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Witchcraft Prejudice Against Early Modern Women: A History

Angela loves history and feels it is essential to our future to know the past—or else we're destined to repeat it.

This article will take a look at the history and effects of witchcraft prejudice and intolerance against early modern women in Europe and the United States.

This article will take a look at the history and effects of witchcraft prejudice and intolerance against early modern women in Europe and the United States.

Women Who Did Not Conform to Society's Expectations Were Considered Sinful Witches

Gender played a significant role in the witch hunts that took place in Early-Modern Europe and Salem. Carol Karlsen pointed out that “between 1645 and 1647, several hundred people had been hanged in the wake of England’s most serious witchcraft outbreak. More than 90 percent of these English witches were women.”

Although these statistics are one of the highest, women were targets in other countries during the heights of the witch hunts. The Early-Modern European views on women played a significant role in the accusations. Early-Modern European views that played a role include their roles within society, the vulnerability of their soul, and an inability to fit into a male-dominated society. Women also had a stricter view of sin during this time frame than men, leading to higher confessions amongst women.

It was not until women and men began to view sin similarly that witch hunts ended. Many of the impacts that occurred during this time frame also happened during the Salem Witch Trials.

What part did gender play in the history of witchcraft? Read on to find out.

What part did gender play in the history of witchcraft? Read on to find out.

Roles of Women During Early-Modern Europe

Women had responsibilities surrounding tasks that dealt with the community's survival, such as preparing food, being a midwife or lying in maid, and tending animals. As a result, many believed that witches had considerable control over the health and life of others.

Because these were all jobs that had the potential of going very wrong when someone died or became sick, they blamed the nearest person—who was usually a woman. A midwife who delivered a deformed or stillborn child could very well become targeted. A mother may want to blame someone for their tragedy, and, since the midwife was present, they were subject to being accused of doing something supernatural to cause this.

Many "witches" were beheaded or hung.

Many "witches" were beheaded or hung.

Women as Sexual Objects: Satan as Sexual Aggressor

Puritans believed that Satan assaulted the body through sexual transgressions. Many viewed Satan and his imps as male, which influenced the idea that witches were usually women because witches supposedly had sex with the “devil’s imp” and gave her body to Satan.

Also, witches’ familiars were believed to have “sucked at the breasts, [as well as]… latch onto any unusual markings or witch’s teat.” Suckling provided nourishment to their familiars and imps. Because women provided the nourishment for infants, this idea of suckling only reinforced the idea that witches were women.

Suckling was believed to be used for sexual pleasure as well. Reis pointed out that men were not completely immune to these ideas of suckling and sensual pleasure because “their bodies were searched during the trials, and the investigations occasionally found evidence of such activity,” although such findings were rare. As a result, many believed that men’s “bodies were more difficult and less tempting objects of the devil’s attacks.”

Ignorance About Anatomy

One characteristic that both men and women shared regarding the witch-hunts was the idea that their souls were feminine. Therefore, men's souls were viewed just as evil as women's.

In the 18th century, many believed women's anatomy was identical to men's except pointing inward. Consequently, they thought that "inwardness meant femaleness," which was why the soul was believed to be feminine.

Although this should cause men and women to be viewed as equally susceptible to sin, this was not the case. Puritans believed that the body protected the soul. If the body was strong, then the soul was better protected. Therefore, men who were created physically stronger were viewed as less susceptible to Satan's attacks.

Many women were burned alive, when they suspected them of witchcraft.

Many women were burned alive, when they suspected them of witchcraft.

The Weaker Sex and Gender Bias

Females, as a whole, were considered more accessible targets for Satan due to being viewed as weaker than men physically, spiritually, and morally. Puritans "believed that Satan attacked the soul by assaulting the body." "Not only was the body the path to the soul's possession; it was the very expression of the devil's attack."

As a result, their spiritual and moral selves were considered more vulnerable because of their weaker bodies, which left them more susceptible to the devil's traps, and Satan could more easily possess their souls.

