About a week or so ago, my daughter H- had attempted to read one of the junior Goosebumps books that they have in class…and found out that she’s not quite ready for books of that nature. She was upset by it and said it would give her bad dreams. So I told her to just avoid those types of books. She did have an interest in thrilling, spooky stories, but that, apparently, was biting off more than she could chew.
Yesterday, she came home somewhat upset about a book that’s now being read for storytime to her class, about “witches”. (Roald Dahl’s “The Witches”) Among the points brought up in the book was that “witches” could be anywhere – her teacher could be one, (her mother could be one – and what fun that was trying to explain to her that I was NOT a “witch”.)
I tried to set her straight on some of the common myths and misconceptions that are usually being spread about early feminists and women skilled in herbal medicine, or who did not comply with the restrictive social mores of the past regarding how women were to behave under the rule of male-dominated, sexist and misogynistic society, and yes – the minority of actual Wiccans/witches who were caught up in that.
In fact, if you substitute the letter “b” for the “w” in the word “witches”, the sexism and misogyny that was aimed at women who did not conform, becomes quite clear – and we can still see evidence today that that has continued.
Watching a movie like the classic “Bell, Book & Candle” (starring Kim Novak, Jimmy Stewart and Jack Lemmon) as a child is a lot different than watching it as an adult and viewing it through the eyes of understanding that the myths perpetuated about such women were attacks on feminism – a woman choosing not to marry or not making a man the center of her existence somehow equates to being a cold-hearted, manipulative “witch” (and you can substitute the “b” there), and when she finally does fall in love (or get married), she *loses her power*. Because yes, women were not allowed by men, for much of human history, to have any real personal autonomy or “power”, or be able to vote, own property, be credited as inventors, have ownership over her own sexuality, reproductive freedom, etc…
Calling a woman a “bi—“ is a way of setting society against her, a way of pushing her down, making her ashamed (or scared) of being independent, of being a leader, not falling in line with misogynistic/sexist ideals of the stereotypical subservient woman who would never *dream* of disagreeing with or challenging a man’s domination, and justifying all sorts of bullying, harassment, and criminal behavior against such women. “The bi— had it coming to her!” How many times have women been raped (which is an act of domination and power more than it is sexual), and been blamed for somehow “deserving” or “inviting” it, due to the misogyny and sexism that is still rampant in our society today? How many women have even been killed for being thought of as somehow thwarting a man’s “rightful” entitlement to do with her as he pleases?
I’m sure that if you’ve heard anything about the Salem witch trials, you know that the majority of women targeted, tortured and killed were the victims of false accusations – no “witchcraft” or anything even resembling it was even involved in many cases.
The trials were unfairly rigged against them and have horrifying similarities to methods employed in the Spanish Inquisition. A lot of people were unfairly targeted by false accusation in that as well, mostly so the church/state could seize assets and property.
For example: the myth that a witch can “float” (swim) on water. How many women faced the Catch-22 of that: be thrown into a lake to drown (and be posthumously deemed innocent), or swim (or actually float, depending on their water skills or bodily fat content) thereby “proving” their supposed guilt. And the myth that a “witch” can’t bleed in certain areas of her body if pricked? Pricking devices with retractable pins insured that everyone so tested would fail, other professional “witch prickers” would gleefully prick away with actual pins – when a non-bleeding “witchmark” couldn’t be found, it was claimed that the devil had removed it to hide the “fact” that the woman was a “witch”.
Even in fairy tales, women with no “magical” powers whatsoever were lumped into the category of “witches”, even some with obvious mental disorders – the “witch” in Hansel and Gretel, for example. Yes, she was severely disordered – cannibalism is a horrible thing…but so is abandoning two children in the woods to leave them to either starve to death or become the prey of wild animals. Hansel and Gretel’s parents, however, are viewed in a tragic/sympathetic light, and not as the actual monsters they were. (One wonders if the origin of that story even had a cannibalistic woman in it anyway – that might just have been taking poetic license to turn a predatory animal attack (which places the abuse squarely on the heads of the parents who exposed the children to that situation) to an attack by a cannibalistic “witch” (thereby deflecting the accusation of “monster” away from the parents and onto that “witch”, and even adding a little victim-blaming by suggesting it is the childrens’ own greed for treats (or food in this case, as the children were starving) that led to their predicament.)
And of course, the Halloween season is absolutely rife with misconceptions of the Wiccan religion and modern real-life witches. Yes, there may be some practitioners among them that may be involved in dark things, but just as not every Christian is an active member of the KKK, most Wiccans/Pagans/modern-day witches are not involved in that end of their religion’s/practice’s spectrum.
“Yes,” I explained to H-, her teacher or anyone else could very well be a “witch”, or rather what sexists and misogynists would view as a “bi—“, or she could even be a Wiccan – but there is NOTHING wrong with being either of those!
Essentially, the book that is being read to the children in class, is perpetuating harmful and untrue myths, stereotypes and intolerance about strong, capable women, modern-day witches and Wiccans.
To extrapolate, during the winter season, I’m wondering will there also be a book perpetuating the harmful and untrue myths, stereotypes and intolerance toward Jews? Like the old bit about Jews eating Christian babies? (I remember when I was a child getting physically assaulted by Christian kids (in NJ) for being Jewish because of crap their parents were telling them at home.)
Or at Thanksgiving, will there be books calling Native Americans, “Indians” and perpetuating the dehumanizing myths about Native Americans being “savages” that conveniently leaves out the Trail of Tears, or that the U.S. government (being truly savage themselves) supplied them with blankets that were deliberately infected with smallpox?
I would like to respectfully implore anyone out there who is in charge of picking books to read to impressionable children to consider choosing a book that does not promote religious intolerance, sexism, misogyny and harmful stereotypes that have continued to be spread for way too long.
It gave H- bad dreams about “witches” that even my talk with her could not dispel.
To make things simple on her, as an 8 yr old third-grader, I told her to just read another book during storytime. If the teacher objected, she could tell the teacher “I don’t agree with the message in that book.” If the teacher needs further explanation, she can add: “Just switch the “w” with a “b” in “witches”, and you’ll understand why.”
**UPDATE: After emailing H-‘s teacher to ask about the book being read in class, I received a reply from her stating that she would not continue reading it to the class.**
**Author’s note: after writing the above article, which can be a touchy subject for many, I sought feedback from modern-day witches, Wiccans, feminists and other moms. A slight tweaking was needed, but otherwise the general consensus was that the subject matter was being treated respectfully and fairly. If you feel this is not the case, please let me know and I will take your views under consideration.