Madness has been wrapped in the cloaks of femininity for centuries. If we take a look back into history, it’s clear that the witches burned at the stake and the women who were institutionalized for hysteria were being punished for the same transgressions. With this in mind, it makes it even more pertinent for the darkly-minded women and femme folk of today to embrace their witchiness in all its forms. After all, it’s been centuries since we’ve been allowed to.
In the distant past, spirituality was not male-dominated. Early translations of the Bible refer to the divine with both masculine and feminine pronouns. Over time, spiritual misogyny began to spread across Europe. Coupled with warfare, famine, and plague, rumors of witchcraft spread and whipped the culture into a melee of violence. This culminated in 1487 with the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum, or Witches’ Hammer. This piece of writing was distributed to all judges, clerics, and scholars advising them to keep an eye on the suspicious behavior of women.
Female biology, specifically sexuality, was rhetorically tied to evil and witchcraft in the scapegoating of women. By proclaiming “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust which in women is insatiable,” the Malleus Maleficarum was able to provide an explanation for the supposed “crumbling edifice of celibacy.” There are several imaginative, yet very creepy tales within the Malleus Maleficarum of witches collecting “male organs…and put[ting] them in a birds nest…where they move themselves like living members and eat oats and corn.”
The women most vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft were those with power. While the men of the day were trying to turn lead into gold, women were continuing to perfect their art of keeping their communities alive and healthy. Women healers were midwives and abortionists, and their mastery of medicine was a threat to the state. Many of these women also had ties to Pagan cults. To claim such power called into question the validity of male superiority and women were banned from studying medicine.
After the healers were exterminated, any woman who stepped out of line could be tortured and executed. The numbers of those killed vary from source to source, but the fact remains that an extraordinary number of women were slaughtered for the simple crime of disobedience.
With the Age of Reason came the end of socially acceptable witch-burning. Instead, mental institutions and pathology became the go-to tools of oppression. Naturally, women were still excluded from medicine, leaving pathology to be determined by old white men. In 1828 it became law for asylums to have medical supervision, whereas before they were really just jails. By 1830, asylums were building women’s wards with populations that outnumbered the men’s by far.
Like witchcraft, women’s madness was conceptually tied to biology. While considered delicate flowers, women were also painted as libidinous, and their unfettered sexuality was deemed the cause to their mental illness. The fear of female sexuality has been present throughout history, but the Victorian era marked the pathologization of it. “Madness” encapsulated masturbation, pregnancy outside of marriage, homosexuality, frigidity, and promiscuity. In essence, having a vagina at all was a symptom of madness.
During the Victorian era, “Hysteria” was a common diagnosis, and the “wandering womb” was blamed for sucking energy and intellect out of women. Women could be diagnosed for expending too much energy, reading, or expressing any sentiment of unhappiness in their situation. Any act of protest would result in her being diagnosed as a hysteric and potentially locked away in an asylum or attic. Solitary confinement has been acknowledged today as torture and is known to cause psychological damage. The bedrest “cure” essentially caused the madness it was designed to treat.
Masturbation was believed to be both a cause and a symptom of hysteria. Women were told from a young age that masturbation would ruin both their body and their mind, yet naturally many still engaged in it. For the Victorian girl or woman tempted by the “solitary sin,” clitoridectomy was sometimes used to curb the behavior. The Western practice was “invented” in 1858 by English doctor Isaac Baker Brown. The trend of clitoridectomy was short-lived in England, lasting only until around 1866 when Brown died, but the practice continued in the US until at least 1937. Other unnecessary operations such as oophorectormy, ovariotomy, and castration were even more widespread and long-lasting, with women being castrated for psychiatric disorders as late as the 1940s.
Modernly, the physical treatments of the mad are oftentimes shockingly similar to tortures used on those labeled witches or hysterics. Insulin shock, ECT (electroshock therapy), and lobotomies came to replace the bed cure and leeching in practice, and medication came to replace the phosphates and tonics of the Victorian doctor. While we are currently moving away from these forms of treatment, femininity continues to be treated as a pathology. Women are prescribed psychiatric medication at a much higher rate, and some diagnoses, such as Borderline Personality Disorder and Depression, have been attributed to far more women than men, despite having symptomologies present in both genders.
However, the real locus of medicalized misogyny is now placed on the backs of queer women, specifically, trans* women. While being a transgender man is no walk in the park, trans women face enormous burdens for simply laying claim to their femininity. Crossdressing is seen as a pathology in itself when cisgender men engage in the practice, but the same standard is not applied to women. In the past (and sadly, often in the present), transwomen had to engage in ultra-feminine behavior and were held to a much higher standard of femininity than cisgender women. Gatekeepers to receiving treatment for their gender dysphoria frequently relied on their subjective opinion of the transwoman’s desirability. It becomes clear that the overarching attitude is that it’s okay to desire masculinity. To desire to become feminine is to be mad.
Knowing our history is essential to reclaiming our power. The Witchy, dark, brooding people out there are reclaiming something that has been denied to us for centuries. We are actively adopting an identity that was used to condemn people to death. Whether that practice surfaces through actual witchcraft, your makeup ritual, or stripcraft, it’s important to take back the power that’s been hiding within us for so long. After all, they cannot burn us anymore.