Although men's bodies were seen as more difficult to tempt, this did not exempt all men. Even though witchcraft was not considered to be inherited, often people who were closely related to a previously accused witch were thought to be witches themselves, such as daughters, sisters, and even male relatives of the accused. Karlsen pointed out that "nearly half the males [accused] were husbands, sons, or other male relatives of the accused women." Still, these men were a minority.

Not only were men's bodies viewed as being able to fight off Satan's attacks more readily, but men could have certain female qualities. On the other hand, women were not allowed to possess masculine traits without being seen as odd and not fitting easily within society. Reis explains this further:

"Men were not required to adopt outwardly feminine traits and risk compromising their masculinity, but man’s soul, his inner self, could safely display female virtues. Passivity and receptivity to Christ’s advances resided in men’s’ (female) souls, but their bodies—and sense of themselves—remained masculine."

In other words, men could maintain their perception of masculinity, despite having a feminine soul. Their feminine soul allowed them to be submissive to Christ without appearing feminine to their neighbors. Women, in contrast, were not permitted to show masculine characteristics without being viewed negatively by society.

Women who did not fit in easily were often targeted.

Women who did not fit in easily were often targeted.

Witch Hunt and Gender: Outcasted Women

The women most likely to be accused were those who did not fit easily into society. Women during this period were expected to be quiet, submissive, and under the male head of the household. Therefore, when a woman used coarse language or was self-sufficient, she was seen as odd, which ultimately put her at a higher risk of being accused.

Older Women Were Seen as No Longer Useful to Society

Also, because women were beginning to live longer, there was not yet a role that allowed older women to fit easily into society. Therefore, there was a massive increase in the number of witch accusations for those over 40. Although there were accusations of women under 40, less than a quarter would face a trial.

On the other hand, 40% of women over 40 would face a trial, and more than half of these women would become convicted. These statistics are believed to result from the fact that women over 40 were no longer of childbearing age. Therefore, they did not have a specific purpose within society any longer.

Many of these women were also widowed, which meant they were no longer under the care of a man. Many accused widowed women because they had inherited large sums of money or property when their husbands had passed away. They were then capable of supporting themselves financially, and many chose not to remarry even if they had the opportunity.

These women, in particular, caused tensions amongst the core beliefs within the Puritan society. Puritan leaders felt that women owning land was a breaking up of their community by not having a male head of the house. The resulting tensions caused witchcraft accusations.

Young Women Often Felt Oppressed and Unheard

Young women played a different role in witchcraft accusations. They also did not fit easily into society, especially within Salem. These young women felt oppressed and unheard. Reis points out that “these young women perhaps feared for their future, worrying that they would end up alone, with no one to establish their dowries and find them, husbands.”

Even though it started with them experimenting with magic, they eventually began exhibiting signs of being possessed. The fits they would go into while being “possessed” allowed them to act in ways their society prohibited and say things they usually never could, which allowed them to have at least some power within a community that repressed them.

Pressures to blame someone for these possessions increased until accusations of “witches” occurred. Many times these young women had never met those that they named. Because they could more easily say a woman’s name than a man’s due to the patriarchal society, this further increased the likelihood that women were the ones on trial.

Women who sinned, no matter how small the sin was, were often accused of being in obedience to Satan and against God.

Women who sinned, no matter how small the sin was, were often accused of being in obedience to Satan and against God.

Why Did People Believe Women Were More Apt to Follow Satan?

Another reason that women were more often executed for witchcraft was that women and men regarded sin differently. The differing ideas regarding sin contributed to how each sex confessed or denied witchcraft accusations, affecting how others viewed a person and, ultimately, the trial outcome.

Many saw men for who they were and not as the sins they had committed. Although they would repent of their sins, they did not internalize the minister’s message like women did. Women were more apt to view their sins as having been in obedience to Satan and against God, no matter how ordinary the sin may be. Alice Lake was an excellent example of this. She had convinced herself “that her sexual transgression was enough to make her a witch. Although she had not signed an explicit compact with Satan… she had covenanted with him through the commission of sin.”

