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As Alex highlights in his blog post regarding Mary Beth Norton’s article, “Witchcraft in the Anglo-American Colonies,” the knowledge that we have on the topic is limited to stories transferred by word of mouth, as newspapers were not yet available. Therefore, Norton identifies many differing viewpoints on the origins of witchcraft accusations in the late 1600s. These theories range from poor economic conditions to Norton’s own idea that the Salem witch phenomenon was attributed to an Indian war that occurred during the same time period.
Given the stereotype that has evolved over the years to portray witches as being female, the theory that I found most interesting was that explained by Elizabeth Reis in her Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. Norton states that Reis’s work revolves around the question of why so many more women were accused of being witches than their male counterparts. Ultimately, she posits that the “gendered nature of Puritan religious experience” accounted for this situation, meaning that sexism and gender inequality were structurally ingrained in the Puritans’ daily lives.
To further her claim that gender bias was a leading factor in many of the Salem witch trials, Norton cites an argument made by Carol Karlsen in her book, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. Norton notes that the witches described by Karlsen, “Seem to be early protofeminists or at least women who did not act in conventionally feminine ways.” By identifying a large group of people accused of being witches as women who defied their traditional roles, Karlsen asserts that sexism was apart of the Puritan colonies. While there were most likely more than one cause for the Salem witch trials, Norton’s summarization of two arguments pointing to the Puritans’ gender prejudice shows that their views regarding the role of women likely played a central role in explaining why more women were accused of being witches than men. Furthermore, the Puritan sexism that created a link between women and accused witches helps to explain the historical causes for today’s conventional image of the female witch.