Witches, old wives’ tales and our history of not listening to women

She haunts our fairytales, our tales of warning and our paperback mysteries. She lives at the edge of society, on the margins of civilisation and the foreboding forest, at the meeting point of the wild and untamed. She knows the difference between the mushrooms that are delicious and the mushrooms that are deadly. She is turned to in secrecy and at great risk by desperate women seeking to harness their bodily power, aiding or hindering fertility. Her knowledge renders her an outcast and there hangs about her a sense of danger – for why else is she always single (a spinster!), childless (barren!), uninterested in male attraction (hideously ugly!). A knowledgeable woman – woman who knows things – is a frightening thing indeed.

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Garlic for colds. Peppermint for indigestion. Ginger for nausea. Unless I turned to the medically qualified internet, I could not be sure whether these actually work or if they’re an old wives’ tale, and yet I still add these natural remedies to my pharmaceutical panoply. Part of my scepticism comes from herbal preparations being the domain of the charlatan. Once, feeling very vulnerable, I had a very expensive trip to a naturopath where I emerged laden with all sorts of evil-smelling potions to assist weight loss. It was expensive and it worked, but I still felt as though I’d been sold a version of the emperor’s new clothes. Mostly, I think my agnosticism about anything herbal comes from the idea that it’s somehow not scientific. Not tested. Not respected. Don’t medicines come in packets and cost money? And when I scrape back some of these assumptions, what remains are duelling images of a woman in a sagging house between the village and the forest offering ginger tea, and the clinical environment of the lab coat and the degrees and the stringent research and the globally‑monestised system of pharmaceuticals. And I realise that I don’t think the woman of my imagination has real health knowledge.

This utterly hypothetical deductive analysis caused me to wonder how much knowledge we have lost – or at least, undervalued – through ignoring women’s wisdom, through assuming the advice is inherently unsound and untested, through confining old wives’ tales to whispers between generations in the corners of domestic worlds rather than something accorded a spotlight, funding, publication and circulation. What have we lost by not giving the realm of women’s learned knowledge a real chance? To be scrutinised and debated and improved? For women healers to have space and primacy to learn and teach and be believed? The 21st century specialist medical field of surgery, after all, evolved from butchery. We scoff at what has been believed, tried and tested; recommended as “medicine”; developed and matured as a field (medicinal cocaine and cigarettes, anyone?), but understanding these ridiculous beliefs is important in the historical development of medical knowledge. Yet it seems we’ve never allowed the feminine domains of knowledge to advance beyond the derisively-termed ‘alternative’ field. After all, wouldn’t the decades of qualitative case studies obtained by the women of the herbs, the centuries of stories of women as primary caretakers of the ill and injured, be an interesting starting point for more institutionalised research?

In European history, women traditionally served as the healers – their expanded social role compared with contemporary gender norms always causing some concern. But as the feudal era dissolved, the large-scale institutionalisation, protection and control of knowledge began. Churches and the nascent university system worked to own and define sources of knowledge. And, as these were the institutions of men, women healers were cast out of this structure, and derided as heretical, as witches. Centuries later, I’m still falling for this propaganda campaign.

I pause here to make myself utterly clear. Medicine is awesome. It’s keeping me alive! I use a lot of medicine! In the context of this piece I’m terribly uninterested – really – in the efficacy of these herbs. The point I’m trying to make, the story I’m trying to uncover, is how historically we have undervalued and largely sidelined women’s wisdom – not only in this field but in many others. I wonder, what could we know, in this case about herbs and witches’ warnings, if we’d given women’s ideas the same opportunity for development and maturity as a dude’s ideas? And what have we lost by belittling women’s knowledge as too simplistic, too unscientific?

Historians have found strong connections between gossip and accusations of witchcraft: women who developed and shared knowledge – social and medicinal – were slandered as gossips and burned as witches (gossip being seen as the linguistic equivalent to witchcraft), such was the masculine fear of this feminine knowledge. This epistemological dismissal of women’s knowledge continues today. Communication amongst women is often derided as idle chatter, speculation and gossip. Untrustworthy. Unreliable. But what is feminine prattle to the outer‑world is our encyclopaedia. Glenn Close, recently speaking about Hollywood’s reckoning with systemic sexual assault, said, “…Gossip is what women do to keep themselves out of danger.” It is also what women do to learn and to teach.

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There’s another side to this story. There’s that evergreen Punch cartoon, tagged with the caption ‘That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.’ Throughout history, bits of women’s wisdom have found themselves a male patron to carry them into the mainstream, shedding any doubt that it was ever found wanting.