Many Believed That Women Were Inherently Evil

One reason that women confused sin with witchcraft is that they viewed themselves as inherently evil. It was their natural evilness that caused them to sin. On the other hand, men believed that their sin corrupted their souls; therefore, they could readily repent for their shortcomings and salvation.

It is not surprising that women believed in inherent evilness that “they could more easily imagine that other women were equally damned.” For that reason, women more easily accused other women of witchcraft. If accused of witchcraft, due to women’s “guilt over their perceived spiritual inadequacies, [they might]… confess to specific transgressions they had not committed,” such as witchcraft.

Society's View on Women

As Karlsen pointed out, even the confessions themselves were perceived differently by the judges and magistrates. She states although women and “men who confessed to witchcraft outside of the Salem outbreak were punished… most confessing women were taken at their word and executed, confessing men were almost all rebuked as liars.”

Even amongst similar cases, the punishments were much more severe and long-lasting for a woman than for a man. Women were also more apt than men to be charged repeatedly once the courts of a witchcraft accusation exonerated them.

" . . . most confessing women were taken at their word and executed, confessing men were almost all rebuked as liars.”

" . . . most confessing women were taken at their word and executed, confessing men were almost all rebuked as liars.”

Evolving Gender Stereotypes

During the 18th century, ideas regarding gender and sin evolved. When combined with the scientific revolution, witch-hunts became less prevalent until they stopped altogether.

One of the most profound changes was a decreased emphasis on Satan. Instead, there became an increased focus on fearing God. Instead of Satan possessing their bodies for sin, God would punish them.

Also, they began to feel that they were not battling Satan, but themselves, which shows a shift in how women and men viewed sin. Their views became more similar; therefore, neither sex was persecuted more than the other. Reis also points out that “even women—who perhaps still perceived the devil’s threats more palpably than men—were able to select Christ.”

This shift in ideas was most likely due to the scientific revolution's focus on “enlightened” and “rational” thinking.

The Oppressed Finding Their Place in Society

Men and women, who had previously felt oppressed, found roles within society. The Victorian woman was no longer considered inherently evil but encouraged to “spread their moral influence as the ‘mothers of civilization’” for their husbands who worked in the sinful world.

Young people were also more capable of providing for themselves because they were being encouraged to find their independence. Adolescent girls, in particular, had new social outlets. They no longer felt the suffocating pressures that society had placed on them during the seventeenth century and earlier.

Even women who were no longer of childbearing age had a changing role within society. They were now responsible for educating the boys who would soon be the heads of their households. These women no longer were viewed as a hindrance to society, but necessary citizens. All these people who were stressed within the community now found a comfortable place in society. As tensions dissipated, so did accusations.

Studying the Transgressions of the Past Helps Shed Light on the Present

Although some men were victims during the witch-hunts, these hunts were mostly due to prejudices against women, especially those women who did not fit neatly inside of the patriarchal society of the 17th century. This vast victimization of witches is essential to be studied today, because it brings attention to the unfair treatment of others.

Although the majority of people in today’s modern society do not believe that witches ever existed, they still place blame and oppress specific individuals and groups. Each society needs to be aware of who are the modern-day witches amongst them. This realization is not meant to persecute, but to protect the victims from being harmed either emotionally or physically. All people should be valued regardless of belief, race, or income status.


  • Karlsen, Carol. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).
  • Reis, Elizabeth. Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England.( New York: Cornell University Press, 1999).

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: How do I cite your page?

Answer: Chicago Style and MLA:

Schultz, Angela Michelle. "History and Effects of Witchcraft Prejudice and Intolerance on Early Modern Women." Exemplore. 2010. Accessed September 24, 2018.

Question: Is it okay for me to use this essay, referenced of course, as a part of my academic research on the witch craze?

Answer: Yes, as long as you cite my work.

© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz


Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on December 11, 2019:

Interesting. Amazingly, these ideas still influence how western culture perceive men and women, i.e. weaker versus stronger. I believe those who know there history still may repeat it, but your article certainly educates on this subject. Thanks.

