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Part XVII: Punishing Eve—Patriarchy Settles America with a Vengeance

This series focuses on the region from where the roots of Western Judaic and Christian civilization of today are traced: the northeastern, eastern, and southeastern region surrounding the Mediterranean  from Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestine,  Jordan, Iraq, (western) Iran, and Egypt) to Europe and then to the Americas.  

To read the entire Punishing Eve series (posted on Zeitgeist Change), and about the novels written by Janet Wise, go to:




The great poet and novelist, Margaret Atwood once wrote, in explaining the difference between her home country of Canada and the U.S., “Canadians and Americans may look alike,” she observed, “but the contents in their heads are quite different.” The difference is, in her view, the result of originating myths. The founding Puritans had wanted their society to be a theocratic utopia, a city upon a hill, to be a model and a shining example to all nations. The split between the dream and the reality is an old one, and it has not gone away. She writes that Canada suffers from no such split, since it was founded not by idealists but by people who’d been kicked out of other places.[1]

Atwood dedicated her novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” (of which we will discuss more in-depth later) to her ancestor on her maternal side, Mary Webster. Mary was accused and convicted of witchcraft in Hadley, Massachusetts in 1683 “for having provoked a righteous gentleman to become valetudinarious.” (Our ancestors used such great words—valetudinarious: a condition of being sickly or weak and especially one who is constantly and morbidly concerned with his or her health.) The esteemed cleric, Cotton Mather presiding over her conviction, commended it to his flock, that the execution was doing God’s work. Though Mary was hung on a tree and left to die she was found still alive the next day. Earning the name “half-hung Mary” she went on to live another fourteen years, but not in Massachusetts. The Websters packed up their Bibles and moved north to Nova Scotia where they would be free from fanatical and misogynist oppression and hatred.[2]

Atwood, in response to her American friend’s denials and assertions, that  Iranian Ayatollah and Afghan Taliban religious extremism “can’t happen here,” only has to look back to the nightmare fate of her relative “half-hung Mary” as proof that religious fanaticism can resort to brutal totalitarianism. It not only “can happen here,” it has happened. While Atwood’s example is personal – Mary Webster an ancestral relative – the quotes from the Malleus Maleficarum used as a theme throughout the preceding chapters evidence our recent Catholic and Calvinist totalitarian past where incredible fabrications and deceptions ran wild as a strategy of justification for tens of thousands to be brutally tortured and burned or hanged in the name of doing good work for their godly communities and the Church.

The New England Colonies were, at least at their inception, theocratic institutions whose purpose was to create a New Jerusalem. The urge was to create a godly state—a shining beacon on the hill—and this mission included prosecuting witches as God’s enemies. Hanging witches was part of a general assault upon diabolical power—as in those possessed by the Devil.[3]

The Colonialists who came across the ocean to settle in the early 1600’s were Europeans, through and through—their values, habits and opinions were those of their home country—English made up the largest number; a small scattering of French, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, and Spanish made up the rest. The largest numbers were Protestants; the smaller contingent of Catholics all headed to Maryland; and there were only a handful of Jews. They reflected the traditional culture and thinking from which they had sprung. To be sure, there was no entirely representative religious sect, but the Puritans were a disproportionately large number. They left England and the other European countries when the witch-craze was at its peak, therefore the belief in witchcraft and people—mostly women—being in a pact with the Devil came with them.[4]

Although there was witchcraft conviction in the middle and southern colonies, the majority of cases were in New England. Altogether, some 234 New Englanders were indicted or presented for this crime in the seventeenth century, and of these 36 were executed. Taking into account that the population of New England was only about 100,000 persons at the time, the intensity that witch-hunting reached in this locale is to be appreciated—much more intense than in England from where the Puritan Calvinists had immigrated.[5] Again, this would be directly related to the structure of the English court system that was secular-controlled and relied on a unanimous jury vote for a guilty verdict. The courts in the colonies would be ruled by Puritan male community leaders.

The two most familiar and celebrated groups of settlers to New England were the Mayflower Pilgrims who arrived at Plymouth in December 1620 and a much larger contingent that became known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony coming to Boston and the surrounding area in the 1630’s. The migration ceased by 1641 with 21,000 having moved across the Atlantic. This so-called “Great Migration” is not so named because of sheer numbers, which were much less than the number of English citizens who immigrated to Virginia and the Caribbean during this time. The rapid growth of the New England colonies (~700,000 by 1790) was almost entirely due to the high birth rate and lower death rate per year. Indeed, this group of Puritans has gone on to produce more than sixteen million descendants.[6]  While individual reasons for immigration would vary, it is important to note that these 21,000 American ancestors that settled New England were from Protestant communities north of London in central England, and they were of the most fundamental and extremist in their religious beliefs of English society.

