This is how they broke our grandmothers

By Natasha Chart | 4 October 2016
Feminist Current

A 16th-century engraving of an execution by fire: The execution of Anne Hendricks, burned in Amsterdam in 1571. (Image: Jan Luyken / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Once, there were witches. No. There were never witches. Not in the way men said, anyway.

Once, there were many Indigenous polytheist and animist faith traditions in what is now Western Europe. Their customs supported varying levels of respect and authority for women. They had holy women, woman healers, and woman leaders.

Once, there was a church that was a kingdom, built on the body of the Roman Empire, which itself was built on the abduction and rape of the Sabine women. This church was a principality in truth, ruled by princes who had a lust for land and gold that was almost as insatiable as their burning hatred for women.

They converted heads of state and demanded tithes of members, while leaving most local governance alone. They created a very early, very ephemeral transnational empire that required little in the way of personnel or men under arms, and was mainly concerned with governing what’s often classed as the private sphere.

Eventually, the church’s client states had a problem keeping their peasants in line, because the church and the aristocracy wanted to steal all the land and privatize it for themselves through enclosure of the commons.

As Sylvia Federici explains in her book, Caliban and the Witch, secular authorities eventually hit on the popular strategy of giving everything that women had to men, including the women themselves. Civil servants didn’t forget to account for the economic value of women’s work; rather, it was explicitly written out of economic accounting — declared to have no value during the enclosure era. Male tradesmen coordinated boycotts of female competitors and of men who worked with them. Women who persisted in trying to engage in public trades were harassed, called “whores” or “witches,” or were even assaulted without repercussion.

Eventually, to be a woman in public alone was very nearly synonymous with being presumed a witch or prostituted woman. Violence against women was both normalized and sexualized. Women were increasingly driven into prostitution if no man supported them or if they were pushed outside of polite society through accusations of misbehavior, unsanctioned relationships, or sexual abuse. In the sex trade, upstanding men in their communities could torture these women at will, their victims the only party subject to legal sanction.

In order to do their part in solving the problem of the revolting peasantry and acquire their own share of the former commons, the church stepped up to bless this destruction of women’s rights and independence with the seal of divine approval. Their priests invented witches. That is, they invented women who worshipped and had sex with the Devil, who then gave them ludicrous powers — what feminist historian Max Dashu calls “diabolism.” The church further asserted that everything that wasn’t approved as Christian was diabolism.

Again, there weren’t any witches as the church defined them. The pornographic, diabolist image described in the Malleus Maleficarum didn’t refer to any existing persons. For the most part, it didn’t even refer to things that are possible, in spite of the fact that some Indigenous spiritual and women’s health practices were included as evidence of witchcraft.

“Witches” were just women. That’s what men meant, in their own words.

“All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman… What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil nature, painted with fair colours… When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil… Women are by nature instruments of Satan — they are by nature carnal, a structural defect rooted in the original creation.” – Malleus Maleficarum

Diabolism was so broadly defined that any female rejection of male authority was potential evidence of witchcraft. Any woman could be a witch. Any look or word that offended a man, any angry speech, any unnecessary fraternization with other women, any sexual activity outside church-approved relations — all could trigger a charge of witchcraft.

Accusations could also be levied for material gain, as the church or state could then seize the property of the accused or charge them ruinous fines for a chance at freedom. Jews and Muslims were targeted as well, fitting the expansive view of diabolism as synonymous with being non-Christian, conveniently enriching the prosecuting authorities.

It became a major public project to humiliate and subjugate women, or to get women and girls to testify against their accused mothers and then stand at the front as they were executed.

Women could also be made to wear scold’s bridles, or branks, in public for speaking out of turn to any man, including their husbands, or for simply being poor and too old to work. The injuries sometimes sustained while they were paraded through the streets would have been life-threatening in the days before modern medicine and antibiotics.

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

When chattel slavery was instituted in the colonies, the brank was used as a method of breaking the will of slaves. It had worked so well with the women back in the old country, after all. Throughout the colonies, subjugated peoples were controlled after the initial conquest in ways that strongly echoed the patterns of dominance European men had been trained to enact towards their female peers.

Again, every woman was maybe a disobedient witch who might displease her Lord or master. Every woman needed strict control to keep her in line and loyal in allegiance to men. The fact that the last two sentences are both true and sound like purple prose from a BDSM story should indicate that these attitudes remain with us. Eventually, European men no longer needed to burn their women alive or subject them to public torture in order to get them to cooperate, to be quieter, or to consent to play along willingly, even eagerly, in their own submission.

