Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff ****

Every time a woman tries to testifies to sexual harassment or rape or anything, and instead finds herself accused and her character interrogated, in part she can blame some teenage girls from 1692.
"Women also fared poorly after Salem, or at least went back to being invisible, where they remained, historically speaking, until a different scourge encouraged them to raise their voices [in the 20th century]."
Now over 300 years later women still struggle to recover.

The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff offers some historical perspective to the Salem witch trials. Recall the Mayflower landed in 1620. By 1692 colonists had settled the coastal areas from New York to Maine. Aside from the New England climate, they were under regular harassment from the French and the natives. In this rough environment, women achieved some equality. They physically fought abusive husbands and had the right to sue neighbors and relatives to defend their rights to property and inheritances. Yes, they had property rights.

During this period where everyone was at risk and everyone's physical labor was important, a group of teenage girls discovered they they had the power to accuse their enemies, parents, and others of witchcraft. Thus began a year that wrecked havoc in Salem and the surrounding area.

Though the author lists many reasons for the success of these girls, and inevitable the men in power co-opted the witchcraft trials, 1692 might still mark the peak of feminist power for over 300 years.

"Of the nineteen who had been hanged, [Dorothy Good] had testified under oath against all but two. For over eight months whole communities had hung on her every syllable."  
This book and the trials themselves have much to say about American society, but the damage done to  women is too little mentioned and too much present.

The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff offers a detailed and comprehensive history of the Salem witch trials. With footnotes, end notes, bibliography, and index, it presents as complete a picture of Massachusetts in 1692 as possible given that many of the key actors either left no record or purposely destroyed what records they had. For example, there are multiple examples of missing and blank diary pages. A history buff's delight.

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