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Witches, aging, and menopause
The threads that connects history, patriarchy, and how we view age today.
We were recently in Salem, Massachusetts on a day of heavy pouring rain. I grabbed an umbrella from our hotel and walked to an unassuming memorial comprised of 20 stone slab benches anchored along the sides of a low granite wall. They were dedicated to each of the 20 victims who were persecuted during the witch trials of 1692. The memorial, selected from a public competition with the winning entry designed by Maggie Smith and James Cutler, was erected in 1992 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Salem witch trials.
Simplistic in design and guarded by locust trees lining a rectangular patch of grass, it can be easily missed if you happened to be walking by unknowingly. But the power of this quiet memorial, which happens to be adjacent to a colonial graveyard where some of the accusers are buried, can be felt in the final pleas of the accused inscribed on stones at the entryway.
“Oh Lord—help me.”
“I am innocent!”
These words are haunting.
I stood in a puddle and read the names, dates, and the manner in which each victim was killed. Witches are so commonplace in folklore that we tend to forget the very real human suffering that was dealt to those who were tortured and executed during the witch hysteria. I also couldn’t help but think about the fact that most of the so-called ‘witches’ who were murdered were women over fifty.
As I watched small tour groups shuffle in and out of the memorial that morning, I had the sharp realization that I had never made the obvious connections between menopause, aging, and witches before. Standing in front of these slabs engraved with the names of the victims—real women—was sobering and made me think more deeply why so many of those who were accused of witchcraft were of menopause age.
Women were easy targets and scapegoats in Puritan America
Older women were feared for their wisdom and experience, but also deemed useless by society when they could no longer bear any children. Their purpose in life was done, and if they were widowed, single, or childless, they were considered a burden on society. Older women were also clouded in suspicion because they were knowledgeable about childbirth and other mysterious matters in the healing arts that often involved plants and medicinal herbs. During the witch trials of the 14th to 17th century, tens of thousands of executions took place across Western Europe with the vast majority of them being women.
This is such a mind-numbing number. It should also be noted that the average life span of human life was historically much shorter, and therefore it’s possible that many women never reached menopause before death. Did this contribute to the false accusations of those who managed to live beyond the average lifespan, becoming scapegoats during a time of hardship, fear, and religious upheaval? Were women who exhibited “crazed” hormonal mood swings and physical signs of aging easy targets for all the ills of society? There is so much overlap between what naturally occurs with our bodies as we age and the stereotypical image that we have of witches—the gray wiry hair, a face full of wrinkles, and a hunched back. In fairy tales, media, and folk lore, there are good witches too, but they are mostly depicted as youthful or radiating light and vitality (think Glinda and Samantha). So why are all the evil witches shriveled and old?
Older women were, and frankly still are, feared by the patriarchy and seen as a threat if they dared to challenge existing power structures and subvert social norms. The witch trials were about the persecution of the weak and the powerless, rooted in misogyny and oppressive structures. If women were outspoken and possessed too much power, they were seen as having made deals with the devil. If they were impoverished and weak, they were considered burdens and social outcasts. Both were easy targets.
Our view of the female body is deeply coded from history
Centuries later, women are still called witches in a disparaging way. “She is a Wicked Witch,” cries Trump when he recently referenced Nancy Pelosi. Hillary Clinton was often depicted as a witch during the 2016 US presidential elections too, and the same can be said of other female politicians around the world. How many times have we heard the trope that women wouldn’t make great leaders because we are overly emotional and weak? This harks back to the days when hysteria was an actual medical term diagnosed to women.
There’s a reason why middle-aged women feel invisible and that’s because we have a history that goes back centuries of being erased after our childbearing years end. Standing in the rain at the memorial that day, I make the connection between the oppression of women in the past and my own reactions when I feel like I’m not being seen or heard. I acknowledge that at times I’m probably being too sensitive or reactive, but then I stand firm. There is a thread here, and one that goes back centuries.
If menopause is the third phase of life, we can reframe the narrative. Under-representation in media and workplace aside, perhaps we feel invisible because menopause is still an under-discussed topic. Historically in medicine, women’s bodies were largely ignored in anatomical lessons and the field of medicine was dominated by men. I can recall my own embarrassment and shame when I was a child, and more recently my children’s similar experiences, when our periods began. This stigma is so deeply coded and our bodies still remain politicized.
As the goal posts of what is considered ‘middle-aged’ and ‘old’ keep shifting forward in age—at least in mindset—we get to choose how we want to age. We can choose to give zero shits about chasing after youth, being judged, or staying relevant. Maybe we’ve had enough! Or we can choose to make noise and be heard. Both are valid; we get to decide.