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In Defense of Witches by Mona Chollet

Updated: Apr 20, 2023

2022, St Martin's Press

Original version, 2018: Sorcières: La Puissance Invaincue des Femmes,

Editions La Découverte

Diane gave me this book after my complaints about the hairdresser man, documented here.

I especially enjoyed the section related to women-with-gray-hair rules like "women should keep their gray hair neat and short, or risk looking old or (implied) crazy, or both," as I was told recently by yet another hairdresser (this one female). The author sees these "rules" as a manifestation of the centuries-old stereotype of the witch with crazy unruly hair.

Chollet, a French-Swiss journalist, writer and feminist, researched the witch hunts in Europe between 1486 until the early 1800s, and in the United States, concluding that women were treated (and murdered) as witches to take away their power and concentrate power in the hands of men.

It's interesting to note that also in 1486, The Witch Hammer (Malleus Maleficarum), a manual with instructions for Inquisition torture methods, became the standard medieval text on witchcraft. It was a best-seller for over a century, second only to the Bible, printed only a few years before in 1455, with the invention of the printing press, which Chollet pinpoints as the start of the witch hunts.
Title page of an edition dated 1669

Mainly three types of women were targeted as witches: Independent, childless (especially if by choice), and elderly. Chollet argues that discrimination lingers on today; she is regularly asked to justify her decision to not have children, for example.

Childbearing women have suffered too. In the past, female healers and midwives were numerous and largely in charge of healthcare. But as the initially less experienced male doctors started taking over, these women became primary targets for accusations of witchcraft. Chollet argues that this resulted in a lack of prioritization of women's needs; for example, a male doctor came up with the idea, easiest for him but not for her, that women should give birth lying down on their back, whereas it's actually more natural to be standing or crouching.

I just took another look through my copy of this book and noticed many pencil marks and turned-down pages I haven't addressed; this post doesn't do justice to Chollet's fascinating work, but hopefully it's a start, and you can read it and find out more. Or if not, this summary will have to suffice!

The following films and written works mentioned in the book caught my eye. I haven't seen or read any of them yet.

To Watch:

Aurore, (with Agnès Jaoui) (inspired by the Maison des Babayagas de Montreuil)

L'Art de vieillir, Jean-Luc Raynaud

Sorcières, mes soeurs, Camille Ducellier

An Unmarried Woman, Paul Mazursky

My Brilliant Career, Gillian Armstrong


Une apparition, Sophie Fontanel, fashion journalist (about her decision to stop coloring her hair)

Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici


Hubert sent me this interview with Silvia Federici about witches, women, capitalism, labor demand, and reproductive rights, starting before 1455, with possible links, reflected Hubert, to the increasing restrictions on reproductive rights in the United States. Scientific American has more on modern witch hunts, in an interview with Federici and Alice Cantor but it's only for subscribers and I haven't decided if it's worth it. I'll keep you posted.


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