Historic suspicion of the childless

By Victoria Fryer 

I read an article in the Guardian the other day about the Salem witch trials by a woman named Katherine Howe, who recently released a novel inspired by the events in colonial Massachusetts in the last 1600s. There have been many theories about what caused this mass hysteria—including hallucinations brought on by moldy bread—but Howe posits it had much more to do with gender, power, and class.

In the article, Howe writes about one of the Massachusetts women accused of witchcraft, Rachel Clinton. “Rachel, a childless, middle aged woman whose indentured servant husband had absconded with all her money, leaving her penniless and dependent on the charity of her neighbours in a time of great scarcity even for better-off people, embodies all the greatest fears of early modern English village women.”

Now, Rachel had a lot of reasons to be angry, and the literature, as Howe reports, shows that she lashed out. The fact that it is specifically mentioned that she is childless supports the fact that childlessness at that time was considered much outside the status quo, and something that would possibly be seen as contributing to a woman’s bitterness. Howe continues, “Rachel’s desperation reminds all the other women of her small, closely-knit community what is at stake if they don’t behave the way women should.”

In a book called Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred, authors Robert S. Robins and Jerrold M. Post also write about the contributions of gender victimization to the Salem witch trials. They write, “In seventeenth-century Puritan communities, childbearing was considered a religious and a community obligation, perhaps the most important activity of any Christian woman. … One in six of those accused in the Salem episode was childless, twice the average for the Salem area. Even those accused who had children tended to have fewer than the average.”

Women who remain childless into their old age, at times in history, were often accused of being witches. In pre-science times of devout religious fervor, childlessness indicated infertility, which many interpreted as a sign of God’s disfavor, according to Elaine Tyler May’s Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness. She writes, “Most of the women who were accused of witchcraft were over age forty and were no longer performing their most important task, that of bearing children.”

I certainly don’t think our society today has a tendency to accuse childless women of witchcraft or anything dramatic like that. I did, however, think it was interesting to see some of the history in perception of childless women over time. Though much has changed, I also think some innate suspicion of women (and men?) without children remains, to a certain degree. I’d love to hear what you think!

Victoria Fryer is a 31-year-old writer and content strategist. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two pit bulls. You can find her on Twitter @extoria.


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