Paracelsus, a Swiss physician considered one of the pioneers of the Renaissance’s medical revolution, wrote in the early 16th century, “The universities do not teach all things so a doctor must seek out old wives, gipsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers, and such outlaws and take lessons from them.” These lessons from the margins of society, carried into the fold by a more respectable source, could be included in the lexicon of scientific research and development. And this knowledge, from old wives and witches, ensured Paracelsus his place as one of the most influential medical thinkers of the early modern era. Now imagine if the women whose ideas have been appropriated were themselves given further space for experimentation and exploration? In this age of encouraging women’s participation in STEM, it’s ironic that we’ve really held a place in this academic chronicle for millennia.

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I can find one silver lining; one really awesome social element to this. The wisdom of witches and old wives might not have had access to the means of widespread distribution or been enshrined in learned tomes next to their names. It might not be famed or respected. Yet, this knowledge endures. Women’s knowledge endures. From herbal remedies to how to survive in a man’s world, women’s whispers have survived through a resilient oral history of the domestic world, passed from woman to woman down generations – a surprisingly strong intellectual chain. Recipes, remedies, warnings. Just like we quietly pass on to one another which men to avoid, or how to be safe, or how to cope with the complexities of our bodies. Lessons borne from survival and experience. So while I urge for a re-examination of feminine traditions of intellectual discovery, at the very, very least, we women can comfort ourselves with our secret oral history: while they’ve not been listening, we’ve been learning.

This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.

Why Taylor Swift disappoints in Trump’s Dystopia

I don’t like Taylor Swift.

Her music isn’t relevant to this assessment. I don’t like her. The person. Or, allowing that she is an extremely clever performer adept at constructing a version of herself for public consumption, I don’t like the Taylor Swift that Taylor Swift chooses to have us see.

I’m not alone in this weird revulsion of someone I don’t know. As an avid reader of absolute trash (I’m not a natural blonde: I spend a lot of time in hairdressers and my hairdresser has an excellent supply of tabloid magazines), I’ve noted the sneering coverage of her relationships. But last year, around the time of the ill-fated and weirdly eager Hiddleswift display, I noted mainstream media and feminist sites joining the derisive chorus. People, it seemed, had reached peak Swift. Her all-American goodness was now making us nauseous. I shrugged. After her last album release in 2014 followed by the saturation of a world tour in 2015 followed by endless pictures of perfect days with perfect friends in perfect outfits, we’d had a lot of Swift. But the coverage was starting to seem a little cruel, a little too gleeful in celebrating any slips. I didn’t like seeing a young woman torn down for her success but I shrugged again. She’d go away, tweak her brand a little, and comeback to dominate the music that gets stuck in our heads once we’d forgotten we had been so sick of her.

She went away so completely that she wasn’t publicly seen for months. Her normally active and candid social media accounts were quiet, sharing simply the odd promotional shot or birthday shout-out. She didn’t even host her annual Independence Day party (usually replete with all her famous friends). What a master media manipulator, I mused.

And then, last month, she was back. With new music, a new style and a new boyfriend. But this time, the press was instantly savage. As was I. And it was nothing to do with her music. Editorials seemed to clutch at wild and flimsy justifications for this dislike: her music video rips off Beyoncé! She’s playing the victim card! She’s perpetuating the angry, black man stereotype by positioning herself as an innocent ingénue in her rift with Kanye! She’s an evil capitalist mastermind for telling her fans to buy, buy, buy merchandise to ensure privileged access to tour tickets! There is legitimacy in these criticisms, but, to me, they didn’t seem to explain the whirlwind of bitterness. It’s not Swift, that has changed, really. It’s society.

The world Taylor Swift has emerged from her latest chrysalis into is deeply changed from the one she ‘left’ in 2016. This is a world that brooks no ambiguity in one’s position regarding the political battlelines drawn. And yet in this most politically charged environment, Swift is silent. Swift’s is a career built on mass appeal, on statements of personal empowerment that can be interpreted to ensure they offend no one. She hails from a red state, and her mainstream domination owes much to her early success in the famously conservative country music industry. Many of her fans would have voted Trump. In this context, her silence starts to look if not self-interested at least self-protective. And why not? She’s an entertainer. Why wade into the mess that is American politics?

Except that in 2017, it seems that everything has been lit with a torch of social passion, and much of the energy of this moment is coming from young people, women, and members of the arts community. This is an age where Teen Vogue is providing some of the best political analysis of the year. This is an age where eviscerating critiques of social inequality are happening not in our parliaments but on our stages. This is a moment where to be silent is to be incredibly out of touch. Silence, in 2017, seems to be a luxury of immense privilege.

