Another one of my parcel books. Since the beginning of lockdown, I could not travel to meet with my mum. Instead, she came up with an idea of sending parcels. Almost like we are back to the days when the world was too big to travel, but it was ok to send something that would arrive weeks later (days in our case, the world is not that big again, yet).
The direct translation of the title would go like this: Witches. The Invincible Power of Women. Surprisingly the book was never translated into English. Originally written in French, I’ve also seen a Spanish and German version.
As the title clearly announces it is a feminist book and one inspired by the persona of a witch. Chollet manages to do two things that rarely go together: build a very clear structure of her thoughts, that she shares with us in the introduction, but at the same time argue each point with passion and energy not stifled by that structure. Her road reading on the topic easily flowing together with personal experience.
She starts by framing the witch hunt as really women hunts. Yes, some men were victims too, but far less often. All of us when we hear the word ‘witch’ we think of a woman. And Chollet dismantles this picture.
For what is a witch? A woman that is independent, without a husband or children. A woman that can decide for herself (though here Chollet notes the contradiction, that women’s independence was so abhorrent to witch hunters that she had to become Satan’s servant). A woman who does not participate in the traditional gender roles of our societies, now or then. Often we also think of an ‘old hag’. And then come all the potions and poisonous plants, the terrifying relationship with nature, the cooperation with it, instead of the permanent fight to overcome it.
We often think about witch hunt as ‘something form the middle ages’. Surprisingly, women actually enjoyed quite a lot of freedom in the middle ages, compared to later centuries. They were allowed to join the guilds and own businesses, for example. Things changed with the advent of Renaissance, again surprisingly. A time in history we still hold in such high esteem that we never question it in detail. But really Renaissance is when bit by bit women’s rights were stripped (not that things were perfect before). When men ruling the world started fearing independent women.
And that’s how the witch hunts started. Yes, they were technically related to religion, but really religion was here just a tool to fight unwanted opposition. Isn’t it often? Throughout the centuries accusations were made, and proven with torture or bizarre tests. It got to a point in some places where in villages all, or almost all women were killed in the space of a decade. If the result if so one-sided, we cannot possibly believe that the intention wasn’t.
Apart from independence and having their own means and property (even if it was just a small house), another problem with women accused of being witches was the fact that they didn’t have children. This is where we start touching on how gender roles made capitalism possible. Women are told to always give care, to men, to children, to the elderly. But we never are allowed to focus on ourselves. With a woman’s identity dissolved in being a mother/caregiver, with no right to own anything they were effectively condemned to living within the confinement of the house. Taking care of running it (with or without help) and raising the children. While men were free to obtain education and develop their stance in the world. This is at least one of the reasons why we’re still told by everyone we have to have children.
But do we really? Why should anyone be ashamed to say ‘I don’t want to have children’? Is anyone ashamed of saying the opposite? As I was reading this book Guardian launched a series of articles called Childfree, so the topic is finally coming into the more mainstream media. But really saying honestly that one doesn’t want to have children and not being apologetic about it is still not widely accepted, if you’re a woman that is. So this is where the other problem with the witches came: they were the first source of contraceptives and abortive measures. This offense simply couldn’t be accepted. Not only were they independent themselves, but they helped other women remain independent.
When we come to the matter of age Chollet analyzes it in depth. We all see the old hag type of a witch. Even if she is beautiful it’s only through tricks, the hag sits somewhere beneath it all. Chollet asks: so what? Yes, we age. So do men. So how did it become a problem only for women? Why did we lose respect for a woman’s experience? Why is it an old hag and a wise old man? The lack of respect for woman’s wisdom, combined with an obsession with unachievable beauty standards becomes a deadly combination.
Chollet also touches briefly on one more topic, that I found very interesting, but she does not develop it further (if you know any books that explore it more in-depth please share). Women are always taught to be nice, and sensitive and caring. We are basically forbidden to be angry. It is not acceptable for a woman to vent her fury, for she’ll be perceived as hysterical, even if she is right. We have to calmly explain and argue our point, but never shout. We cannot lose our temper, and yet in men, it is not only accepted, but it is also considered an act of strength. Chollet argues that men are terrified of angry women. And there is something in that when you look at the Black Friday protests in Poland when anti-abortion law was to be passed in 2018, or the Women’s March started in 2017, but really still continuing. Men don’t want women to realize that they are a force (and yes, I am generalizing here, we all have male friends who support the feminism cause).
Ok, back to the topic. Since we were at the contraceptives, those were typically made from plant extracts (just as many of the drugs still are). Showing the power of cooperation between humans and nature. But this does not sit right in a world where we treat nature as an asset. This bond had to be broken, so the witches’ knowledge of nature became their sin. We should not respect and know it, we should use it. This is what capitalism tells us to do, and if we don’t then capitalism falls apart. And so the opposition nature-science was constructed. Chollet focuses mainly on medicine, which makes sense as it’s root could not be deeper into nature and magic. But at the moment medicine turned into science it started denying the wisdom of healers and hiding its natural sources. Despite many of the drugs still coming form plant extracts we rarely are informed of this, it’s all nicely hidden in a pill and a box, that could not be further away from nature if it tried.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not advocate abandoning medicine for the sake of herbal remedies. Neither does Chollet. What she does is analyze the abyss between the two, and how artificial it is. A cultural construct really. Another aspect Chollet dives into is how violent today’s medicine is for women. How they are not listened to, how everything becomes psychosomatic. Not to mention the unnecessary physical violence of some procedures, without any consideration for the patient’s feelings.
I’ll stop here, as you can see it’s a book that you take personally. It really made me angry. The myth of a witch led Chollet to a convergence of topics that becomes systemic. When we look at them in isolation we can consider them flaws of the system, but when you look at them together it’s hard not to think this is how it was supposed to work. Not a flaw, a conscious design. It brings to my mind two other books I read about capitalism preying on the weaker and actually making them weak on purpose: Returning to Reims and How Did We Get Into This Mess?.
But Chollet does not end on a grim note. She has hope and that’s what pushes her to action. Which clearly brings to mind the message of Hope in the Dark. Just as the system came together against us, we can come together through many voices to resist and fight.
This is book #16 of my 20 Books of Summer hosted by Cathy at 746books.
See my list as it grows here.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska @vkphotospace.com
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