These two groups made up mostly of Puritans have long been accorded special pride of place as a source of American character. Some of their cultural DNA lies deep in our national core, whether for good or for ill. Moral or simply moralistic, single-minded or narrow-minded, upright or uptight: such opposite yet complementary descriptors have served to frame a centuries-long process of soul-searching around Puritans. On one point, and perhaps one only, all sides seem to agree: these folks were important—they left their mark—we live with their legacy still.[7]

They were both religious and social reformers—radically so. In both aspects, social and religious, they struck a fundamentally reactive—even backward-looking—pose. The English church, as they knew it, was “corrupt”; their intent and mission was to “purify” it by returning to the habits and principles of the early Christians. English society at large was no less compromised; they would restore their new society by recapturing the “brotherly” spirit of a previous and simpler age.[8] In other words, a very influential segment of America was founded by religious extremist fundamentalists who left their home country so that they could practice being religious extremist fundamentalists. And if this strikes a cord eerily reminiscent of modern-day Christian fundamentalists in America, it should, as looking backward to earlier more (imagined) “pure” times, and the drive to “control” society by implementing God’s law is their same mind-set and mission.

Puritans lived, in short, with a pervasive fear of disorder; so, in an attempt to ensure order, their religion centered precisely on accomplishing that ideal. Puritanism enshrined, above all, the principle of “control,” both inner control of the individual person and outward control of the community of “saints.” Intense and unrelenting discipline would be the appropriate answer to disorder. For having crossed the ocean, Puritan leaders seized this unique opportunity to begin anew—to found communities where the law of God and the law of man would be one and the same. A century later, they would fight hard to incorporate that ideal as law into the Constitution being formulated for an independent nation—they would fail, but only marginally, as that ideology remained embedded in the DNA of many of their progeny. In contrast to disorder, they would establish harmony, peaceableness, the subordination of individual interest to “commonwealth.” Countless New England sermons would bear witness to the preeminence of these values; here, for Puritans, was the true meaning of Christian love. As Massachusetts Bay founder John Winthrop put it in a famous shipboard lecture en route to Massachusetts, “We must be knit together… as one man… and… must delight in each other, make others’ condition our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work.”[9]

The pursuit of these goals involved Puritans in strenuous measures of self-and-collective improvement. Individual striving for holiness was an important element; an attitude of unflinching “watchfulness” toward one’s family and neighbors was another; a community-wide commitment to consensual (not majoritarian) decision making yet another. But being and acting “knit together” proved to be a difficult ideal and one they would never realize. Their newly created homeland, towns, and villages fell into “controversy” and divided into “factions” around matters both large and small. In some respects, Puritanism, itself, was to blame for this; for, in rejecting the established ecclesiastical hierarchy, it had also relinquished many traditional checks on the possibility that individuals might plot their own course in religion and otherwise—which they did. Thus, various forms of sectarianism arose and flourished—some large scale and split entire communities. They were also, of course, challenged by other “outside” Anglicans (members of the official “established church,”) and by a challenge that came from an entirely different quarter altogether—folk magic which they translated into the Devil.[10] This became a frequent topic in ministers’ sermons and writings—ministers such as Cotton Mather.

As in the Old World, the term magic covered a broad spectrum of belief and practice. So-called high magic included alchemy, astrology, numerology, and other disciplines (with a pedigree stretching back to classical Greece and Rome) and as such, was the province of learned men. Folk magic was different and much more controversial: it included common folk using divining to help other common folk in time of need—foretelling the future, finding lost or stolen articles, and of course, healing potions still seen as including magic, and the corresponding beliefs in demonic witchcraft if something went wrong.[11] All such practices of folk magic were greatly feared and thus denounced by the Puritan leaders.

