Witchcraft, with its traditional practitioners generally being women, has many ties to feminist concepts. In European history, we see that witchcraft (and often herbal healing) was a way for women to have agency over their own lives, livelihood and beliefs.
However, as always, nonconforming women were and still are threatening to patriarchal power structures.
Subsequently, the whole concept of witchcraft and spiritual practice outside of the dominant religion, mostly Christianity, was used to persecute those who threatened the social order, as well as being a scapegoat to punish non-conforming women.
What’s the case with witchcraft today? Is it truly a feminist act? Is it still majorly practised by feminine folk?
Historical witches and the patriarchy
Witchcraft is by no means only practised by femmes. Yet history and pop culture dictate that it is evil women who conjure spirits, cast spells, and try to glimpse into the future. This witch-centred panic rose to its height in Europe during the 15th century, with many unmarried or widowed women being the target of attacks. Supposedly around 80% of those accused of doing ‘deals with the Devil’ were women on the fringes of society, used as scapegoats for other societal, health or economic problems.
But why was such persecution focused on marginalised women?
For a wealth of social and religious reasons, women were more likely to be involved in spiritual belief and participate in witchcraft-based practices. Ben, a self-titled ‘queer witch’, spoke briefly about how this can apply to the modern-day as well.
“If you look at Wicca as a religion, it’s a matriarchal religion, as opposed to a lot of other religions that have masculine gods. Even outside of Wicca, there’s a lot of talk of goddesses and a celebration of femininity which I think a lot of women and queer people resonate with.”
While traditional Celtic and Anglo-Saxon faiths might not have all been matriarchal, it’s certainly the case that more pagan and ‘witchcraft’ based religions were more egalitarian, at least in the UK. Practices which not only undermined Christian beliefs, but also the European Christian social structure, were too big of a problem to ignore.
However, ‘witch hunts’ were not just simply to do with anti-Christian beliefs. It is now widely acknowledged that the persecution of witches was rooted in misogyny. Accusations of witchcraft, whether these people practised it or not, were often based on feelings that the ‘witches’ were stepping out of their societal place, or didn’t fit into society’s order. Marginalised people were condemned for not fitting in, or refusing to do so. And it was disenfranchised women who bore the brunt of this.
The feminism of taking back power
When discussing the feminist nature of witchcraft, many 21st-century witches can appreciate the importance of spiritual practice in taking back control over one’s own life.
Mana, spirit portraitist and host of The Real Witches of The End Times podcast, explained how witchcraft became a way for oppressed people to regain some form of autonomy. “When you’re oppressed in a certain way, you look for so many different ways to connect with your reality around you, to gain power. You just open yourself up in this way.”
Back in the day, people were accused of witchcraft no matter what they did. It is understandable then, that when assumed to be a practitioner, one would turn to the art anyway. As Mana says, when left with nothing, it can be easy to open yourself up to taking control of your surroundings in whatever way you can.
Amaani, who identifies mostly as spiritual, expressed a similar sentiment. She said that spirituality and witchcraft encompass ideas that “you control what you do, what you believe, and how you use your own energy, which I think is this reclaiming of power [of spirituality]. It’s a very femininst thing.”
Is witchcraft fighting back against a patriarchal society?
Needless to say, men have historically (and continue to) take up the highest positions of power within religious structures, political spheres, and countless professional and creative industries. So might it be that witchcraft, originally an alternative belief system to the structure of religion, is a way to break free from all that?
Amaani described her upbringing as being in a household that had to listen to a man 24/7. “You know, it dictated my entire life,” she said. So with witchcraft and spirituality, “it’s nice that I get to choose what I do and whatever I believe in. I can express [my belief] however I want, there is no right or wrong, I’m just figuring it out myself.”
The freedom of the world of ‘woo’ is certainly a big appeal of it. When looking at this from the perspective of rejecting both the structure and patriarchy of society and religion, it makes even more sense why people would be drawn to it. The freedom to express yourself without the influence of direct structure, to break out of patriarchal norms, is very valuable.
A lot of [witchcraft] is about embracing femininity and seeing it as a source of power.Ben
Are you more open to spirituality if you’re feminine?
What is definitely a common stereotype of witches and witchcraft is that it is only really practised by women. Whereas many of those who spoke to Candid Orange agreed that these communities tend to be comprised of mostly women and non-binary people, we discussed why this might be the case.
“I think it stems from society and society’s views on men,” Sophie, founder of Lua Divine spiritual coaching, told me. “As time is going on, we are trying to support men in their emotional side, but it can be quite difficult for them to tap into that energy.”
“Personally, I’ve seen a lot more what you’d call feminine attributes in the men who are within spirituality, but I think it’s really just being able to open up to that side of yourself,” she said.
“I don’t think that witchcraft or being spiritual as a practice are seen as masculine,” Ben stated. “It involves a lot of introspection, being present in the moment, which a lot of men are discouraged from doing. Whereas feminine and queer people might be drawn to it because they’ve had to spend a lot of their lives in self-reflection, whether that be coming to terms with their identity or being marginalised because of it. So being spiritual or practicing witchcraft and embracing your femininity within that, because it’s associated with femininity, can be empowering.”
Perhaps witchcraft is therefore feminist because it takes what is not common in organised religion, and puts it into the hands of the marginalised.
“I think there’s something quite feminist about it, which is why women are drawn to it more than men,” Amaani mused. “Like, we live in a patriarchal society, as a man you might be aware of this but you don’t see necessarily how it affects you, you’re not at the receiving end of it.” If you’re not marginalised by organised religion or the patriarchy, it might not be obvious what the benefits are of taking control of your own belief in this way.
The feminism behind witchcraft
Not only is witchcraft a method of breaking away from patriarchal organised religion, but it also champions those who are disenfranchised by these prevailing systems — and thus perhaps inherently tied to feminism. It is a way of taking back power, of fighting back against your oppressors, and of having freedom in your belief without having to subscribe to usually toxic masculine rules.
Modern witchcraft is a movement that is often incredibly linked with the political, evidenced in how feminist witches mobilised against Donald Trump after he entered into the political realm. It can give every individual the tools for their own spiritual liberation, should they want it.
How witchcraft breaks away from common patriarchal structures of faith to let people practice as they please is maybe the epitome of feminism. There is no wonder that it is particularly popular with women, non-binary and queer people, as it is a practice rooted in empowering the downtrodden. Despite the common assumption that only women are witches, and the firm feminism that stands behind witchcraft, anyone can be a witch if they find themselves inclined to the mystical and introspective.
Thanks to Claudia Peach for helping to transcribe the interviews, and Ruth Stewart for her lovely witch illustration.