It is a weak argument to simply compare Swift to other more politically active musicians and we should not necessarily expect political leadership from pop stars – except that Taylor Swift is an avowed feminist, uses female empowerment as an extensive motif in her music and personal branding, and has invoked feminism in her criticism of others’ behaviour, including Kanye WestNicki Minaj, and Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. So it is reasonable to be disappointed by her curious silence amidst the electrifying Women’s March movement, and her lack of engagement on the myriad social issues specifically targeting her fan base – particularly young women and the LGBTIQ community – in a Trump presidency.

Until we look more critically at Swiftian feminism that is. Taylor Swift’s is a personal empowerment brand of feminism: aspirational, mercantilist, neo-liberal. It is focussed on the achievements of the individual. It tells a story of individual talent triumphing over the odds, not of the structure that creates and protects those odds. It is ignorant of – or reluctant to examine – its own privilege: white, tall, thin, straight and conventionally beautiful and wealthy. In Taylor’s performance of female friendship, there are some brown bodies and some bigger bodies, but these are by far the exception. And all of them seem merely to be superficial accessories. Another thing to aspire to, to collect, to spend money on obtaining.

This feel good ‘feminism’ was fine for entertainment before Trump, before Brexit, before white extremists felt the world was safe for them to start publically burning things again, before Australia decided to rip itself open as it mused on whether human rights were indeed rights for all. In 2017, white and blonde and tall and thin and silent is the ultimate goal according to the new regime. Taylor Swift could be another Ivanka Trump, her individual success apparently refuting any suggestion of discrimination or inequality. Her obedience is what ensures acceptance. But for those not accepted by the establishment, to merely champion individual success, to not acknowledge and challenge systems of oppression, to be silent, is to seem complicit. In neo-liberal Swiftian feminism, it is Taylor Swift that profits, not we along with her.

There is an important and laudable exception to Swift’s attempt to stay silently uncontroversial, and a disappointing example of the feminist and mainstream media showing a reluctance to accord credit where it was due. In August this year, jurors in a civil trial agreed with Swift that she had been assaulted by a DJ during a public appearance. Swift used this decision to advocate that victims of sexual assault be believed and heard, and to defend a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. Acknowledging that her wealth gave her an opportunity to pursue the case, a privilege often out of reach for assault victims, she pledged to donate money to organisations supporting victims of sexual violence. In this moment, Swift challenged the system that dismisses women’s experiences, offered courage and precedent to young women, gave a voice to those without her platform, and sought to identify and rectify the inequalities of money and legal power that protect male perpetrators. It was a rare moment of politics, of noise, and it was powerful. Perhaps we should be hopeful this experience will empower Swift to continue to engage with social issues. Perhaps we should be disappointed that a high profile victim of sexual assault chose not to link her experience with the cultural impact of a President who boasts that he can commit sexual assault with impunity.

It’s not just Taylor Swift, of course, that has fallen foul of our new expectation for socially conscious engagement. Three years ago the tall, white, thin, conventionally beautiful and straight Iggy Azalea’s first two singles achieved the kind of success that had until then only been reached by the Beatles. In 2017, Izzy’s reputation is as tattered as a post-party piñata. Any attempt to engage with Azalea’s appropriation of and profit from black culture has been met by her rebuttal that this criticism is sexist. Azalea’s failure to think with nuance about her privileges as a white woman shows that, like Swift, she grasps the feminist tenets that are most self-serving: the bits that protect the individual and the system – a system that likes female celebrities when they’re compliant, white and beautiful.

I have a sense that we’re readying for battle. If entertainers want to simply entertain, fine. But if they want to profit from engagement with the issues that are tearing Western societies apart, we expect them to have done their homework. We expect them to have an understanding of how issues of race and gender intersect to affect equality – that is, intersectional feminism. We expect that their understanding of feminism is sophisticated enough to listen to legitimate critiques of their behaviour and get better. We’re expecting a lot of our women in 2017: we want the call for equality to be for us all.

Women are taught not to make waves. And Taylor Swift has reaped great success from negotiating a fine line between celebrating women and not challenging the status-quo. And this was fine. But, as is evident from a sudden zeitgeist of criticism of Swift, this approach is becoming out of date. A violently fractured Western world has turned ‘Taylor Swift’ into a battleground, and her silent intersection with this cultural moment seems to make her complicit in our political projections onto her body. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect political leadership from pop stars, but culture and music has always been at its best when it serves as society’s truthful mirror. And in this shit show of a world, we want – we need – our heroes to be wave makers, and not just hit makers.

 

This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.