“Sadomasochism is an institutionalized celebration of dominant/subordinate relationships. And, it prepares us either to accept subordination or to enforce dominance. Even in play, to affirm that the exertion of power over powerlessness is erotic, is empowering, is to set the emotional and social stage for the continuation of that relationship, politically, socially, and economically. Sadomasochism feeds the belief that domination is inevitable and legitimately enjoyable.” – Audre Lorde

When men are put under constant surveillance, restricted in their speech, dehumanized, otherized as dirty and innately evil, or subject to torture or murder on the barest pretexts, all in hopes of a societal rebirth from the decadence of carnal softness, they call it fascism.

When women have to teach their daughters to conform to that sort of oppression, generation after generation, without any other hope of survival, men call it the natural order.

People seem to think that it was so long ago, it could hardly matter. Or that it only affected witches, whoever they were, and they sound like awful, terrible women, anyway, didn’t they.

The important thing to realize is that “witches” were just women that men were either jealous of, felt threatened by, or didn’t like. In practice, those were the triggering conditions for getting tried as a witch. More simply, witches were just women. Potentially all women.

To survive, women under the Inquisition submitted to isolating themselves away from the friendships of other women, and learned to be very good at making men like them. They taught their daughters to do the same.

For hundreds of years, any woman could be taken away to jail to be tortured and sexually assaulted. Any women could be pornographically tortured in public before her execution, in front of her family if she had any.

Why didn’t she speak up? That’s why. Why didn’t she stand up for other women? That’s why. European men ritually abused women for expressing any social solidarity with each other, or independence for themselves, for generations.

Men forced women to testify against other women, even their own mothers, to live. Yet they still mock women as jealous and spiteful of each other, still joke about “cat fights.”

The destruction of women’s history of community leadership, economic independence, and support for each other wasn’t so complete that there was no evidence remaining. But the living cultural practice of female solidarity was so utterly destroyed that it’s still newsworthy for us to talk about supporting each other.

Long after they stopped burning us alive in public, women could still be removed from public life to asylums, or subjected to torture, for displeasing men or showing too much independence. They could be abused for being pregnant or an unmarried mother.

When domestic violence wasn’t a crime, that meant it was still legal for a man to torture his wife in the privacy of their home if she displeased him. Or for no reason at all. The state considered it a matter of public health and safety to prosecute assaults, except of a man against his wife, which was legal. Marital rape wasn’t a crime in all 50 U.S. states until 1993. And given that barely one per cent of rapists ever see a day in jail in even the most supposedly egalitarian countries, that form of male torture against women is still effectively legal, also.

Joaquin Pinto – The Inquisition. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Individual men sometimes go to great lengths to plan to commit abuses against women and children, and this is often written off as inevitable misfortune. Other men often cover up for them out of a sense that they should give the male perpetrator the benefit of the doubt — an attitude which even police seem to extend to accused men, but often lack for female victims, empathy for women having been burned right out of our social norms. Male coverups and victim blaming is how individual misdeeds are transformed into what Andrea Dworkin called the barricade of sexual terrorism.

There are women still alive today who were simply disappeared from their communities for unsanctioned sexual activity. Maybe they became pregnant “out of wedlock,” outside the control of a husband, whether by choice or rape, and their children were taken from them. They were the girls who went away, either to give a child up for coerced adoption or to be committed to psychiatric hospitals and possibly treated with electroshock.

If you make the men angry, you can just disappear. That’s been true for a very long time. So many men still act in expectation of the instant obedience such fear can command, that the tragedy continues.

These forms of abuse were exported to colonized states, and having started as a political persecution of women for economic gain, they metastasized into a political persecution and style of conquest employed against non-Christian peoples across the world.

The theft of children from Indigenous populations by settler states, alone, is an ongoing rights violation that differs more in scale than in kind from the historical thefts of children from “wayward” white women. It’s a logical consequence of societies operating under the cumulative presumption that only (white) men really have any rights to children; damn the mother, damn the child themselves, damn the forcibly “feminized” masses of the brutally subjugated.

The Inquisition certainly didn’t invent patriarchy, torture, or reigns of public terror designed to break the will of a conquered people. Yet it did set in motion a powerful set of social norms that remain with us. And even though the world has changed so much that the Catholic Church has apologized for persecuting heretics, such apologies are rare among the other churches and governments that murdered people on allegations of diabolism.

Women continue to be driven out of employment by male harassment, publicly vilified in sex-specific ways, tortured for entertainment in the sex industry, and killed for displeasing men.

As then, as ever, these injuries add up to degradation and disadvantage. Though they feel very personal when we are subject to them, the men who benefit from driving us out of public competition for power and resources don’t really care who we are. If another woman was in our place, they’d do it to her.

It’s the result of a centuries long, deliberate political project of destroying women’s will, power, and independence. That power and independence won’t be restored without similarly deliberate political resistance. Because, as Lierre Keith says, oppression is not a misunderstanding.