James from Maine, USA on September 28, 2018:

"James, witchcraft can't solve every problem under the sun and moon."

It creates more problems than it solves. Attempting to manipulate and twist things to some benefit, however small, is never good when done through witchcraft. There are dark spiritual forces at play in all this, which only have the outward appearance of something good. Dig deep and you will find the spirits to be the liars they truly are... Like the Roman Catholic Church.

"'Women are never the aggressors.' Hey, have you looked into history, yet? We weren't allowed to."

Yeah that's not true at all. Queen Victoria? Queen Elizabeth I? Queen Isabella? Catherine The Great? The Pirate Queen, Ching Shih? That's only what I can recall off the top of my head.

"Also, 'empowering'? We respect nature and align energy. Not solve world hunger."

Subjective progress is the result of subjective methods. How do you determine what works and what doesn't? This is why I find witchcraft to be nonsensical and pointless. But, what would you do if all your efforts to align energy were thwarted? What if everything in nature you touched withered and died? Would that be proof enough to convince you that this is the wrong path to take?

Hannan Zhou on September 26, 2018:

James, witchcraft can't solve every problem under the sun and moon. "Women are never the aggressors." Hey, have you looked into history, yet? We weren't allowed to. Also, "empowering"? We respect nature and align energy. Not solve world hunger.

When we talk about witch trials, of course any person with brains should figure it out that not all the accused were witches. A girl with a mind of her own could be falsely accused of witchcraft. No one said the burned women were all actually witches.

Our passive agression? Society

James from Maine, USA on September 24, 2018:

Yeah, because women are never the aggressors... lol. Dat passive-aggressiveness is showing!

Witchcraft is just bullshit meant to trick you into believing you're "empowered". Tell me, if witchcraft is so empowering, why did it never work? In other words, witchcraft didn't seem to stop witches from being executed, did it?

Oh also, the Roman Catholic Church put many (estimated to be in the millions) Christians to death for the crime of heresy and witchcraft. Not heresy against God or the bible mind you, but heresy against the church for belief in the bible. As for witchcraft? Apparently miracles performed outside the power structure of the church, was deemed to be witchcraft. So, take the statistics of violence against "witches" with a grain of salt.

Hannan Zhou on September 19, 2018:

They (men) have never really been able to truly understand, have they? Even now....

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on August 09, 2017:

That is a very keen observation. I am unsure if all areas were the same as far as pregnancy being something that would cause them to spare their lives, but I do know that some places did spare the life of the mother who was pregnant. A pregnancy out of wedlock though, could also trigger accusations as many times it was the sins of the person that caused them to be targeted.

Burning pregnant witches ? on August 08, 2017:

The black and white image near the title The Weaker Sex shows a baby appearing to come from the flames. Having seen this artwork before I wondered if one of the alleged witches was pregnant and being burned caused her to miscarry. A horrible thought, but then films like The Crucible would have you believe that once they learned an alleged witch was pregnant they spared her from the stake, this artwork seems to indicate otherwise.

Megan on June 09, 2017:

Very good article about the sexism during the witch trials. Many connections can be made with "The Crucible".

Bigbig Ginge on May 07, 2017:

All of the information that I have seen today was really good for my GCSE question for my History lesson so thanks for all this good information.

Marj on March 18, 2017:

Michelle I want to include your article in my citation if you don't mind to give me your last name to be able to provide a proper citation in my essay.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on May 22, 2015:


Vic Dillinger on May 07, 2015:

EXCELLENT overview of gender issues re: witch hunting. And good for you for not dumbing it down.

Kukata Kali on December 19, 2013:

Loved this expression!! Awesome Hub. Voted up~

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on April 07, 2013:

This was written for a college audience. I do have other articles for children.

peter on March 14, 2013:

it would have been better if you made it easier for us kids to read :L

mike on December 18, 2012:

can some one please answwer this question for me ... why the number of witchcraft accusation increased in the sixteenth and seventeeth century ? thank you

bottle pop on December 05, 2012:


martellawintek on December 02, 2012:

hi dennis if your still hanging around this is the site

and some info , just give them a call ,say martells said you would get him sorted

A Number of Students on October 25, 2012:

Thank you, helped a lot with our project!

