What Witches Can Teach Us About Sisterhood

According to a poll conducted by The National Retail Federation, adults spent over $1.5 billion on Halloween costumes this year. The most popular costume by far, worn by about 13% of adults who dressed up for Halloween, was a witch.

Although her western roots are in Judeo-Christian conceptions of good and evil, the witch has evolved to become a potent feminist symbol. And the symbolism is far from being facile. The witch provides a fertile allegory for women, and examining her historical roots reveals surprising parallels to the challenges modern women face.

In her book about the 17th century witch trials in the Finnish Aland Islands, author Leena Virtanen attributes belief in witchcraft and accusations of sorcery to the superstitious perception of good fortune as a finite resource. For the agrarian people of the 17th century, this meant that when a neighbor’s crop yield was good, your own crop was less likely to do well.

This superstition also translated to a belief that misfortune, such as the death of a family member, could be caused by the actions of someone in your community attempting to tip the cosmic scales in their own favor. In the absence of evidence connecting your misfortune to someone else’s actions, the accusation of witchcraft served as a means of redress, a way to hold someone else accountable for your bad luck, and perhaps a way to settle personal scores.

Several centuries later, we are still plagued by jealousy. We feel its twinge when a friend lands a promotion, meets someone new, or posts Instagram pictures from a fantastic vacation. Navigating that jealousy can be particularly difficult for women because we are culturally conditioned to see each other as competitors.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie points out in her TED Talk “We should all be feminists” that this competition is often not for jobs or accomplishments, but for the attention of men. This has the effect of reinforcing the subconscious feeling even the most successful women struggle with, that what really matters most is how they look.

When women do compete for jobs, it is often in industries where there are fewer women the higher up you go. We’ve all met a woman, or perhaps we’ve even been a woman, who admits to having more male than female friends because ‘she just doesn’t like most women’ or something to that effect. Could it be that avoiding other women is easier than dealing with the jealousy we sometimes feel for them?

Fortunately, jealousy no longer leads to accusations of witchcraft, but it can undercut the benefits that can be derived from female friendships. Writing for The Cut, Ann Friedman encapsulated the animosity that women sometimes feel for each other in a way that echoes the superstition that animated the witch trials:

“When we meet other women who seem happier, more successful, and more confident than we are, it’s all too easy to hate them for it. It means there’s less for us.”

Friedman argues that rather than being productive, this hatred is just an expression of negative feelings women have towards their own careers, bodies, and relationships. The solution she proposed has come to be known as Shine Theory. She suggests that rather than letting jealousy make us feel bad about ourselves, we should seek to befriend women who possess qualities that we desire for ourselves:

“When you meet a woman who is intimidatingly witty, stylish, beautiful, and professionally accomplished, befriend her. Surrounding yourself with the best people doesn’t make you look worse by comparison. It makes you better.”

Friedman explains the logic behind her radically simple idea like this:

“I want the strongest, happiest, smartest women in my corner, pushing me to negotiate for more money, telling me to drop men who make me feel bad about myself, and responding to my outfit selfies from a place of love and stylishness, not competition and body-snarking.”

As much as the archetype of the witch is rooted in superstitious jealousy, she also contains the ingredients for the type of empowerment that Friedman proposes in Shine Theory. From the Wicked Witch of the West to Hermione Granger, the witch’s modern manifestations in film and literature are parables of sisterhood and power that reflect contemporaneous hopes and anxieties about what it means to be a woman.

It is difficult to imagine that Bewitched, a hugely popular show about a witch who chooses the life of a suburban housewife, would resonate with a modern audience. But in the mid to late 1960’s and early 1970’s, it provided a compelling allegory for women at the forefront of second-wave feminism who were confronted with the choice between traditional and emerging models of womanhood in both practical and abstract ways.

The witch is autonomous in a way that other female archetypes are not. Princesses and queens derive power from a man, and damsels in distress and femme fatales derive power from male desire, but the witch derives her power from her own inner magic and the sisterhood of the coven. And while Friedman frames the benefits of Shine Theory in terms of networks of women, what she’s talking about is sisterhood: A sense of interconnectedness that makes us want to celebrate each other’s successes, because we feel we rise when other women rise.

A Brooklyn-based collective of women who collaborate creatively and produce exhibits of their work has embraced not only the model of Shine Theory but also the symbolism and ethos of the witch, calling themselves The Witches of Bushwick. For the women of the collective, the witch represents a way to connect to the universe and to empower one another, as founder Christine Tran explains:

“What is the definition of a witch? If it’s just a person who is trying to find this cognizance between themselves and the Earth and their role in the Universe, yeah, we’re witches. We’re coming together and empowering each other.”

The group is also attuned to the history of persecution that women (and sometimes men) accused of being witches have suffered, which speaks to another important quality of the witch as a symbol: She’s an outsider. And because witches have historically been outsiders and misfits, she stands for the outcast in all of us.

Just as importantly, like Shine Theory, she reminds us that women are stronger together.

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This column is informed by the belief that an honest and brave conversation about what it means to be a woman is vital to understanding what it means to be a human. Its scope is temporal but its ambition is to discern the essential. Above all, it seeks to connect Milk readers to each other and the world around them. Email Jennimaria with corrections, questions, comments, and suggestions at publicfiltermilk@gmail.com.

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