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Story highlights

Jill Filipovic: Historically, troublesome female power has been inseparable from the concept of a witch

Men like Woody Allen and Harvey Weinstein fear these modern-day "witches," who are on the hunt for justice, writes Filipvoic

Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and Nairobi, Kenya, and the author of the book “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN —  

“You also don’t want it to lead to a witch hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere, where every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself. That’s not right either.” – Filmmaker Woody Allen, on the more than two dozen women who have accused media mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment or assault.

Women, witchcraft, feminism and power have an intimate history in the United States. Feminist types have been accused of witchcraft for centuries: Women who broke with social convention, who thought they could pursue their own sexual desires, who were inconvenient, who made others uncomfortable, who got a little too confident.

Jill Filipovic
Courtesy of Jill Filipovic
Jill Filipovic

Witches were – are – the old hags who no longer give a damn. They are the “crazy” women who keep talking even after no one wants to have sex with them anymore. They are the nasty women who don’t give in to men. It’s no surprise Hillary Clinton is often caricatured as a witch. So is Nancy Pelosi. So is Maxine Waters.

When Woody Allen suggested that the tidal wave of accusations against Harvey Weinstein could “lead to a witch hunt atmosphere,” he had the words right but the metaphor all wrong. Powerful men aren’t usually hunted as witches. Like many of the prominent men in Salem more than 300 years ago, the powerful men of today use their social capital to exploit a given community’s biases and dysfunctions to enrich, empower and please themselves.

Salem, with its mix of religiosity and anxiety about a changing nation, created a cauldron of hysteria and male power-seeking that produced more than 200 witchcraft accusations, sham trials and executions of 19 people. Although both men and women were accused of witchcraft, there were far more accusations made against women. Hollywood, too, with its worship of male power and female pliability, allowed sexually predatory men to thrive largely unencumbered.

This is something Woody Allen, who married his former lover’s adopted daughter, stands accused of molesting his adopted daughter (an accusation he denies) and is still a beloved filmmaker, might know something about. Ditto Roman Polanski, who remains feted by the entertainment industry despite his decision to rape a child, and Bill Cosby, who, accused of a decadeslong habit of allegedly drugging and assaulting women, finally was excised from the Hollywood A-list. Bill Cosby, too, has seen fans claim that he is being victimized by “witch hunts.”

There is indeed something witchy going on here – insofar as the entire concept of a witch is inseparable from troublesome female power, and the reason witches were burned was to keep them in line.

Women know what it is to be hunted. Maybe we aren’t tried for witchcraft anymore (at least not in the United States), but we are raped and stalked in astonishing numbers: According to a 2010 government study, nearly one in five women in the United States will be raped or experience an attempted rape in her lifetime. One in six women will report being stalked. These acts are also brutal assertions of male authority. We know that as we gain power, we are more likely to be feared, hated and condemned than liked or respected – powerful women are witches with a capital B.

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What it seems men like Allen and Weinstein truly fear is that the witches, for so long hanged, drowned and burned at the stake to make some bloviating man swell with arrogance, are no longer on the run – it’s the witches now hunting predators. These men may just be right. And they should be very afraid.

“I wish to express my gratitude to my foresisters whose spirits inspired me to break the barriers of silence and of sound, and to keep on writing. Among these are Matilda Joslyn Gage, Virginia Woolf, and many whose names I do not know, many of whom were probably burned as witches.” - Feminist philosopher and poet Mary Daly, in the dedication to her 1978 treatise on radical feminism.