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Witchy Woman

Why are so many women of a certain age considered witches? A friend and I were discussing films and books appropriate for our young daughters, and we were both struck by how many films, books, fairytales, and stories included witches as the only examples of women past childbearing age. Is that the most common way our culture values the wisdom and contribution of women?

On Saturday, Allison Vander Broek posted on The Twelve about the ways that the Harry Potter series helped her to rediscover key spiritual practices. As a fan of the series, I appreciated her insight and look forward to listening to the podcasts she recommended. But another reason why I enjoyed the Harry Potter series is that it made the concept of witches and wizards ‘normal.’ Not ‘normal’ in the sense that everyone is or should be a witch or wizard, but the series created a world where witches and wizards were just like us muggles – they come in all shapes, sizes, and ages, and some are brilliant, some are not, some are petty, some are talented, some are athletic, social, etc. In other words, witches were not just women of a certain age, but all females who possessed the ability to do magic. I appreciated that this series, for all the hand-wringing by some Christians concerned with the ‘popularity’ of sorcery and witchcraft, removed the negative label of witch applied strictly to women, and particularly older women.

We know that not all women become witches when they reach a certain age, but our culture certainly seems to still find that typecasting to be acceptable. A few weeks ago, I saw the documentary The Eagle Huntress, about a girl who learned to train eagles to hunt for her.  Eagle hunting is an exclusively male domain, but Aisholpan finds and trains her eagle to hunt – the first female to do so in twelve generations of family eagle hunters. And she was only 13! I found myself tearing up as I watched my daughter jump up and down cheering for Aisholpan as she competed against a field of all men, most of whom disapproved of her participation in the eagle hunting contest. I realized that my daughter might not be as familiar with the accomplishments of women as I thought she was. So we started reading the book Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo. The illustrations are beautiful, but more than that, the short vignettes reveal significant contributions of women from all walks of life. A refreshing antidote to the fairytales with women as witches who are angry, bitter, jealous, and destructive, especially toward younger women.

Recently, Kate Kooyman reminded us of the origins of Mother’s Day as a celebration of activism by women in this country. As a historian, I am continually surprised that, despite the historical evidence of all the women who worked for social, political, and economic changes, the evidence of women active in education, science, arts, and humanities, the stereotype of witchy older ladies lingers. Perhaps the idea of witches is much more muted today, but the motivation behind the label of witch is to silence women of a certain age. How shortsighted to ignore and silence the wisdom and experience of women!

The true celebration of Mother’s day appeals to women to be active motivators for change. It also celebrates the activism of women in the past to motivate us today to continue that activism to improve the world we inhabit. Mother’s Day is not about how many children or grandchildren you have or how well you can mine pinterest to make your life perfect. It isn’t about posing shyly yet beautifully for effortless photos, or being honored because you serve everyone else first. Instead, Mother’s Day should honor women by valuing their wisdom, celebrating their accomplishments, and encouraging them to pursue God’s kingdom here on earth.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • Lee Collins says:

    Absolutely right on! Thanks for posting.

  • Fran says:

    My heart goes out to you women who have such a problem with Mothers’ day. My hope for you is that your children showed you love and honor yesterday in spite of your negativity. When you women begin to encourage young boys with equal fervor as you do young girls, in pursuing their fullest potential, then those of us who value the accomplishments of all people, regardless of sex, will be inclined to join you in your enthusiasm.

  • Rebecca Koerselman says:

    Hi Fran – thanks for weighing in. I didn’t realize I had a problem with Mother’s Day so much as I wondered about the origins of the holiday, how it has changed over time, and what it says about what we value in our society. Is that negative?
    I do encourage young boys to pursue their full potential, but I’ve noticed more often that girls are less likely to acknowledge that encouragement and more likely to doubt themselves. Why do you think that is the case?

  • Micki Fuhrman says:

    Well said. Older women are certainly not revered and some of the terms–crone, hag, etc. that are thrown about certainly don’t help.

  • Rebecca Koerselman says:

    Micki – Agreed. Newer lit doesn’t rely on those stereotypes as much, but the older children’s lit and fairytales sure do. In fact, I have a hard time thinking of any fairytales with a wise and respected older woman :-/

  • Cody Raak says:

    Excellent thoughts here, and compelling of serious reflection, as I particularly love fairy tale as a genre. You’re right: innocent girls abound in fairy tales, but so do wicked step-mothers, evil hags, and vengeful witches. Only rarely do fairy godmothers or good witches make an appearance. This archetype has been carried forward in fantasy fiction, so that the presence of a sinister, magical villainess has become a trope in its own right. Maybe I need to consider this more seriously as I raise my own daughter, but it seems to me that these women are not meant to represent the whole gender, but are individual, striking, negative examples for girls to grow up differently: “Don’t be vengeful or grasping or overly concerned with external beauty; be gracious and generous and pure of heart.” I guess I don’t have a problem with a “witchy woman” in a children’s story, as long as it’s clear that this is not what we want our daughters to become. Have I missed the point? This will warrant further wondering.

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