and celibates were particularly targeted; the childless woman, since the time of the hunts marked the end of tolerance for those who claimed to control their fertility; and the elderly woman, who has always been an object of at best, pity, and at worst, horror. Examining modern society, Chollet concludes that these women continue to be harassed and oppressed. Rather than being a brief moment in history, the persecution of witches is an example of society’s seemingly eternal misogyny, while women today are direct heirs to those who were hunted down and killed for their thoughts and actions.