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The Witch as a Modern Feminist Icon

Kristen Sollee
Kristen Sollee, author of “Witches, Sluts, Feminists.” Photo courtesy of Natasha Gornik.

BDSM and kink educator Yin Q reflects on three controversial labels for women and discusses them with Kristen Sollee, author of “witches, sluts, feminists.”

Witches, Sluts, Feminists. There are many in the liberal circuit who might think these archetypes a misogynistic branding or misrepresentation of the current women’s movement, signifiers that predate the sexual liberation of the 70s. But according to Sollee, they’re the opposite: Together they function as a declarative reappropriation of powerful words, an alchemy of turning slander into bravado for solidarity.

Witch. The word alone inspires fear and loathing, power and magic. Throughout history, healers, midwives, and any women who tapped into innate wisdom or wielded mystic forces, as well as those who surpassed their male counterparts in wealth and social power, were frequently accused of witchcraft and subsequently hunted down and persecuted. This cultural reaction to unconventional women lingers and can even be seen in the political branding of Hillary Clinton as “the Wicked Witch of the Left.”

Slut. A woman who, in one way or another, acts too sexually aggressive, thereby rejecting cultural expectations of her presumed (and praised) chastity. Although arguably most attached to the sex work industry, a community of “whores,” the slut label does not stay affixed to sex workers, but spreads to any woman who expresses enjoyment of her sexuality and body. The women’s rights movement, which proclaims reproductive rights and economic equality as central focuses of its platform, has been stuck in a Victorian anti-sex-commerce mentality that denies the rights of sexual agency from the very women it proposes to protect. Slut-shaming is ever-present as social media enables Scarlet Letter branding on any woman who transgresses the heteropatriarchal parameters in which she is expected to function. As we celebrate the election of transgendered and other openly LGBQ politicians to office, the news is silent about the operative raids against and arrests of sex workers, and the closings of vital industry systems that grant those workers agency and safety. Attacks on the sex-work community are attempts to ostracize and eventually disenfranchise any woman who visibly and shamelessly lives with her sexuality day to day.

Feminist. In many ways another “F-word,” a feminist is a person who is actively concerned with the movement to end sexism and sexist exploitation. But both men and women can reinforce gender stereotypes and sexist narratives. And in actuality, the same cultural narratives that define a woman’s worth by her sexual desirability also define a man’s worth by his physical and emotional strength, disregarding those who identify outside the gender binary altogether. These are the terms of existence this culture has laid out for its members, and if one does not respect them, the threat of marginalization and violence are imminent. In short, the patriarchal system is to no one’s benefit—though women and those who exhibit fewer “masculine” qualities suffer far more than those who don’t.

 
“I completely respect those who feel the label ‘feminist’ doesn’t include them, particularly as the movement hasn’t always been—and still isn’t—fully cognizant and supportive of the diversity of lived experiences and oppression that exists in the world.”
 

In her book, “Witches, Sluts, Feminists,” Kristen Sollee examines the history of the witch and her modern identity as part of a political movement that supports sex-positive feminism. According to Sollee, these three identifiers are much more closely connected than some might believe.

YIN Q: The direct links between witch persecution and intersectional feminist issues are incredibly important in our culture right now, from the Women’s March to the current president’s misogynistic comments to the outing of sexual predators who hold power in media. How does it feel to have recently written something that is both at the heart of this social movement and still on the margins of it?

Kristen Sollee: It’s a fortuitous moment to have released this book into the world. We have Lindy West writing op-eds for The New York Times embracing the witch identity as a rhetorical device in the fight against sexual assault. We have the Hoodwitch leading thousands of followers to engage with witchcraft as a method of self-care. We have new activist covens of W.I.T.C.H. marching publicly against white supremacy all over the country. I’m not actually sure anymore how marginal witches are in the feminist movement—or maybe it’s just the Samhain season or wishful thinking that has me brainwashed into believing we’re everywhere! Honestly, I’m just grateful to have crafted something useful to throw into the maelstrom of 2017.

YQ: Your book is incredibly accessible and yet concise in its intentions to educate on the history, media stereotypes, and connectivity between witches, sluts, and feminists. Was there any resistance from the in-groups of these communities to acknowledge the validity of the others? I’m thinking particularly of feminists who are anti-sex work, but am wondering if there are other anti-sectionalities.

KS: A few self-identified witches and feminists I came across weren’t so down with the centering of ‘sluts’ and sex work and sacred whores in the book, but aside from your run-of-the-mill sex negativity that sadly circulates in many circles, the response has generally been positive amongst the in-groups I have dealt with.

YQ: You address reappropriation of language, mainly of the words ‘queer’ and ‘slut.’ Many women have either avoided calling themselves feminists until Trump was elected or have found the feminist movement problematic in its historically privileged, racist and classist focus. Do you think that ‘feminist’ also needs to be reappropriated and stretched to fit the greater needs of marginalized communities?

