Gloria Steinem

Scholars, Witches And Other Freedom Fighters - March 1993

Gloria Steinem
March 01, 1993— Salem, Massachusetts
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Delivered at Salem State College as part of the commemoration of the 300th anniversary of the Salem witch trials.

Thanks for your generosity of spirit in coming out on a very cold and snowy night and taking a chance on a stranger.

We have something very precious together and that is an hour or so in this room. So here's my plan: if all goes well each of us, me included, will leave here with one new fact, one new idea, one new feeling of support, one new subversive organizing tactic. In order to make that happen, I need your help in overcoming this old fashioned structure of you looking at each others' backs and me looking at you. This is a hierarchical structure. Hierarchy is based on patriarchy, patriarchy doesn't work anywhere anymore. So I hope that during what is usually called the question and answer period you will feel quite okay to help us overthrow or humanize this particular hierarchical structure by not just asking questions, but giving us answers--we could all use some--by making organizing announcements of any upcoming trouble-making meetings you think this group should know about, by standing up and saying where the bodies are buried locally. If you'd rather not say it yourself, pass me a note, I'm leaving very early in the morning, I'll read anything. And generally turning this into what every meeting of this size, of good heart and good spirit ought to be, which is an organizing meeting.

The best role of outside agitators or whatever it is I am, is to be an excuse to get you all in one room and discover you didn't need an outsider in the first place. You have all the knowledge and smarts and anger and good ideas for making the world a better place that you need right here. That is especially true on this campus where I know there has been so much positive activity and change in the recent past, where you now have taken a leap toward a critical mass of diversity in your student body and on your faculty.

I know that the last three years of Nancy Harrington's presidency have really made a great difference here. She is much loved--I have discovered that since my arrival. You have women's studies, African American studies, at least the beginnings of all those that might better be called remedial studies, so eventually we will study the world as it really is. We can talk about your working on mainstreaming so that world literature actually becomes world literature. Wouldn't that be exciting. And I know too that this is a campus made more exciting by a lot of non-traditional, as they say, age students and that has a special importance for bringing vitality to the women's part of this campus, because women happen to be the only group that grows more radical with age.

It is true, you know, that newspaper reporters and sociologists are always kind of going to high school and campuses and traditional age young women looking for the red hot center of activism and there are, of course, many more activist young women than ever before, but nonetheless it is also true that women are more conservative when we're young and get steadily more activist as we grow older, which makes sense when you think about it because an 18 or 20 year old woman has more power--in the sense that women have power in a patriarchy, which means as sex objects, as child bearers, as energetic workers, and so on--she probably has more social power at 18 or 20 than she will when she is 50. Whereas a young man of 18 or 20 probably has less power than he will when he is 50, which is why men grow more conservative with age, except the men in this room, whom I'm sure are an exception to everything.

So, I really am looking forward to our discussion together and as you can tell from the title I had given to my speech, "Scholars, Witches and Other Freedom Fighters," even though I'm sure if there is a scholar present they would be happy to tell us that the hangings didn't take place in Salem, they took place in Danvers, but none the less, it's what made all of you famous and so, I couldn't resist reflecting on the reasons that both are freedom fighters even though scholars are serene, non-activist, honorable, and respectable and witches are emotional, activist and all-together dishonorable. In other words, the first are masculine in their imagery and the second are feminine in their imagery. But both have a role to play as revolutionaries and freedom fighters for us all.

Think about scholars for a moment. When I went to college, I was taught that America was discovered when the first Europeans set foot on it, that Greece was the cradle of democracy, that Europe was the center of civilization, that other areas of the world were spoken of with appellations like "far" and "near" and "middle east," until someone said to me when I was living in India, "far and near from what?" From England of course. I said okay, I see what you mean. South Asia makes a lot more sense. And generally that the female half of the world, whatever our race or ethnicity or sexuality or class, was treated with great invisibility. I'm afraid that continues to be the rule in spite of brave incursions of remedial studies as we see on this campus and others. And it is for that reason that studies show, for instance, women's self-esteem goes down with every additional year of higher education. It makes sense when you think about it, no matter how good the grades we get, we are studying our own invisibility or denigration much of the time. And we are seeing fewer and fewer women honored in authority in our classrooms or in our administrations and of course, the same is very much true racially. That was true in my day and is still far too true now.