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on April 23, 2012:

I'm now curious about the Secret Commonwealth. I might have to look into and read that.

graceomalley on April 22, 2012:

Great hub, excellent research. One often thinks of the idealized image of the Victorian woman being a heavy burden for a real person to bear, but fitting it into the historical context that this followed a time when women were just generally under a cloud for being inherently evil and weak, the Victorians make more sense. They were attempting to balance the scales really. Western society has lurched about in how to view women i think - they're the root of evil! They control us! No they're weaklings! Wait, they're spotless angels! Unless they've fallen - then they're sub-human!

Personally, I think any human carrys many 'archetypes' - an individual can function as the mother, the seductress, the Angel in the House, the companion - freedom to move between archetypes while staying true to oneself is the mark of a healthy individual. Society, of course, has its own ideas and can't keep up sometimes.

I read recently "The Secret Commonwealth" by Scottish minister Robert Kirk. It was written in the late 17th century, and is about faeries and their ways. Kirk was concerned that faerie "seers" not be confused with witches. He veiwed witches as in leaugue with the devil, but people who interacted with faeries simply had a natural gift. The faeries, kirk believed, were not opposed to God the way Satan was, so there was a magical world that Christians could operate in without compromising their souls. An interesting historical veiwpoint - not a common one. I think most lumped witches, faeries and demons together as all bad.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on April 04, 2011:

Yes, it's amazing how many times I've edited these hubs. :) LOL. :)

Emma from UK on April 04, 2011:

I guess if it is such a common fact to us that research Witchcraft. We forget it is not so widely known. I will be editing mine for years to come for thoroughness Angela, lol. I still loved reading this hub though x

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on April 04, 2011:

Thanks for the great compliment. :)

Mandapandor from Richmond, Ky on April 03, 2011:

Good hub. Thanks!

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on April 01, 2011:

Very true. Did I forget to include those very basic facts in my article. I guess, I should set this one aside for editing for thoroughness, thanks for bringing up these very important facts about the witchhunts.

Emma from UK on March 29, 2011:

A great hub with facts that are not always widely known out side of the Witchcraft community.

Also apart from Women with money not marrying annoying the men of the time. Accusations of witchcraft was a good way of gaining the money and lands to the crown if a woman was killed as a witch.

Witch trials were also abused for petty arguments between villagers. Many people killed after being accused of witchcraft where hardly ever practising witches.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on March 18, 2011:

Thanks. :)

Silver Fish from Edinburgh Scotland on March 18, 2011:

Great hub.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on September 16, 2010:

Your welcome, I really found it interesting, and I love doing research!

4elements on September 16, 2010:

I think your research skills are off the charts. Good research leads to more understanding. Thank you for thew time you put into this hub. Blessed be!

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on July 09, 2010:

Actually, it was the strict religious viewpoints at the time. Puritan and Catholic religions during this time period were probably the strictest. Women were not allowed to own anything, except in some cases during widowhood, but even then, it was looked down upon. I believe the witch hunts, actually brought some of the prejudices of women to light although it would be another three hundred years before women really began making strides in that area.

starvagrant from Missouri on July 09, 2010:

Great read. Don't get too many hubs that cite their sources which is refreshing. I'm curious as to why women had such restricted roles during these times. What really changed viewpoints to Victorian ideas, which stopped the hunts? Perhaps I should explore your sources.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on March 29, 2010:

Thanks... I'm such a good when it comes to research. I love doing it! I read and read and read. I would rather read a nonfiction book than a fiction almost any day... Although I am a huge fan of books for 9-12 year olds! I guess it shows my maturity level. :)

Gloria Siess from Wrightwood, California on March 29, 2010:

Good solid, researched HUB!

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on March 29, 2010:

Thank you!

Michael Shane from Gadsden, Alabama on March 28, 2010:

Great hub!