KS: I completely respect those who feel the label ‘feminist’ doesn’t include them, particularly as the movement hasn’t always been—and still isn’t—fully cognizant and supportive of the diversity of lived experiences and oppression that exists in the world. At the same time, I do think feminism has developed so much since the second wave to fit more individuals and communities. Still, like most -isms, it’s highly imperfect and often misunderstood. It’s what we’ve got, though. And thankfully there are plenty of really hardworking activists who continue to painstakingly reshape the movement day by day.

YQ: In your book, you write on the importance of language, poetry, and music as incantation. Your book itself is a kind of spell casting with historical knowledge as its root, and education and empowerment as its potential. The cover image of the glossy, glittery dark lips casts the spell, in a way. Can you share more on the design, the title choice and your experience conjuring this book?

KS: Writing this book was very healing. I confronted a lot of demons (both literal and figurative) along the way as I tried to embrace the vulnerability of the writing process and submerge myself in the stories of magical women and femmes. Getting lost in language is everything to me. If given the chance, I could construct one single sentence for an entire week, getting down to its sinew and bones, delving into the minutiae of syllabic rhythm without—hopefully—sacrificing meaning. The magic in the craft of writing is always there, even when I’m not writing about witches and witchcraft. So the title itself had to be a spell of sorts. Succinct. A method of conjuring. Something that sets the intention plain before you crack open the book. As far as the cover, I believe Stone Bridge Press’s designer, Linda Nolan, was inspired by a picture of me wearing glittery black lipstick and just went from there.

YQ: I appreciate that much of the work was on the political and historical identities of witches, sluts, and feminists. There were only a few insights into spiritual practices or beliefs, though. Could you speak to your decision to keep the narrative focused on the socio-historical identities and not on witchcraft as a belief system?

KS: The class I have been teaching at The New School, which the book is based on, is a gender studies course, not a religion course, so that influenced how I narrowed the focus of the book. Plus, witchcraft as a magical practice has so many disparate variations that I didn’t feel I could possibly do them all justice and discuss the political and cultural history of the witch and witch persecution at the same time.

YQ: I meet many women in powerful positions who still do not identify as feminists, as well as dominatrixes, erotic dancers, and erotic masseuses who do not call themselves sex workers. My mother, who practices Chinese feng shui and reads the Chinese books of dream characters, would not call herself a witch, though this identity is more fluid in the Chinese form. Do you have thoughts on self-identification in this space and what power or shame it may bring?

KS: Self-defined witches, sluts, and feminists often risk a lot to publicly claim their identities. I personally believe that the most powerful part of self-identifying as one of these is the community you can tap into through that identification. Of course, you don’t have to explicitly identify yourself to be part of said community, but putting yourself out there can be a powerful healing act for the wounds so many of us bear from patriarchal conditioning. It’s a risk to throw your hat in the ring with any of these groups, but a risk that can reap great rewards.

YQ: Some of the most powerful movements are those that start in marginalized communities, but their messages extend to the whole of society. For example, one of the Black Lives Matter founders, Patrisse Cullors, was thrown out of her home as a teenager for being queer and that experience fueled her large-scale activism for both black Americans and queer-identifying individuals. Can you speak to how the political movement of self-identified sluts and witches overreaches its inner group and affects progressive politics as a whole?

KS: Sluts and witches are vilified by Christian heteropatriarchy because we question the supremacy of a single male god and a sexist belief system that actively demonizes female and queer sexualities. The terminology and tactics of these in-groups might be different than those of mainstream activists, but the goal is the same: bodily autonomy and intellectual freedom as the bedrock of progressive politics!

YQ: Have you personally faced harassment or friction because of your role as an educator and writer on these loaded topics? How do your students react to you?

KS: I’ve been fortunate that nothing too extreme has befallen me (yet) for the work I’ve done on the subject. That said, I can’t tell certain members of my family what the name of my book is or what the subject matter delves into since they are fundamentalist Christians and I don’t feel like explaining why I’m not a devil worshipper and yet a Satanic Feminist.

As for my students, I like to think they get a lot out of the course. At the very least, I know I dispel misconceptions about feminism, witches, and witchcraft for them, and I have witnessed some going full-blown witch after they finish the semester. I’m not explicitly interested in converting anyone, but I can’t say I’m not thrilled when I see young people feeling empowered by the legacy of the witch.

YQ: What is inspiring you right now?

KS: I am loving Per Faxneld’s new book “Satanic Feminism: Lucifer as the Liberator of Woman in Nineteenth-Century Culture,” Coz Conover’s art celebrating black femme magic, and Pam Grossman’s new podcast, The Witch Wave.

YQ: How can we find out more and support the movement?

KS: If you want to support me directly, I sell signed copies of the book (and some sex-positive swag including a stunning tarot deck by Morgan Claire Sirene!) at witchesslutsfeminists.com.

This interview appeared originally in our Magic issue. Kristen Sollee’s new book “Cat Call: Reclaiming the Feral Feminine (An Untamed History of the Cat Archetype in Myth and Magic)”