So we need scholars that are revolutionaries, who dare to think what we might study if we looked at the world as if everyone mattered. If we studied every continent in the reality of their existence instead of the political fact of their power in our view of the world. In fact, by not doing that we are missing a very great deal.

Think about what we did not learn about the Native American cultures with a sophisticated nuanced interest. And we are only just discovering how useful to us Native American cultures [are] that were already in this country before it was "discovered." And think about the true source of much of our democratic tradition in this country. I doubt very much that the European immigrants knew a great deal about Ancient Greece. And in any case in Ancient Greece only about 5 people voted. It was a very limited privilege. In fact, the source of our knowledge of democracy really came from the Native American cultures that were already here. We learned the structure of our government in large part from the Iroquois confederacy. Those wise people advised us and were present in Philadelphia explaining that it was, of course, possible to allow a high degree of autonomy as they did to various nations, the Cherokees and others and still cede certain overall umbrella powers in a confederacy. Benjamin Franklin admitted this as a major source of our democracy in this country, but with condescension: well, if those savages can do it, so can we.

Well I don't know about you, but I was much more likely to believe that everything was owed to ancient Greece and very little was owed to the Native American cultures of this country, because I suppose if we had admitted that, we would have also had to admit the genocide that was performed on those cultures and the fact that 90 percent of the individuals were wiped out in just a couple of centuries after the "discovery" of this country or that the teaching of the religion and culture and languages of those who remained was forbidden, was actually illegal well into the 1960s. We have penalized ourselves, in fact, by not having scholars who were freedom fighters and not enough scholars who were willing to go back and look at the real history and uncover the richness of cultures, who in many cases understood a balance between humans and nature, understood a balance between the male and the female, and have--as we are only now discovering--many secrets and much wisdom that we have looked outward for and have not known enough to look in our own back yard, to look inward, and to look at this country and see what we have missed.

Sometimes I think that the history of a country is much like the history of a person. We're just beginning to discover that if we had certain patterns put upon us in our childhood--if we were treated with neglect or with violence or were not appreciated for our unique selves, but forced to create a false self to get love and approval--that we continue these patterns in adult life. Even if they are painful, even if they do not serve us well anymore, nonetheless they feel like home--and that has a great power. It is only when we go back and look at the origins of the bruises, which events in current life may be hitting, that we understand the events in current life are not the total cause of what we are experiencing. And if we connect them to their original source, those bruises begin to heal and the patterns begin to change. We begin to make our own decisions rather than continue those decisions that were made for us in childhood.

I wonder if the history of a nation isn't something like that history as well. I wonder if we don't need to go back and look at the childhood of this nation, of those years just after it was founded and after Europeans arrive, to admit what happened to Native American cultures, to really look deeply at what slavery did to all of us and the callouses that it grew upon our souls. If we are to stop repeating the violence that comes with denial.

You can see it in our own leaders. For instance, think about the difference between Reagan and Clinton. Both were the children of alcoholic fathers who were quite violent to them, both had uncontrollable households to which they returned with great fear and trepidation, not knowing what they would find there. Reagan handled it in the way many of us in the room were encouraged to handle it, which was to feel ashamed of what was happening in the house and therefore, to deny that it was happening at all--No, everything is fine, there's no elephant in the living room, there's no shame, everything is fine. And without the chance to go back and look at those childhood patterns, he became the king of denial and he took the whole country into denial--No, there's no deficit, no there's no homeless, no, there's no racism. And you can see the pattern of his leadership as the pattern of his childhood. Not, mind you, that I am preaching childhood determinism, as if whatever happened to us in our childhood determined the rest of our lives--absolutely not. Maybe quite the reverse. If we can go back and look at it and decide if we want to choose it or not, or heal the wounds, then we become even more compassionate toward other people. But in Reagan you could still see the rage of a young man, a boy, facing an all-powerful violent father, even in his attitude toward communists, toward the "evil empire," toward the Soviets. He demonized the enemy. They weren't just other human beings, they were all-powerful adults in the face of a much less powerful small boy.

