In Defense of Witches: The Legacy of the Witch Hunts and Why Women Are Still on Trial, by Mona Chollet, is a revelatory collection of histories and experiences that have been carefully ignored across centuries of time. Even a devoted reader will find it difficult to think of a book besides Chollet’s that does more to redirect preconceptions of how the world was formulated. In that sense, for most, her book will be rewriting history.
The work is organized through three main ideas. First, witches have a prolificity in culture, and Chollet makes it clear. They’re everywhere – in our stories, art, fictions, and fashions. Chollet’s work forces readers to stop to consider why that is. Second, witches are embedded in our histories. In Defense of Witches reorients past and present events and further exposes the subterfuge that has monumentalized a patriarchal worldview. It connects dots across centuries of Western time, mapping a slow and methodical repression that created a phenomenon of physical and “psychological alienation” from women. Lastly, the “witch” permeates the present. Through a genuine interrogation of the past, a modern truth is uncovered, making this book necessary for those who are eager to possess a greater understanding of how human civilization works or is rather, not working.
Originally published in France in 2018, Chollet’s text finds an English audience that, in the middle of a global pandemic and wretched confrontations with sanctioned murders of Black citizens, is becoming increasingly witchy. The expansion of women sporting brilliant white and greyish hair, which Chollet outlines as a mark of a witch–a woman of experience and dissent, is telling. Her book, then, is an especially helpful read for providing additional contexts from which women may be empowered as well as how they may reject what was designed to privilege men and subjugate women.
Conversely, those who are familiar with ideas associated with the liberation of women from patriarchal constructs might find specific sections of Chollet’s book weightily situated in 20th-century feminism that seems out-of-date to 21st-century thinkers. At one point, Chollet makes a distinction between Black women and white women – asserting that Black women are not subject to notions of the domestic ideal that pressurize white women. Chollet also suggests that the writer Colette achieves some sort of heightened sexual status as a fifty-year-old woman who had a relationship with her husband’s seventeen-year-old son. Here, it seems that a world where women have the freedom to behave like Woody Allen (who Chollet mentions multiple times in the book) is to be regarded as an achievement. One must ask – should women’s fight for equality include the desire to have “toxic femininity” when toxic masculinity is such a problematic privilege of a patriarchal society? Perhaps, modern-day “witches” are even more witchy than Chollet’s book imagines.
One of Chollet’s most keen historical retellings in In Defense of Witches is the delineation of the renaissance and enlightenment periods as the idealized rationality of men justifying the domination of nature, bodies, and emotions, which came to be normalized as feminine and inferior. It is the outlining of this colossal mistake that calls for revisiting the wisdom of the Romantics such as Mary Shelley. A return to nature, then, could be a turn away from putting witches on trial. Ultimately, Chollet’s book leaves us with a lot to ponder and some hope, too.
Keith Contorno is a Chicago-based writer and educator.