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A political history of the term “witch hunt”

men in goat masks point swords at a woman bound to a tree in Radiohead’s Burn the Witch video
A witch from the video from Radiohead’s “Burn the Witch.”

The term “witch hunt” has renewed cultural and political resonance, largely because it’s one of President Trump’s preferred strategies for deflecting criticism and mobilizing his base. Since assuming office, Trump has tweeted some variant of the phrase “WITCH HUNT!” more than 120 times in response to the Mueller investigation and critics including the “Fake News,” congressional Democrats, Hillary Clinton, various intelligence agencies, former President Obama, and “leakers” within the administration itself.

These tweets reflect the modern usage of the term — as a metaphor that delegitimizes an investigation by calling out the partisan biases and ideological motives underlying accusations of wrongdoing.

But the use of the term “witch hunt” is more than just partisan maneuvering. It contains a gender dynamic that’s often overlooked, particularly when a man in a position of power identifies himself as the target of a witch hunt. Trump’s witch hunt cross-references other historical and contemporary witch hunts, where the role of gender and power is more visible and more explicit. Placing his witch hunt in this broader context shows that the witch hunt is still a tool used to shore up gendered notions of authority, power, and legitimacy.

Is witch-hunting woman-hunting?

Historian Christina Larner posed this question in response to estimates that about 80 percent of those accused of witchcraft in the European witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries were women. In other medieval witch hunts, like those taking place in Russia, the proportion of women was higher — between 95 and 100 percent. At the same time, the witch hunters, the clerical and secular authorities presiding over inquisitions and tribunals tasked with identifying and eliminating witchcraft practitioners, were overwhelmingly male.

Why did early witch hunts play out along such clearly demarcated gender lines? Historians attribute much of the focus on gender to the world’s definitive witch-hunting manual the Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches, which established a strong link between womanhood and witchcraft.

In a chapter titled “Why is that Women are chiefly addicted to Evil superstitions?” the book’s Catholic authors draw on stories of Eve’s role in the fall of man to argue that women are the weaker sex and thus more susceptible to demonic influence and more inclined to form a sexual pact with the devil.

The Malleus Maleficarum also set forward detailed legal procedures to follow for the identification and prosecution of witches that relied primarily on religious and political authorities. As a result, most of the key players tasked with witch-hunting were men. Of course, women participated too — they made accusations, testified against other women, and suffered dramatic spectral possessions at public trials (as famously depicted in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible) — but their roles were relatively circumscribed when compared to men. Women were ancillaries to the prosecution side in formal witch hunt proceedings.

In practice, these witch hunts tended to single out particular kinds of women, namely gender-nonconforming women, who threatened a social system characterized by rigid gender roles. As Larner put it: “Witches are conspicuous. The women who went to the stake during the witch hunt went cursing, often for the crime of cursing.”

Overt sexuality, displays of ambition (i.e., “lust” for power) and failure to behave in a circumspectly feminine manner were taken as evidence of witchcraft in women. Because of this focus on weeding out gender-nonconforming women, many historians agree that the witch hunts of the early modern period were a tool for reinforcing male-dominated systems of authority.

McCarthy-era witch hunts

The term “witch hunt” entered the American political lexicon in the 1950s, during the second Red Scare. Anti-communist sentiment ran high after World War II, and a number of political elites, notably Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI), speculated that Americans faced communist “enemies within.” This sparked large-scale efforts to root out communists from the US government, organized labor, higher education, media, and the entertainment industry.

Historians estimate that between 1947 and 1965, 5 million federal employees were subjected to loyalty tests, which resulted in about 2,700 dismissals and 12,000 resignations. Few of those investigated turned out to actually be communists, and McCarthy’s name became synonymous with leveling trumped-up, unsubstantiated accusations of wrongdoing against one’s political opponents in a highly pressurized political climate.

McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts tended to target women. Women were overrepresented among defendants in federal loyalty cases, and agencies that employed a disproportionately large share of women were often singled out for close scrutiny. Historian Landon Storrs notes that evidence presented against female defendants took on a distinctively gendered tone. For example, keeping one’s maiden name, “needlessly” holding a high-paying job while married, and having a “dominant personality” were all grounds for suspicion of communist sympathizing, ostensibly because communists eschewed traditional gender roles.

