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The Devil in the Shape of a Woman

Category Women
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The Devil in the Shape of a Woman by Carol Karlsen (1987) astutely focuses attention upon the female as witch in colonial New England, thus allowing a discussion of broader themes regarding the role and position of women in Puritan society. Karlsen's work, which has been well-received, focuses on the position of accused witches as largely females placed in precarious social and economic positions, often because they stood to inherit, had inherited, or lost an inheritance in property.

Karlsen departs from the idea that women accused of witchcraft were boisterous beggars, a depiction "tantamount to blaming the victim" (Nissenbaum) and instead points to these "inheriting women" as being socially vulnerable in a patriarchal culture. Karlsen's work is not merely of historical significance to the Salem outbreak of 1692. In fact, "that year remains something of an anomaly" (Nissenbaum) as one-third of the accused witches then were male compared to less than one-fifth of accusations made otherwise in colonial New England.

Instead, Karlsen's study brings "women strongly back to center stage, locating them in a rich patriarchal matrix that integrates it with class and family. " (Nissenbaum). One reviewer notes that within this context, Karlsen offers significant insights. The first is a look at the "ambivalent assessment of women within New England's culture. " (Gildrie). Karlsen finds a scenario marked by its time and place in which women embodied the "Puritan ideal of women as virtuous helpmeets" (Boyer).

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In an odd duality, women were both the new stewards of God's spiritual leadership on earth, while subservient to a Medieval, misogynist gender role which largely placed their fate at the hands of men. Secondly, Karlsen focuses attention on the accusers and finds that they were engaged in a "fierce negotiation... about the legitimacy of female discontent, resentment, and anger. " (Karlsen; see Gildrie). Accusations of witchcraft were often an outlet where this negotiation boiled over into violence, as men persecuted female neighbors who threatened an established, but precarious, social order.

The crucial thesis on which much of the book rests is that witchcraft accusations were most often made against women who threatened the orderly transfer of land from father to son - a process at best fraught with tension and anxiety and at worst marked by the shift of scarce, valuable properties from one family to another by way of an intervening woman in a patriarchal inheritance system. The possessed girls played a dual role in this "symbolic cultural drama" in which they rebelled against the social role to which they had been predestined at birth by simultaneously acquiescing in that role by resisting the "witch. If nothing else, Karlsen's recent work proves that there is still room for substantial study and scholarship surrounding witchcraft, gender, and other issues in colonial New England. One commentator writes, "Karlsen's study is provocative, wide-ranging, accessible, and frank. " (Lindholt). Another, that the book's "descriptions and analyses stand on their own as valuable contributions to our knowledge of witch lore and the ambiguous status of women in early New England. " (Gildrie).

Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, whose Salem Possessed set the standard for social histories of the outbreak in Salem, find that Karlsen's work is one of "formidable intellectual power" and "a major contribution to the study of New England witchcraft. " It places the central role of women as witches under the microscope and "for the first time as the subject of systemic analysis" a considerable 300 years after the events transpired. Karlsen's work is required reading for the student, scholar, or general reader seeking to understand and interpret the broad picture of colonial witchcraft in New England.

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The Devil in the Shape of a Woman. (2017, May 12). Retrieved from

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