The Salem Witch Trials in Puritan New England were a period of hysteria. This hysteria was not the affliction of the women condemned as witches, but in the maniacal society which forced women to behave in ways that threatened the men in their communities. Because of Puritanical customs, women became – in the eyes of their male counterparts – “possessed,” in an effort to gain standing within their communities. This same “hysteria” in women also sprung from the sexual repression that was the standard in New England at the time.
To Puritan men, women were so severely limited in their intelligence that they were not capable of making competent decisions about the morality of consorting with the Devil. The overwhelming majority of those executed during the Salem Witch Trials were women; this statistic is not at all coincidental, for the motive of these executions were misogyny. Women in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England were socially, and therefore politically, repressed. Within their communities, women had no influence in the decision-making process, and suffered greatly as a result of their opinions being purposefully overlooked and ignored.
Despite the sentiments of the time, women as a general population – while different than men in many respects – need equal influence as men upon the communities in which they live and work. This was denied to them. Because this basic right to equality was denied, women rebelled in an effort to gain power. This rebellion came in the form of trances and hysteria. “Trance and phenomena are most likely to occur and be fostered among individuals who are temporarily or permanently outside normal power channels – specifically, women. 1 This manifestation of rebellion was an unconscious effort to gain power. Before the witch-hunt mania truly began, women thought their outbursts gave them power to control men’s reactions.
Their hysteria “gave additional strength to [women] that felt their position to be either weak of threatened. “2 At the beginning, “a woman who purports to be receiving trance communications with God initially may be given a cautiously positive hearing, yet eventually she may be accused of receiving ‘false revelation’ or being a ‘witch’ in league with powerful demonic forces. 3 Initially, women in Salem got some guarded positive results (such as commendation by town religious officials as being extraordinarily sensitive to God’s communication) – however, this changed quickly as the authority of the men involved was challenged. The reaction of the men to these hysterical outburst did not fulfill the intended enduring objective. Instead of giving women power, men felt that “[the afflicted women’s] behavior became too disruptive and threatened the system,”4 and they quickly acted to stop their outbursts.
Women were condemned for their hysterical fits, and punished in the form of accusations. Instead of help and understanding toward the obviously afflicted women, men accused them of consorting with the Devil, and even went so far as to execute them in the name of God. Women in Puritan New England subconsciously reacting in an effort to gain political standing were only further repressed and punished. 5 This same hysteria attributed to social and political repression was also caused by the sexual repression of women in Puritan New England.
In New England, as in much of the world in that time, women were not regarded as sexual beings. While women, like men, have sexual impulses that are related purely to body chemistry, this was ignored and men even attempted to eliminate them entirely by disregarding that women have sexual desires. Women’s sexual desires were ignored because of the standards and conventions of the time. Indeed, the only time that women were to have sex was with their husbands on their marriage night, and only after that if they wanted children (the standard expectation of the time).
The hysteria that women were afflicted with can be attributed to the release of pent-up sexual energy and frustration. “[Sargant, a philosophical writer] argues that the cathartic release that can occur in a highly emotional religious of secular setting can leave an individual temporarily free of emotional blockages and in a state of remarkable physiological plasticity – able to experience a radical transformation in life or belief. “6 Interestingly, the witch-hunt craze was sparked by two girls approaching puberty – facing not only physical changes in their own bodies, but a life of celibacy and religious purity.
Another aspect of the sexual repression of women in New England was that caused by intense emphasis on religion at the time. Every facet of Puritan life revolved around religion. The Puritan men, and all others in the community, devoted their entire life to God. It is reasonable, then, that men sexually repressed women only in imitation of the methods in which men dealt with the first woman, Eve – a concept that was only further proved with the Scriptures, which extensively discussed the evils of women. It is true that in the Old Testament, the Scriptures have much that is evil about women, and this is because of the first temptress, Eve, and her imitators. “7 According to Puritan men, all women were thought of as possessing this dangerous carnal lust, and must be silenced. “All witchcraft comes from the carnal lust, which is in all women insatiable… Wherefore for the sake of fulfilling their lust they consort even with the devils. “8
From both the general feeling of sexism against women, and the Puritan religious standards and expectations of women as primarily non-sexual beings, hysteria sprung. Not only were women’s political voices silenced, but they could not even act on impulses that came naturally to them. The standards of Puritan society – caused by deep belief in women not being the same creature as men, and the religious expectations in which Puritans were so convicted – repressed women’s sexuality, and their response was to revolt in fits of hysteria.
However, the repression of women in New England was not only limited to their political voice and their sexual intentions. Men at the time thought women were also severely limited in their intelligence, and believed that they could act like children. Furthermore, women were not intellectually sound enough to make competent decisions about whether or not to consort with the devil. Hysteria, which was simply a cry for help from complete repression, was defined by the males in Puritan society as association with the devil because of a lack of enough basic intelligence and common sense.
As regards intellect, of the understanding of spiritual things, [women] seem to be of a different nature from men, a fact which is vouched for by the logic of the authorities, backed by various examples from the Scriptures. Women are intellectually like children. “9 This inferior intelligence was, much like their harmful sexual desires, supported by the Scriptures – and, since the Puritan life was so closely linked with the Bible, the Scriptures had to be the ultimate word. An example of the expression of this inferior intelligence was in midwifery.
Midwifery was, and even still is, a traditionally female role. However, men began to criticize women’s ability to deliver infants not only because they were not well-learned enough in anatomy, but because they didn’t have the capacity to learn it either. One such man wrote on the subject of women’s inferiority at the profession of midwifery during the Trials, “Some perhaps think that then it is not proper from women to be of this profession, because they cannot attain so rarely to the knowledge of things as men may. 10 Men seemed to be able to insult women’s intelligence freely, and with no bounds between personal life and that of the traditional professional roles of women in society. Women were customarily thought to be more superstitious than men as well.
This convention, whether it be founded or not, was also attributed to their lack of intelligence. To be superstitious was juvenile and not founded on any real knowledge of the outside world – women were too immature and sheltered to be even capable of believing anything other than superstition. 1 “There are more superstitious women found than men… [Men] are more credulous; and since the chief aim of the Devil is to corrupt faith, therefore he rather attacks [women]…. “12 The devil targets those who have a strong faith, and therefore women, as the more superstitious sex, were more easily accused of consorting with evil forces. Women were also not intelligent enough to be trusted with land, which was proven in the case of accused witch Katherine Harrison.
Her hysteria was thought of as an insult to the males in her hometown of Wethersfield, Connecticut. Nearby farmers showed her what they thought of this affront to Puritan patriarchy by beating her oxen, boring a hole into the side of her cow, killing her heifer, breaking the back of her steer, destroying her corn crop, and cutting down her hops. The court apparently refused to protect her, and even gave her a hearty fine… she was driven out of Wethersfield as a witch. “13 Harrison was not trusted with her own property, and because of the overwhelming sexist sentiment of the time, she was denied justice in court and even expelled from her town.
An enormous majority of the women executed during the Salem Witch Trials were women. They paid the price for the sexist attitudes of the men in their society with their lives. Because of their stupidity, women were given no political, social, or possession rights; their stupidity and dangerous carnal lust were both attributed to the customs set in the Bible which those in the Puritan community took, word-for-word, as the supreme and unquestionable moral standard. In the case of the Salem Witch Trials, this sexist outlook was at best simply unjust, and at its worst, murder.