This summer my family vacationed in the New England area, and we spent a few days in Salem. I’ve always wanted to go there as I’m interested in crazy historical cases (yeah, I write books about Jack the Ripper). Also, my husband, Shawn, has ancestors who lived in Salem Village at the time of the witch trials.
Visiting the Salem Witch Museum with our eight-year-old son, Atticus, and six-year-old daughter, Amelia, we discovered that a large part of the tour involved standing in a huge round room surrounded by mannequin stage displays of the historic figures—one of a looming winged, horned Lucifer hovering ominously above our heads. A voice narrated the chronology of events in each of the stage display cases. The presentation was both cheesy (lots of thunderstorm sound effects, a glowing pentacle on the floor) and informative, but my kids loved it. As we left the room to see the rest of the museum, Atticus, slurping Sprite loudly through his straw, looked up at Shawn and exclaimed about the Puritans: “Wow! They would have killed Mama and Amelia.” Shawn replied, “Well…they would have killed your Mama for sure.”
I chuckled because it’s true. I’m pretty certain I would have been hung as a “witch.” Shawn knows that when he gives me advice there’s a 90% chance that I’ll weigh it, obsess a bit, and then do what I want. I drink bourbon on the rocks, and I’ve been known to speak up in religious settings when I hear thorny teachings about wives submitting to their husbands or how birth control contributes to immorality.
Although men were also hung during the Salem Witch Trials, the overwhelming majority of “witches” killed in New England and in Europe during the Middle Ages and subsequent years were women. Specifically, women who were different—widows, midwives, the mentally ill, women who just couldn’t keep their mouths shut. In fact, the first of the accused to be executed was Bridget Bishop—a mother known for her outspoken views and her proclivities for *gasp* playing shuffleboard and sassing her husband. Bottom line: there were certain “right” and “wrong” ways to act, behave, and dress in these early religious communities. If you pissed off the wrong person or seemed like a misfit in the community, particularly if you were a woman—well, you’d better watch your back.
Human rights have advanced since the seventeenth-century, so fortunately (at least in the United States) it’s illegal to burn women as witches. But within earlier religious patriarchal communities, there was very little legal protection for women and, as in the Salem trials, your very life could depend on “spectral evidence”—like someone says they saw you riding around on a broomstick just before their dog bit the dust. I’m a Christian (specifically, liberal Episcopalian), but I was raised as a conservative evangelical. My background has made me fascinated by both religious extremism and the continuing push by many (but by no means all) evangelical and fundamentalist leaders to keep women in their “proper” roles.
I’ve learned, through my experiences in conservative religious settings that those prescribing “biblical” (aka Victorian) gender roles have a greater sense of fear than others. Christianity has always been split by the fearless, the ones willing to break away from nonsensical or immoral traditions to advance justice and human rights and the fearful—those claiming that certain rigid rules or traditions are very backbone of faith. One of my priests recently said that the root of most sin lies in fear. Along these lines, an essential Gospel message, I believe, is fearlessness—where Jesus heedlessly broke apart traditional rules; specifically, he included women, even mentally ill women, adulteresses, Samaritan women, where others would exclude or execute them based on fear of breaking from tradition.
One reason I’m a Christian feminist is because I believe religious communities should live beyond fear. Fear is powerful and dangerous. While walking around in the cool air-conditioned Salem Witch Museum, I kept staring at the horned Lucifer figure dangling from the ceiling—a symbolic representation of fear. Elaine Pagels in her book, The Origin of Satan, claims that the Satan figure isn’t a looming outsider, but rather someone close, even a friend or neighbor, someone within the community who becomes a threat to it. Anyone who doesn’t conform to “biblical” gender roles, to specific religious beliefs, anyone who is set apart by race or by sexual preference transforms from fellow human being to monster. Lines are drawn in the sand. Within such communities, fear gives birth to discrimination, to abuse, and sometimes to violence. Regarding gender roles, I believe that feminism, because it asserts that women are equal to men, is an essential moral component to faith communities because it rights gender discriminations; feminism must be a part of any church as it bucks against fearful men who manipulate religion and play the God card to their own benefit—those craving “submission” of their wives, demanding purity of their daughters, who would want women uneducated or uninformed. Such a system not only discriminates, but also opens the door to the sexual abuse that has been plaguing so many patriarchal denominations.
The Salem Witch Trials are just one of many, many historical examples—a mere tip of the iceberg—showing that we need feminism not just in society, but in faith communities as well. Fear and discrimination break apart communities that should instead demonstrate Jesus’s radical inclusion.