Catherine Brekus explores why witchcraft has been imagined as a woman’s crime.
Misogyny was clearly an issue in Salem, and in all the witchcraft panics. We know that the women accused of witchcraft outnumbered men four to one. The majority of men who were accused of witchcraft were associated with women who also had been accused. So it’s – usually it was guilt by association. There are a few notable cases where that was not true, but this is imagined as a women’s crime. So there’s clearly a deep suspicion of women running through this culture.
One of the things that we have discovered about the women who were accused of witchcraft in New England – and we would like to know more about in other places – but 89% of the women accused of being witches in New England stood to inherit independent property of their own. So they belonged to families in which there were no male heirs. And so … the amount of property does not seem to have been significant, it’s not as if these were wealthy women, and in many cases, in fact, they were poor women. But they stood to inherit something that was going to be their own, in their name, and that was very unusual in early America. The practice there was called coverture. A woman’s legal identity was “covered” by the identity of her husband or her father. So when a women got married, all of her property would become her husband’s property because she legally could not own it herself. So these women were threatening understandings of male inheritance and also, I think, men’s economic power.