Clinton, on the other hand, with a similar childhood, seems to have been able to go back and look at what happened, to understand the suffering of his mother, of his brother, and of himself. To be honest about it, talk about it. There are some people who say that Clinton and Gore are the first two post-therapy leaders. I'm not sure I would put it that way, because therapy is not always so wonderful, either--and it can be quite Freudian and full of denial in and of itself, but none the less it does seem that they have both been able to go back and look clear-eyed and open-hearted at what happened in their childhoods--forgive, understand, and thus be able to actually listen to other people, to look at reality, to say this is what is really going on.

How rare it is and how much we have suffered for not having leaders listen. It doesn't mean that you and I don't have to work. It doesn't mean that we can ever say "can this leader do it for us." No. We can only do it for ourselves. What we need is someone who listens. And at least we do seem to have that. If we look at what we have been learning, at the degree of denial and the lack of scholars who are really freedom fighters, even the things we have been studying, we have been studying incompletely.

I studied Virginia Woolf, too, when I was in college. I never learned she was the survivor of incredible sexual abuse in her household, and once you know that you understand so much about her and you understand her suicide, and her fears. And that has only come out in the past few years, as it has begun to come out about individuals, as women especially have been able to stand up and say what happened to us, not be disbelieved because it was something we imagined (and wanted, mind you), but confirm each other's experience, and of course the many boys to whom it happened too, but we were learning only part of the truth.

Consider something as recent as the space program. I think many of us probably, understandably think that Sally Ride was the first female astronaut. Right? Wrong. In fact, there were 12 women astronauts in the very first class along with John Glenn. They passed all the tests, and did very well and would have been accepted, except they were washed out simply because they were women. There was even a Senate hearing on this question. So it was not a secret, but it isn't in our history books and it isn't in "The Right Stuff." I suppose if Tom Wolfe would have put that in, it would have been the wrong stuff--if women could do it, too. The sad thing is that those women are still trying to be the explorers and pioneers they were meant to be. I tried to find some of them to take them to Sally Ride's launch, because I thought I would force the press and the media to understand that there had always been women qualified to do this. I did find one woman named Jane Heart, who had continued to be a pioneer and had gone around the world in a row boat with another woman. I couldn't find another member of this original group of 12, and I discovered that she was out of the country, because for the last 20 or 30 years she has been collecting money, buying medical supplies, and flying them in a single engine plane up the Amazon River to distribute them among tribes in Brazil. We don't know this.

On one evening I watched "The Right Stuff" on TV and "Amadeus. Amadeus," I suddenly realized was completely silent on the fact that Mozart had a sister named Nannerl, whom Mozart said was "the talented one." They traveled together. The degree to which we have been looking at the world with one eye open and not even all the way open, we have only been seeing particular groups of people, and their history is really staggering. Even the scope of what we study is political. For instance, what we call "pre-history" and dismiss as "pre-history," is more than 95 percent of human history. We know now--since carbon dating and all of these methods--allow us to understand how long human beings have actually been on this earth. The finds in Africa have also helped us to understand that. So we are actually dismissing as pre-history 95 percent of human history, about which we actually know quite a great deal. It wasn't patriarchal, it didn't have the racial divisions, it wasn't nationalistic. We are studying what we politically have been encouraged to learn so that we will replicate it.

How did we get into this jam in the first place? We always ask people this question. Women, people of color, any less powerful group we are often confronted with some version of--if you're so smart, why aren't you rich--if you're equal how come you're not equal. Why aren't you in the history books? It must be your fault somehow anyway. Of course, nobody knows the whole answer, but it does seem that this current stage of patriarchy, hierarchy, nationalism and so on, began with the discovery of paternity. Until that time, people thought that women bore children when we were ripe, like trees, like plants and so on. The connection between conception and birth was not fully understood and indeed there are some societies in the world in which it is still not fully understood.

But gradually, with the discovering of paternity, there seems to have come over a millennia the desire to establish ownership of children by particular men and thus to restrict the freedom of women long enough to make sure who the father of the child is. Marriage de-mystified. Right. Restricting the freedom of women long enough to determine paternity. With the new ideas of ownership of children, of ownership of women, came the idea of ownership of territory, of warring for other territory, bringing captured peoples in who were often marked by race or ethnicity as different, to use as slaves and so on. There came to be gradually these kinds of structures that we now consider normal, but they did not always exist, and indeed if we consider the history of spirituality, of religion, it tells us the same thing, because for most of human history god was present in everything, in animals, in plants, in men, in women, in all races. The word pagan just means "of nature." It's supposed to be a terrible thing, of course, but that's all it means.