This focus on women came on the tail of a large shift in the gender composition of the civil service sector that occurred during the New Deal and World War II. By 1947, about 45 percent of federal civil service employees working in Washington, DC, were women, making it the most integrated employment sector of the time.

Some conservatives feared that women would expand agencies and programs in ways that would allow American women more independence and autonomy. In this way, female civil servants represented an economic and social threat to traditional notions of American masculinity tied to breadwinning. Loyalty tests became a mechanism for enforcing norms associated with gender and heterosexual relationships.

Our modern witch hunts

Like the early modern witch hunts and the witch hunts of the McCarthy era, our modern witch hunts are tied up in beliefs about gender, sex, and power. Trump’s presidential campaign was highly gendered; research shows he was successful at activating hostile sexism among members of his base, who responded favorably to his hypermasculine self-presentation.

President Trump’s supporters, including many women, were not deterred by his comments on the Access Hollywood tapes nor by the 22 allegations of sexual assault made against him prior to Election Day. Polling data also demonstrates that Trump’s supporters strongly prefer a masculine national culture — two-thirds feel that American society has grown “too soft and feminine.”

For these reasons, Trump’s victory seemed to many like a national referendum on unapologetic hypermasculinity. Mueller’s investigation, as “the greatest witch hunt in American history,” challenges the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency, and in doing so also challenges the outcome of this referendum on American masculinity.

In historical perspective, Trump inverts the typical gender power dynamic we associate with the witch hunt. Traditionally, targets of the witch hunt didn’t conform to strict norms associated with gender or heterosexuality, whereas Trump strongly adheres to both. Past targets were typically vulnerable and were singled out by people with strong bases of economic or political power. Trump isn’t vulnerable in this way; he’s amassed tremendous personal wealth and sits in the Oval Office. As such, he’s a sharp contrast to the historical targets of witch hunts.

He is also on the wrong side of the mob. If we fall back on our Hollywood tropes of the witch hunt for a moment, we might image townsfolk sharpening their pitchforks and forming a mob to drag the witch to her fate. But we often see Trump presiding over a crowd, and the crowd’s chants have a prosecutorial bent: “Lock her up!”

Many of Trump’s favorite scapegoats are women: Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and Dianne Feinstein. He claims to be the target of a witch hunt while mobilizing a mob against his partisan enemies, many of whom happen to be women. In these moments, the president seems to have more in common with witch hunters than with witches.

This shift in the gender dynamic associated with the witch hunt was also evident among supporters of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh when he faced accusations of sexual assault during his Senate confirmation hearings — such as the email blast from the Republican National Committee that included the phrase “STOP THE WITCH HUNT AGAINST JUDGE KAVANAUGH”; Sen. Lindsay Graham’s exasperated question, “Why don’t we dunk him in the water and see if he floats?”; and headlines like “Journalism Hits New Lows in Kavanaugh Witch Hunt.”

We can see the same pattern in the way the term is used to register opposition to the #MeToo movement. #MeToo is intimately tied in with Trump’s rise to power and has become a mechanism for women to register their disaffection with the president’s misogyny. Critics of the movement in Hollywood and the media have called it a “feminist witch hunt” that should be “left in the middle ages.”

Characterizing accusations of sexual assault as a witch hunt reframes the traditional power dynamic. Men in positions of authority are accused of sexual deviance or misbehavior, rather than women with comparatively less power. Labeling these accusations a witch hunt suggests they amount to an illegitimate power grab by women rather than a reflection of the widespread abuse of women by men in positions of power over them. In this respect, the term is used to support the status quo when it comes to sexual harassment — one in which sexual harassment is common and the men who harass women face few consequences for their misconduct.

What’s at (the) stake?

While the 2016 election was a peculiar inflection point for the witch hunt, in that Trump’s co-option and usage of the terms affects some things about its meaning and broader usage, it remains a gendered narrative. Like many of the conversations we’re having this election cycle about American politics, the witch hunt is about our collective struggles to navigate tensions associated with gender and power.

Unlike in the past, our modern witch hunts are often invoked defensively by men in positions of power and authority. Recent events show that men with political and economic power can often rely on the idea of witch hunts to work for them, not against them. The witch hunt still uses institutional authority to enforce traditional gender norms and power relations.

Erin C. Cassese is an associate professor of political science at the University of Delaware and an expert contributor at Gender Watch 2018. Find her on Twitter @ErinCassese.