For better or for worse, women have always been innately connected to the occult. Throughout history, women who challenged notions of femininity were marked as witches and murdered because they were seen as threats to traditional culture. In the nineteenth century, women who were considered too emotional, suffered from stress, or who grieved too long for a child, were frequently diagnosed with hysteria and sent away to the asylum.
Feminine nature has historically been believed to be more sensitive and fragile than male energy. This belief was used to suppress the rights of women and to keep them under control of men. Yet this also fueled the thought that women were more in touch with the spirit world than men; they made for better mediums and better healers, roles traditionally associated with witches.
Even with this historical connection to the occult, women, along with trans women, queer women, and non-binary individuals, have traditionally been kept at the outskirts of occult movements and barred from leadership positions – at least, in the beginning. The Mother of Modern Witchcraft, Doreen Valiente, began to rise as a powerful woman in paganism when she was appointed as Gerald Gardner’s High Priestess in his Wiccan coven in the mid 1950s. While she respected and greatly admired Gardner, she felt his growing thirst for fame was compromising their coven. When she called him out on it, he responded with a doctrine of Wiccan Laws, purposely written to curb the power of the High Priestess.
This echoes the sentiments of Anton LaVey’s (founder of the Church of Satanism) misogynistic-leaning views of women. Perhaps this led the movement (at least, LaVeyan Satanism) to be overwhelmingly male until the late 1990s. In LaVey’s book The Satantic Witch, he often addresses his female reader in a condescending way, arguing that “for better or worse ninety-nine percent” of women are “dependent upon the support of men.”
He also consistently pits women against women: “one of the surest signs of potential proficiency in witchcraft is an inability to get along with other women.” To get ahead, says LaVey, a woman needs to essentially be a bitch to other women. LaVey also put the Satanic Witch – the ultimate, mystical, feminine Satanist – on a sexual pedestal, a pedestal that did not ultimately render a woman powerful unless it came to seduction.
Many Satanists interpret these personal views to be a product of the time of which it was written – the 1960s, when the women’s sexual liberation movement was just beginning. They also maintain that these viewpoints are LaVey’s alone and are not to be confused with the tenants of Satanism, which empowers the individual. Today, women are finding leadership roles in contemporary Satanism. Karla LaVey, Anton’s daughter, even founded the First Satanic Church in 1999.
Similarly, women have reclaimed leadership positions in Wicca. Once Doreen Valiente realized her (male) coven leader was trying to restrict her, the coven split. Valiente went on to form her own coven that abandoned Gardner’s repressive laws. Other interpretations of Wicca also evolved that deviated from Gardnerian Wicca, which was not explicitly LGBTQIA friendly. Alexandrian Wicca, founded by Alex Sanders, empowered queer Wiccans (Sanders was bisexual) by creating rituals that were free from the confines of sexual orientation completely.
Art has often been a way that witchy women have reinstated themselves into their rightful place in the occult; and not only that, but in society as well. Doreen Valiente wrote books on Wicca as well as poetry. Marjorie Cameron, a devout Thelemite, later known by just ‘Cameron,’ also wrote poetry, and used painting to capture the essence of Aleister Crowley’s occult philosophies, often with a feminist bent.
Exploring the feminine occult through art consistently places women in a position of power. Most recently, Beyoncé has invoked the black conjure woman in her visual album Lemonade, specifically in her song “Formation.”
“The black conjure woman herself has long been a figure demonized in American culture,” writes Janelle Hobson, in her piece “Beyoncé as Conjure Woman: Reclaiming the Magic of Black Lives (That) Matter.” Beyoncé embodies this woman, empowers her, and in doing so, uses her cultural platform to empower black lives. She does this by reclaiming the identity of the black conjure woman both visually and in her lyrics.
The image of Beyoncé wearing sacred attire is an homage to Vodou Ioa Maman Brigitte, “guardian of the souls of the dead who loves to curse and drink rum with hot peppers.” Her lyrics, a mix of singing and rapping, stripped down, call upon the ritual chants of the black conjure woman, a woman who has allowed black culture to survive “due to her resourcefulness in preserving the cultural memory from the African continent by remixing it with other cultures here in North America,” writes Hobson.
Contemporary occult female artists such as Pam Grossman and Shannon Taggart continue to use their art to explore the intrinsic relationship between the female and the occult, especially when it comes to highlighting feminine sources of power. Taggart has an exhibition coming up in early June at the Morbid Anatomy Museum that will focus on Spiritualism, feminism, and the history and practice of mediumship, a practice that, in the Victorian Era, was believed to be excelled at by women.
At its core, the occult is about empowerment and freedom. In today’s modern pagan community, many trans women, queer women, and non-binary individuals have reclaimed the identity of the witch and what it means to be a witch, as a way to empower themselves and validate their own personal magic. However, we still have a ways to go when it comes to taking back ownership of the occult and when it comes to being inclusive and intersectional. Women are still branded as witches and face death for this unwanted identity. In Ghana, an extremely religious country, strong women are frequently blamed for any ill a community may face, and are sent away to live in a witch camp where they work toward becoming cleansed. While many women feel protected in these camps (to be named a witch is often a death sentence), this is yet another way that women continue to be suppressed.