Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women in The Sociological Review

By Asiye Islam
The Sociological Review
November 14th, 2019

Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women

Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women by Silvia Federici was published by PM Press in 2018.

Silvia Federici is a feminist activist, teacher and writer. In the 1970s, she was one of the founders of the International Campaign for Wages for Housework. She was also one of the founders of the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa and the Radical Philosophers’ Anti-Death Penalty Project. She is the author of books and essays on women’s history and feminist theory, political philosophy and education. Her published works include: Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, now published in 15 languages, Le Capitalisme Patriarcal (2019), Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the politics of the Commons (2018), The New York Wages For Housework Committee: History, Theory, Documents. 1972-1977 (2018), Witch-Hunting Witches, and Women (2018), and Revolution at Point Zero. Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle (2014). Silvia Federici is Emerita Professor at Hofstra University.

“The witch was the communist and terrorist of her time, which required a ‘civilizing’ drive to produce the new ‘subjectivity’ and sexual division of labor on which the capitalist work discipline would rely.”


Silvia Federici’s book – Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women – published by PM Press in 2018, is a collection of essays split into two parts. Part I comprises essays about witch-hunting in Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries and Part II offers a contemporary and global view of witch-hunting. The volume is brought together with a composite introduction and conclusion. The question ‘Why now?’ is answered primarily through the two essays in Part II, which develop the case for historicising the current surge in violence against women in Mexico, India, and parts of Africa, countries that have in recent years been subject to the pressures of global capitalism.

Highlighting the relationship between women, resources, and violence, Federici’s analysis provides rich material for exploring a number of methodological issues. In offering an understanding of the witch-hunts as produced through the processes of land enclosures in 16th century England (and more widely, Europe), Federici acknowledges that “most of the evidence is circumstantial” (p.16). In other words, the coevality of land enclosures and witch-hunting is significant. Federici, therefore, situates the history of witch-hunting firmly in the social and particularly economic conditions of the time, rather than as mere superstitious occurrences. She further critiques accounts that simply accept the historical statement of women’s ‘crimes’ – bewitchment of animals, stirring quarrels, causing barrenness – instead reading these activities as forms of resistance to their economic and social marginalisation.

Second, Federici insists on the comparison between contemporary witch-hunts in Africa (she notes that between 1991 and 2001, it is estimated that 23,000 witches were killed in Africa) and historical witch-hunts in Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries even though the two contexts are culturally different. She points out the similarities in the accusations made against witches, which lead her to conclude a larger analytical point about the worldwide persecution of poor women who may fall outside or resist the encroaching cash economy. Federici is further critical of some anthropological approaches to the subject of witch-hunting, whereby scholars confine their analysis to an ‘African world view’, hardly ever adopt the mode of advocacy or protest, and in the case of one anthropologist, also seem to not have qualms about collaborating with witch-finders for research. She offers Indian feminist activism regarding dowry murders in the country as an example where women have been able to retain control over the terms of discussion while campaigning for the persecution of abusers. These methodological concerns emphasise that the study of witches, witch-hunting, and women is not curiosity for curiosity’s sake for Federici; it is resisting through rewriting.

Her insightful discussion of the “fantastic accusations” (p.32) against witches provides a commentary on the social and communal power of women, particularly as mediated through their relationship with and knowledge of natural resources. Although Federici does not deploy the term herself, she is indeed telling a story of the Anthropocene as enacted through women’s bodies. She argues that the pre-capitalist continuity between humans and animals was disrupted to produce a disciplined workforce, resulting in the Cartesian mind/body dualism, whereby witches were inferior, uncontrolled, bestial beings. The Anthropocene is a strong feature of the Caliban and the Witch too, as Collard and Dempsey (2018) argue in their paper ‘Accumulation by difference-making: an anthropocene story, starring witches’. They extend the gendered division of productive and reproductive labour to the division between humans and animals, suggesting that the latter are devalued “at the heart of capitalist socio-ecological crisis” (p.1349).

Reading witch-hunting through the lens of the Anthropocene offers a way to address the question ‘Why women?’ What is specific to women that makes them either “dead assets” (p.72) or dangerous (or both) leading to their branding as ‘witches’? While Federici highlights that older men in Africa have also been hunted as witches, the history of witch-hunting is predominantly the history of violence against women. Federici offers several insights for why “women are seen as the main agents of resistance to the cash economy” (p.75), ranging from the role of women in maintaining and transferring community knowledge to the fear of women’s sexuality. Most convincing, however, is the evidence of women’s relationships with nature. The advance of capitalism, which necessitates not only a disciplined workforce but also exploitation of nature, creates outlaws of women who resist their dispossession. This is exemplified contemporarily by attacks on poor and tribal women who continue to participate in subsistence production in India, resisting “integration into development” (p.52) as Maria Mies notes in Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale.

Federici’s extension of the themes of Caliban and the Witch to a global (non-European) context is imaginative and challenging. Scholars can learn from Federici’s careful and sensitive comparison of witch-hunting in different times, spaces, and cultures. Importantly, the comparison neither presumes linearity of development of conditions that result in witch-hunts nor offers one-size-fits-all solutions. For those familiar with Caliban and the Witch, Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women revisits and updates insights into the gendered politics of capitalism. For those new to Federici’s work, it is an excellent summary of key arguments of Caliban and the Witch, re-emphasised through current gender wars in different parts of the world. For all readers, the book follows in the footsteps of Federici’s earlier scholarship in its persuasive, wide-ranging, and very readable prose. Indeed, the book is not only academic scholarship but also a form of protest against the deliberate ignorance and trivialisation of violence against women in the name of witch-hunting.

Asiya Islam is a Junior Research Fellow at Newnham College, University of Cambridge. She is interested in gender, class, and labour. Her PhD research explored young women’s experiences of participation in the new service economy in Delhi, India. She tweets @asiyaislam.

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