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As Federici argues in Caliban: “Class revolt, together with sexual transgression, was a central element in the descriptions of the Sabbat, which was portrayed both as a monstrous sexual orgy and as a subversive political gathering..the devil instructing the witches to rebel against their masters (177).” Womanhood was essentialized as a capricious, demonic, destructive force visited upon society by Eve, and by women, her descendants; and it was incumbent on men to restrain it and channel it towards childbirth, child-rearing, and social reproduction generally.
The figure of the Witch, and the barbarity of the witch-hunts, emerged as a way to police women and their potentially subversive activities, from the refusal to pay rents and taxes, to exercising reproductive control, to simple theft.
The Witches’ Sabbath, figuring prominently in art and literature from the period, held a particular horror.
In England, this took the form of land enclosures, which consolidated small farms and public land (the commons) into property of the rentier, who had sole rights to its produce.
Thus, it was necessary that the vast majority of the population be dependent on a wage for survival; and similarly, it was necessary that a woman be dependent on her husband to perform the unwaged labor of social reproduction within the home.
Through a masterpiece of social engineering, the concerns of “ordinary Americans” (read: white, middle-class, Christian, Americans) were repackaged as a return to Christianity and “family values,” to serve as ideological underpinnings for this prosperous new era.
The attacks against hard-earned reproductive rights, and against women working outside the home or having financial independence generally, espoused by movements such as the Moral Majority, served to create a precarious, easily exploitable workforce.
This was one of the least brutal measures by far, women charged with witchcraft were often imprisoned, tortured, raped, and hung or beheaded or drowned.
Subservience to the patriarchal order went hand in hand with subservience to the new capitalist state, and a transgression against one was tantamount to a transgression against to the other.
Neoliberalism, the New Enclosures This history has a particular significance for today’s political and social climate, where an unprecedented public show of solidarity among women in the form of #Me Too has coincided with a wave of strikes and labor organizing, the likes of which have been since the 1970s.
Led mostly by women in occupations rife with low-wages, exploitation, and sexual harassment–agricultural workers, hospitality workers, teachers, nurses, service workers–these strikes underlined the necessity of joint feminist and anti-capitalist action.