Puritan hegemony lasted at least for its first century. That century can be broken down into three parts; (1) The generation of John Cotton and Richard Mather, 1630-1661 from the founding to the Restoration: years of virtual independence and nearly autonomous development (The period from 1649 onwards was when England, along later with Ireland and Scotland, was ruled as a republic, following the defeat of King Charles I in the Second English Civil War and his execution; the Restoration of the English monarchy began when the EnglishScottish Welsh and Irish monarchies were all restored under Charles II (1660) after the end of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms; (2) The generation of Increase Mather, 1662 to 1689 from the Restoration and the Halfway Covenant to the Glorious Revolution: years of struggle with the British crown; (3) The generation of Cotton Mather, 1689-1728 from the overthrow of Edmund Andros (of which Cotton Mather was a part) and the new charter, mediated by Increase Mather, to the death of Cotton Mather.[12]

There were Puritan/ Massachusetts Bay Colony reforms that had a positive and lasting impact on the social order, one being literacy. Education for the masses was mandated so that each person could read the Bible for themselves. Puritan founders also believed that children as well needed to be able to read and understand the laws of the colony; order being of utmost importance, and children not taught to read would grow barbarous. This was unique from English statute, where it was not mandated that all children be taught to read. John Winthrop declared that the society they formed in New England would “be as a city upon a hill” and the colony leaders would educate all. These men of letters had attended Oxford or Cambridge and communicated with intellectuals all over Europe. In 1639 they would found the school that became Harvard College. Of course any form of education beyond basic reading was for boys only. This cultural and social practice would largely remain in place at most American institutions, including Harvard, until the twentieth century. Radcliff College, Harvard’s coordinate institution for females, was founded in 1879, and not without struggle.

But for children and the women who bore them, the Puritan family structure was a detriment to critical thinking, thus any form of intelligent evolution, not to mention any form of freedom and independence on which we like to associate as American principles. Puritans placed a strong family structure as the bedrock of their societies. To implement and facilitate every individual’s, thus the community’s devotion to God, based on the Biblical portrayal of Adam and Eve, Puritans believed that marriage represented one of the most fundamental human relationships, and that it was rooted in procreation, love, and salvation. And since their model came from Genesis, this meant that the husband was the authoritarian and spiritual head of the household, while women were to demonstrate religious piety and obedience to the male (as her head). Puritan husbands commanded obedience through family direction and prayer; the female relationship to her husband and to God was to be through submissiveness and humility.[13]

With all these elements in place, it was a given that New England was to persecute any recalcitrant women as witches. “In many respects, the profile of the typical New England witch followed long-standing European precedent. She was female, first of all. On both sides of the Atlantic the ratio among the accused was four to one women over men. On both sides too, the majority of males accused as witches were suspect due to their relationship with the accused female witch—husband or son. The reasons for this certainly included the female-inferiority principle that held throughout the early modern English and Europe world where women were seen as inherently “weak,” especially from a moral standpoint, and thus liable to “seduction” by the Devil. Deeper still lay the fundamentally misogynous substrate that appears quite generally in “mother raised children”: a kind of price women are forced to pay for being chief caretakers of the very young and the reference point for the earliest, most primitive, experiences of self and other. Thus did witches serve, worldwide, as a variant of the “bad mother.”[14]

Her profile:

“She was of middle age—40s and 50s.”

She was of English and Puritan stock: New England colonists did not, on the whole, comprise an ethnically or racially diverse population; neither did the population of accused witches. Suspicion was within the Protestant mainstream.”

She was married or widowed. Spinsters in New England were a rarity and were never found in the ranks of accused witches. Virtually all were, or had been, “goodwives.” But goodwife, or not, her life history was likely to show a tangle of troubled family relationships; e.g., chronically at odds with her spouse or children, thus not the Puritan ideal of a well-ordered household.”

She fell significantly below expectation in childbearing: accused witches often had fewer children than the typical Puritan woman; sometimes they had none at all. Thus in the eyes of their peers, they would appear significantly or entirely “barren.” Indeed, connections between childbearing (and rearing) on the one hand, and witchcraft on the other, are everywhere apparent in the record: children made ill or murdered by witchcraft; mothers bewitched while nursing or otherwise caring for infants; witches who suckled “imps” (demons) or “familiars” (in implicit parody of normal maternal function).”

She often professed and practiced a healing function. A quarter to a third of the suspect group did know more about making and administering special remedies, providing expert forms of nursing, or serving regularly as midwives. A few were specifically described as “doctor women” (“Physician” was a term reserved for men). Thus with women, the ability to heal and the ability to harm were imagined to be intimately related.”

She was also more likely than other New England women at large to have been previously prosecuted on criminal charges (separate from witchcraft): crimes often included verbal assault such as “cursing,” “filthy speeches,” “theft” (often this was assaultive speech which was considered a type of theft: slanderous words, for example, could take away a good reputation, and witchcraft itself was considered a theft—a perennial threat to secure possession of property, health, and life itself.”