Actually, the overturning of the pre-existing, pre-historic millennia of various kinds of pagan beliefs was done very, very cruelly. It is from this period of 500 years of Inquisition, of the 13th-15th century in Europe, when heresy was the crime and then grew into full-blown witch hunts in the 16th-18th century in an effort to overturn the pre-existing pagan religions, very cruelly getting rid of, literally killing between 1 million and 9 million, nobody's quite sure, witches. The conservative and probable estimate is 6 million. These were mostly women who were the leaders of the pagan religions. 80 percent of the people burned at the stake, who were tortured, who were killed were women, but there were men as well. The town records in Germany and France reveal whole towns that were left with no females at all of any age, young or old. Travelers reported a countryside absolutely littered with stakes and funeral pyres. The old pagan, everyone matters, all of nature matters, kinds of world views and spiritual views were overturned over the centuries with great, great cruelty and the male gods that had been imposed by the Greeks and the Romans and their imperial systems gradually became Christianity, which, though certainly revolutionary in its origins, became the religion of the elite and feudal lords and later kings who insisted on Latin being the official court as well as the church language.

I realize that is a breath-taking overview of many thousands of years of history, so let's just take one example: Joan of Arc. I'm very interested in the revisionist both-eyes-open theory of Joan of Arc. She was legendarily a member of a coven, a part of the old religions, the pagan religion of the common people and it seems that the Dauphin perhaps, an alternate explanation, who had been conducting wars and whose court had been conducting wars for a very long time and decimated the French population was having a lot of trouble getting the peasants to join these armies anymore, understandably. So, perhaps he needed a leader of the old religion still adhered to by the peasants in order to lead the armies so the ordinary people would join up again, have faith again. Joan of Arc seems to have been used in that way. In this interpretation, she becomes not so much a heroine, as a kind of Gunga Din, who went over to the other side, with all good will perhaps, and led her people into the armies of their oppressors, the army of the upper class. She was loyal enough to the old ways to make sure that she herself never killed. As she said, "when we went forward against the enemy, I held my banner aloft to avoid killing anyone, I have killed no one." But nonetheless, once the wars were won, she had too much power and so she had to be burned as a witch.

I think it's endlessly, endlessly interesting to look at history whole instead of half. And thanks to your 300th anniversary here in Salem, I know that you have spent the last year looking at this and being very careful about commemorating your own pale but still tragic version of the witch burnings in Europe. But I think if we look at the events of our own childhoods, of our history, of the world in which we will live now whole, we can learn a lot of lessons about our current life and our current dilemmas. There is a reason why justice for all women, feminist movements, etc...make common cause with justice for gay men and lesbian women. Most obviously because all women can be stopped from bonding and rebelling by the word lesbian as long as that word is a bad word. So we all have common cause in making it honorable, because we will all be stopped by it, all non-conforming women will be stopped by it until it becomes as honorable a word as any other. In fact, if we look at the witch burnings, we find that homosexual men were the object of those persecutions, just as strong and independent women were, who were healers, the wise women, the witches and so on. So much so, that homosexual men were bound together at the foot of the pyres on which witches were burned. The thesis was that only the burning bodies of homosexual men could make a fire hot enough to burn a witch. And that's where the name faggots comes from, that's our heritage from those days.

But it makes sense in our current life to understand why our cause is common. If the point of patriarchy is to restrict women as the most basic means of production and reproduction and direct all sex into having children inside patriarchal marriage, so they are properly owned, then any form of sexual expression that can't end in conception is the adversary--and it's still the adversary. It's exactly the same now, if you look at the Moral Majority who actually are probably the people our European ancestors came here to escape. You will find that this explains what otherwise might seem illogical. Why is it that they are both against contraception and lesbians? Why is it that they actually take formal resolutions in their conferences against masturbation? Incidentally, masturbation was proof of witchery, as far as the church persecutors of women in Europe was concerned. Any form of sexual expression that doesn't take place inside patriarchal marriage and isn't directed toward conception is the enemy--and it is the enemy. The adversaries of love between two men and two women and the adversaries of equality for women are still the same people.