This is how they made her a political prisoner in her own home. This was how they broke her. Remember.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Natasha Chart is an online organizer and feminist living in the United States. She has years of experience in online politics across the progressive blogosphere, including as a writer at sites like,, and, and as a campaign strategist with the Service Employees International Union and Progressive Congress. A former web content and user interface designer with proud blue collar roots, Natasha works to make politics user-friendly, responsive, and accessible to people who don’t have time to read another manual.

Secret Files of the Inquisition – part 1 – Root Out Heretics

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  1. I have one thing to say: it happened all over the world, the oppression of women through out history has not been only a "White-European men thing" but an act committed by MEN from ALL OVER THE WORLD

  2. As a matter of historical accuracy it was neither the Catholic Church nor the Inquisition (for the most part) who tortured women. It was the Protestant denomination. After Kramer wrote the Malleus, Innocent VIII authorized witchcraft trials, but that didn't last long. When Innocent passed the rule became a person could be tried for witchcraft only if it was involved in a heresy investigation. But when the printing press went big, the Malleus was one of the books printed, and the Protestants flipped for it. It was they, not the Inquisition, who did the damage.

    • Read and interesting document that reports that the book you are referring to was rejected by the Church as a Heresy and that mainly secular courts ran with it and used it as a guide for which trials. The Author of the book was said to have been excommunicated as well. The Church sent a detachment of cardinals to all the regions using the book to put a stop to the trials as well. But that part of history is conveniently not reported. This article is interesting but paints everyone with the same brush…

  3. I do note above that other churches and secular authorities picked up the inquisitorial brand and ran with it, and also that, unlike the Catholic Church, they mainly haven't apologized.

    But this isn't an exhaustive look at the entire phenomenon. It's an exploration of how certain patterns of patriarchal dominance that took shape under the twin influences of Inquisition and Enclosure have persisted in our culture. How we call these things by different names now, and have devolved them from the state, to the medical profession, and further to individual men.

    Women are still badgered and harassed in sex-specific ways to try and get us to leave the public sphere. The law still refuses to hold men accountable for torturing us, and continues to present our torture as "erotic." We can still be disappeared if men don't like us.

    The pattern of behavior and its effect on women as a means of pervasive economic and political disenfranchisement is what concerns me. Because it was deeply disturbing to me to read about the history of the witch persecutions and realize that a very great deal of the symbolism, practice, and justification seemed familiar from modern life and the news.

    • Monotheism is the root structure that attempts to eliminate women.
      Imposed hierarchy under divine sanction requires immutable class structure to maintain itself.
      Christianity is the worship of a white male god made human.
      A hierarchy with a white man on top encourages rank ordering by appearance, with males divine and women evil.
      Binary and absolute. Good and evil cannot meet on equal terms. Deviations in the rank order challenge absolute authority.
      Europe allowed in this toxic brew for centuries, bursting like a giant zit across the face of the globe.
      Their worship of white man Jesus gave a perfect rationale for conquest.
      Discovery of other skin colors seemed to expand their theory. Darker skinned people fell before them.
      Many from diseases contracted from filthy Europeans, who never bathed.
      We all know the rest.
      This appearances based dogma has been steadily collapsing. Just as women were the first slaves, they are still held in bondage by religious imposed laws.

      • 1) No one wants to "eliminate" women. Subjugate, maybe, but not eliminate. That would just be silly.
        2) Ancient India had both polytheistic faith and a rigid class structure that undermined women. As did ancient China and Japan. It's weird that you're making this exclusively about white people when this is and has always been a global problem.
        3) The lack of bathing is also pretty common among ancient cultures. Bathing back then was a time intensive and not-extremely-pleasant activity for common folk of any culture, and the benefits were not well understood.
        4) Diseases also were both not well understood and common across the globe.
        5) Jesus didn't provide the conquest rationale. It could be argued that God did, however the reality is that European countries waged massive global conquests long before Christianity. I assume you're referring to the Crusades, though, which is believed to have been started as a technique to unify European countries that had been perpetually at war with each other, and also to further the Catholic church's power. Using God as an excuse is just that, an excuse. They wanted to fight and conquer and spread their power regardless of the reasoning. It's weird to throw Christianity under the bus, then, when the problem predates it. It'd be like blaming witchcraft for the persecution of women.
        6) Also, again, massive military conquest is by no means a white-people-only game. The Persia and Mongolia conquered no small amount of the world at one point or another. China and Japan have historically been fighting internally for centuries.

  4. There are numerous historical fallacies and many more assumptions based on faulty reasoning. Men, as a whole , are not the monstors you portrait them as being. Stop making up history to suit yourselves, it does your cause no good..


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