She was finally, contentious in character and abrasive in personal style (thus apt to be condemned by the common folk as a witch on very slight grounds.) Many, to their peers, were too strong and self-determined, especially for a woman. And witchcraft charges provided the means to draw a firm line of disapproval.”[15]

In explaining to himself and to others why the Puritan New Englanders were more deeply troubled and plagued with witchcraft, than their neighbors, Cotton Mather wrote, “If any are scandalized that New England, a place of as serious piety as any I can hear of under Heaven, should be troubled with so many witches, I think ‘tis no wonder where will the Devil show the most malice but where he is hated, and hateth, most?”[16]

So far, we’ve focused on the New England Puritans as having formed the DNA of patriarchy (androcracy: rule by force or threat of force by men—white men) that is our embedded American heritage. And indeed, their impact reverberated through their sheer reproductive proliferation: their descendants traveled to settle farther west as androcratic manifest destiny slaughtered the Indians for “free land.”

Other groups of Europeans—mostly English—also settled in Virginia and then spread throughout the south. Most all were Protestants, Southern Baptists becoming predominant, (and giving birth to the Southern Baptist fundamentalists of today). Historians credit density (in New England) with being one of the factors that attributed to more witchcraft prosecutions. John Demos writes, “Nowhere else in colonial America was the social web so tightly enveloping. To the south (Virginia) settlement was widely dispersed, in direct antithesis to New England’s typical nucleated-village plan. In the middle colonies (New York, Pennsylvania), clustered communities more generally prevailed but lacked New England’s intensely intramural focus. Only in Cotton Mather’s “poor plantation”—poor, yet proudly self-congratulating—was there such interactive pressure and density. (New England towns were built with houses in a condensed row, with farming and animal husbandry in adjacent fields, whereas southern plantations were spread out, with landowners separated from one another by their massive acreages; hence the necessity of slavery as free labor for their ability to farm all that land and prosper to great wealth—their right by God’s proclamation of “dominion”). “We must be knit together,” John Winthrop had said long before; and so, for the most part, the Puritans were.[17]

This series began with a chapter discussing the strange marriage between the Calvinists (who have inherited Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, the banks, and thus major industry—ruling via God’s capitalistically divined right of dominion) and the Christian fundamentalist Right (who have risen to great wealth by exploiting the poor through fear and guilt, and the promise of their reward in another world). We now know from where those two groups originated, thus our American heritage. Patriarchy, in its most severe and purist form, settled the American colonies. Women were needed for procreation to populate the land. They were to help “hack and tame the land from the wilderness” alongside their husbands, while obeying him as her head—all the while bearing as many children as possible before menopause or death claimed her usefulness. It was their reason for existence and for which, and how, they achieved status and subsistence. Those women who braved crossing the ocean in primitive conditions to a harsh land, and to such a harsh social condition, must have had in their DNA a courage and formidable endurance; for they began almost immediately to strive for freedom from the bondage of reproductive slavery, for the right to education, and a fully actualized life. Women would not gain suffrage nationally until the twentieth century. European women would follow suit. Yet it was American women who led the way: to vote, to birth control, to legalized abortion, to higher education, and to entry into fields of employment formerly reserved for men.

After the gains for women were solidified by court decisions past the mid-point of the twentieth century, the male supremacist ideology of the Puritans and Southern Baptists would organize and begin to push back with a vengeance. But first: the struggle and the gains achieved.













[1] Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, ix, Introduction, (Great Britain: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1986, reprinted by Random House, NY, USA)

[2] Ibid., x.

[3] Brian Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (Longman Group UK, 1987) p 187.

[4] John Demos, The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-hunting in the Western World, (Viking/Penguin Group, New York, 2008) pp 80-81

[5] Ibid., p 186

[6] The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Leaving England: The Social Background of Indentured Servants in the Seventeenth Century.

[7] Demos, Ibid., p 92

[8] Ibid., p 92

[9] Ibid., p 94

[10] Ibid., p 95

[11] Ibid., p 95-96

[12]  John B. Carpenter, New England’s Puritan Century: Three Generations of Continuity in the City Upon a Hill,  (Fides Et Historia 30:1)  p. 41.

[13] Amanda Porterfield,  Female Piety in Puritan New England the Emergence of Religious Humanism, (Oxford University Press, New York, 1992) p 81

[14] Demos, Ibid., p 117-118

[15] Ibid., pp 118-120

[16] Ibid., pp 127-128


[17] Ibid., p 128

Photo from Cliff licensed under Creative Commons

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Janet Wise

Janet Wise