And if we look at history whole we can learn a lot. We can think of Pat Robertson. It may find that we were killing witches because they were healers, because they taught women contraception, because they could perform abortions, because they gave women control of their own bodies. In other words, they were doing a very radical thing in fact, which is seizing control or maintaining control of the means of reproduction. Even sounds radical when you say it that way, right? It may seem a long time ago that they were accused of eating babies and conversing with the devil and all this kind of stuff, but Pat Robertson can tell us today that all feminists really want is to leave their husbands, kill babies and become lesbians.

If we look at the "Malleus Maleficarum," which was the handbook of witch killing--what to do about uppity women who insisted on being autonomous, independent and practiced medicine and healing--which was incidentally an instruction in killing and witch hunting written by two Dominican monks in 1486, we find that they said "among women, mid-wives--who often perform abortions--surpass others in wickedness. All witchery comes from carnal lust in women which is insatiable." I bet we could put that in the mouth of the head of the Mormon Church or the Ayatollah and it would sound quite the same. We could look in our own bible where it says in Samuel 15:23, "Rebellion is as the sin of Witchcraft." We can look at Martin Luther--we shouldn't land only on the Catholics--who was the founder of Protestantism, "If woman grows weary and at last dies from child bearing, it matters not, let her die from bearing, she is there to do it." If we wonder why men who now also assert their whole selves and dare to claim the supposedly female parts of their nature--if you're going to have a male dominated society, you have to teach men to suppress the gentle, nurturing, empathetic, flexible parts of their nature, by saying that it is feminine, which of course is a libel on men. Men have all these qualities, too. Men who assert this wholeness are punished now, much in the same way as warlocks were punished in earlier centuries. And if we allow religions, which are often politics made sacred--you know: politics in the sky, god looks like the ruling class--to convince us to live a deferred life, to live for life after death--it's really quite amazing that they got us to do that--then that is not at all different from the philosophy of the burning times of the witch burning days, when this world was judged to be a punishment and one was to live only for life after death.

If we dare to live in the present, to live to the fullest, then we may be punished in somewhat the same way. But we can learn from scholars who look at the world whole. We can learn from understanding that witches were indeed healers and freedom fighters and not people to be denigrated on Halloween or any other time. Perhaps we should devote our next Halloween to having a celebration of witches as wise women. This means a very deep change, because it means changing the whole paradigm of masculine and feminine with which children grow up and which is the root of the idea of subject/object, winner/loser, and the whole model on which race and class and all other hierarchies are built. In the name of both scholars and witches I thought I'd read from a poem called "Network of the Imaginary Mother," which Robin Morgan, a wonderful poet and now editor of Ms. Magazine, a wonderful writer, wrote because I think we need to hear the names of the women and hear what happened to them, just as we need to understand what happened in our own childhoods and look at it with open eyes and just as we need to understand what happened in the childhood of our own country before we can stop repeating those patterns.

Repeat the syllables

before the lesson perforates the uterus:

Anna Rausch, burned 1628, twelve years old.

Sybille Lutz, burned 1628, eleven years old.

Emerzianne Pichler, tortured and burned together with her two young children, 1679.

Agnes Wobster, drowned while her small son was forced to watch her trial by water, 1567.

Annabelle Stuart, burned alive, 1678,
fourteen years old.

Veronica Zerritsch, compelled to dance
in the warm ashes of her executed mother,
then burned alive herself, 1754,
thirteen years old.

Frau Dumler, boiled to death in hot oil
while pregnant, 1630.

What have they done?

And every day when we open the newspapers and we see in Montreal the massacre of women killed because they were feminists, when we see the mass murderers who say that they picked out women who seemed too smart, too rebellious. When we see the statements of the very clear patriarchal and racist leaders who are still among us, we can learn a lot from looking at the past and from looking with new eyes as scholars, as witches. With a sadness and a tragedy, I have really come to believe that, as I wrote in "Revolution from Within," "if our biggest dreams for ourselves, for what our world could be like, if those dreams weren't already real inside us, we couldn't even dream them."

Let me leave you with more practical lines, by Marge Piercy:

Alone, you can fight,
you can refuse, you can
take what revenge you can
but they roll over you

But two people fighting
back to back can cut through
a mob, a snake-dancing file
can break a cordon, an army
can meet an army

Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support, conviction
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fund raising party.
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.

It goes on one at a time,
It starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.

Copyright 1987 by Gloria Steinem. All rights reserved.

Speech from