The leaves in Central Park have taken on a festive orange hue, and there’s a nip in the air—all sure signs that the Halloween season has arrived at the New-York Historical Society. One of the iconic staples of Halloween lore is the Witch. So, there’s no better time to revisit the integral role witches have played in women’s history, particularly as it relates to the history of birth control and abortifacients. While women who utilized their knowledge of the natural world to influence and control the body and the mind have existed in every human society throughout history, it was only after men sought to claim expertise in the medical field that these “wise women” lay healers were branded as a malevolent and destructive “witches.”
In 1972, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, two veterans of the women’s health movement of the 1970s, published the classic feminist text Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers as an explicitly political take-down of the male-dominated medical profession. It’s a book that still holds resonance almost 50 years later. To argue that “medicine is part of our heritage as women, our history, our birthright,” they unearthed a centuries-old tradition of “wise women” in the Western world. These “wise women” were lay healers within their communities. Lacking formal medical training, they learned from their mothers, sisters, and female neighbors the medicinal properties of herbs. Relying upon trial-and-error experimentation, they learned how to apply freely growing plants such as belladonna, ergot, pennyroyal, tansy, rue, and cotton-root to treat diseases, ease the pain of labor, and control women’s fertility. As Ehrenreich and English said of the “witch-healer’s methods,” “her magic was the science of her time.” Through their “magic,” “wise women” served their communities as midwives, nurses, pharmacists, and abortionists. Their essential knowledge and skills granted them stature at a time when women held very little formal power.
According to Ehrenreich and English, the helpful “wise woman” became the evil “witch” in the eyes of male authorities beginning in the 15th century. These men included clerics in the Catholic Church and university-trained physicians who wished to elevate their expertise and marginalize lower-class women in the healing arts. Between the 14th and 17th centuries, they drove the “Witchcraze” in Western Europe, in which women who stepped outside social boundaries and claimed authority were publicly tried and murdered as “witches.” Witchcraze reached the Americas during the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Quoting from the Malleus Maleficarum, the authoritative witch-hunting manual produced by Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger in 1487, Ehrenreich and English demonstrated that the criteria for witches included the reproductive healthcare performed by “wise women”:
“Now there are, as it is said in the Papal Bull, seven methods by which they infect with witchcraft the venereal act and the conception of the womb: First, by inclining the minds of men to inordinate passion; second, by obstructing their generative force; third, by removing the members accommodated to that act; fourth, by changing men into beasts by their magic act; fifth, by destroying the generative force in women; sixth, by procuring abortion; seventh, by offering children to the devils, besides other animals and fruits of the earth with which they work much charm…”
Male church and medical authorities framed the contraceptive and abortifacient “magic” offered by the “wise woman” as destructive rather than beneficial, an affront to God derived from evil origins. Once they were smeared as “witches,” healing laywomen were forced into the bottom of the emerging hierarchy of professionalized medicine. Barred from studying at university to become licensed doctors, they were confined to midwifery and nursing.
Despite the discrediting of “wise women” as “witches,” women continued to seek the herbal remedies they provided. Between the November 2018 and May 2019, a small installation on the fourth floor of New-York Historical displayed advertisements for various “female remedies” available for purchase by American women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In New York, abortion had been illegal since 1845, and in 1873, the Comstock Laws banned the public distribution of information about birth control. Faced with these obstacles, many New York women turned to powders and pills that claimed to restore menstruation.
While many of these products were dangerous and ineffective, several incorporated the same herbs that the “witch healer” traditionally offered. For example, Chicester’s English sold pills that claimed to contain pennyroyal, an herb used by the “wise woman” of old to stimulate uterine contractions and trigger a miscarriage. However, these pills were no longer produced by neighbor women knowledgeable about the medical properties of herbs, but by distant, male-run, and often unscrupulous companies looking to turn a profit.
The first oral contraceptive birth control pill Enovid arrived on the market in 1960, and the decriminalization of abortion after Roe v Wade in 1973 largely eliminated the need for these “female remedies.” Despite this, many women today still struggle to access affordable abortion and birth control, leading to a resurgence of attempts to self-abort using herbal methods, as well as a growing interest in this important moment of women’s history.
Witchcraft persists in American popular culture, but its roots in laywomen healers attending to women’s reproductive health have been all but forgotten. If you come across a witch this Halloween, remember that you stand before a skilled healer whose knowledge of herbal remedies laid the foundation for modern medicine.
Written by Caitlin Wiesner, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History, Center for Women’s History, New-York Historical Society