Catalyst – Research

Season of the witch: why young women are flocking to the ancient craft

“women in the US have been harnessing its power for decades as a ‘spiritual but not religious’ way to express feminist ambitions”

“invoking the fearsome power of a “witch”.

“To reclaim the word witch is to reclaim our right, as women, to be powerful,” wrote Starhawk, in her seminal 1979 book The Spiral Dance. “To be a witch is to identify with 9 million victims of bigotry and hatred and to take responsibility for shaping a world in which prejudice claims no more victims.”

“Today, The Spiral Dance is in its third edition, and has sold over 300,000 copies. It is many people’s first introduction to Wicca, the earth-based spiritual movement that was created in the 1950s and has come to be a recognized religion around the world. It is also one of the most well known and comprehensive texts from a very particular moment in feminist history which until recently was largely unfashionable: the “women’s spirituality” movement, in which women radically rewrote existing religions, or simply made their own to be in line with the goals of women’s liberation.

“What’s more, in the moment that Starhawk and others like her were practicing witchcraft as a religion, non-religious women were also claiming the witch as a symbol of their feminist ambitions. The 1970s socialist-feminist collective Witch – the letters stood for anything the leaders felt like from moment to moment, but Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell was a popular choice – held theatrical protests, starting by “hexing” the New York stock exchange and going on to attend a “bridal fair” where they unleashed white mice into the crowd.

Their protest chants were particularly catchy: “Double, bubble, war and rubble/ When you mess with women, you’ll be in trouble”.”

““I think that part of the power of the word is that it refers to a kind of power that is not legitimized by the authorities,” Starhawk says. “Even though not all witches are women, and a lot of men are witches, it seems to connote women’s power in particular. And that’s very scary in a patriarchal world – the kind of power that’s not just coming from the hierarchical structure, but some kind of inner power. And to use it to serve the ends that women have always stood for, like nurturing and caring for the next generation – that, I think, is a wonderfully dangerous prospect.”

“In each wave of feminism there’s this renewed respect for the women that came before us,” says Beth Maiden, Autostraddle’s tarot columnist who also runs the website “I think we like to identify with the stories of women who were persecuted in the past – wise women, witches, women who practiced that kind of ‘kitchen table’ healing that wasn’t part of the patriarchal progression of medicine.”

This means identifying, as women of the 1960s and 1970s did, with ancient myths and iconography of goddesses, or with the mythological figure of the witch. But it may also mean a renewed respect for those women: the legacy of their spirituality movement seems to have been quietly re-incorporated back into the mainstream of feminism.”

“I think one of the biggest conspiracies of a male-dominated society is the suppression of feminine intuition, in that women have been conditioned to second-guess our own hunches, or second-guess our own abilities, all the time,” she told me. “You know when you can just tell someone is creepy, right off the bat? That’s your intuition speaking.”

Embracing the witchiness – deciding you can know something about your life by looking at tarot cards and listening to your hunches, or trying to affect a situation by focusing your will on it – might be just a process by which women can come to trust themselves.

There’s also the pull of the taboo, of being a woman who does what she’s not supposed to: “It feels incredible to use all the aspects of being a woman which the dominant culture considers to be signs of weakness, like emotional sensitivity or a menstrual cycle, as tools when you are giving a reading or doing a spell,” says Marty Windahl, proprietor of Tarotscopes. “This is really the heart of being a witch for me, turning everything on its head.”