To be a Witch and Childfree
By: Jessica Parant
In a recent re-watch of the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, I realized where my fascination with witches came from as I watched Glinda float down from the sky in her bubble and the Wicked Witch of the West summoned her flying monkeys to do her bidding. I remember loving the power displayed by these female residents of Oz. However, as a child, I felt conflicted about the imagery surrounding what it means to be a “good” witch or a “bad” witch. A “good” witch was sweet, beautiful, intelligent, surrounded by light and loved by everyone - especially children. Whereas, the “bad” witch was clad in black robes, was hideously ugly and surrounded by scary creatures. She also hated children - almost to the point of killing them. I obviously didn’t want to be the bad witch as this would mean I hated children, as well as being non-nurturing. Which is the complete opposite of how I am; I am a very nurturing, loving woman, and I don’t dislike children (or at least not all of them). I just chose not to have any of my own. But I didn’t want to be seen as a witch that wanted to murder or eat children (despite the occasional joke about it!).
Where did the idea of bad/evil witches being child haters/murderers come from? The belief was born out of rumor during the Middle Ages. This was a time where heretical persecution in Europe was at its highest, and often these accusations included witchcraft, infanticide and cannibalism. The manual for hunting witches in 1486, written by Catholic Clergyman Heinrich Kramer, the Malleus Maleficarum, used the idea that witches can be identified when they could be seen “roasting their first born male child”. Women in Europe during the 1600s witch hunts would be accused of murdering babies while they slept, roasting them, and saving bits for “flying ointment” (we all remember that scene in The VVitch). Infanticide and cannibalism became synonymous with the witch and would then influence the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm such as Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and Rapunzel. Children learned from these tales of the supposed evils of witches (or abnormal women) and to be suspicious of anyone who did not conform to societal norms such as motherhood. That only women who could be trusted, were those submissive in their roles as wives and mothers as they could be the good witches made strong in their desire to have and protect children.
So while I was surrounding myself with books and movies that featured witches such as Grimm's Fairy Tales, The Oz Series, Alice in Wonderland, The Witches (1990), and Hocus Pocus (1993), I was constantly seeing the image of a powerful woman who was often feared and hated because she did not like or have any children herself. She was an evil woman - someone not only to be feared but also hated - for she did not want to contribute to the population of her village but instead to feast on their precious children. She was often pitted against a white witch ( Glinda, Fairy Godmother, Mirana, the White Queen) or a sweet beautiful woman (Cinderella, Snow White, Alice, Helga) who’s decisions and behavior were representative of the desired qualities in women to be mothers, women who would put the wellbeing and lives of their children above their own. I was being shown to be a good witch. I must be at the service of others and my life was not my own. To think or act otherwise would be selfish and make me evil and dangerous. These evil/bad witches were a threat and by depicting them as child murderers and haters was to justify taking actions against them.
Roald Dahl’s The Witches is a dark fantasy film based on the 1983 book of the same name. It is a simple story of a young boy and his grandmother teaming up to foil a devious plan to turn all the children of England into mice by evil witches who masquerade as ordinary women. It stars Anjelica Huston as Eva Ernst the Grand High Witch, and the all powerful leader of the world’s witches. While this movie does not have the witches wanting to eat the children, as they can’t even stand the smell of them as they claim to smell of dog’s droppings, the witches want to rid the world of children by turning them into mice and having their parents call exterminator’s on them. When I watched this film again recently, I realized that the witches only use a potion to transform the children, making the parents responsible for killing the children, keeping the witches’ hands clean of the bloodshed. That is pretty devious and dark!
However, I did not see that as a child. I just remembered being in awe of Eva, The Grand High Witch, when she made her entrance to the coven meeting of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. I saw a beautiful, intelligent and strong woman who knew what she wanted, and that did not include children - she had no interest in them. But when we see Eva remove her human face, she is a large hideous creature with long pointy fingernails, a crooked spine, and she cackles as she conducts her experiment with Bruno, one of the boys staying at the hotel. As a young girl I was being taught that underneath the exterior of a successful and childfree woman was a hideous witch plotting the murder of children.
So as I grew older and eventually identified as a witch, I felt somewhat ‘evil’ because I did not want to have children - ever. That I was following in line with the stereotype that witches were cold, uncaring, and selfish women despite the fact that I know other women who identify as witches but also have children. I understood the desire to have unfettered independent lives living “childfree”. But because these women did not conform to the traditional role of a wife and mother, she was a threat to be exiled from the community or looked down upon by other men and women. This is often how women who have chosen to be “childfree” are treated in a society that holds high value towards the nuclear family. To be childfree is to “have the peace of mind about not having children” for various personal reasons and situations, which is different from being childless which is “those women who wanted to have children but were unable to; which reflects their sadness” (Trauma Blog). Being childfree gives validity to a woman’s agency and her choices - which is also what I think being a witch invokes.
I have known since I was a teenager that I never wanted any children of my own. This was probably due to being forced to mother my siblings at a young age because of constant family dysfunction. So a part of me feels that while my childhood was robbed from me, I would gain it back as an adult. Other reasons to not have children have motivated me over the years, such as economical, situational, and moral. Before I got married I did not plan to have any children, and I was constantly told that I would “change my mind”. When I actually got married and still didn’t want to have any children, it was a constant source of conflict between myself and my ex-husband (who wavered back and forth on the issue constantly). When I came out as a witch in the final year of my marriage, I was accused that the reason that I didn’t want to have children was that I was selfish and didn’t like them. That choosing to have a childfree life meant I was being a difficult woman and not fulfilling my role as the dutiful wife, bearing my husband’s namesake. I was then casting spells on him in the night and manipulating him to be “castrated” (a vasectomy). I was negatively impacting his manhood in denying him the role of being a father and having his child carrying on his legacy. I was an evil woman and a threat. I was a BAD WITCH! I was demonized by my ex-husband and his family for choosing to be childfree despite the fact that I listed various reasons why having children was not suited for me - I was denied my agency.
However, over the last four years, I have learned so much about how witches have been historically misrepresented in media and literature. That I was not a bad witch, I was just being a strong woman. That what was taught to us as children about the difference between being a good witch or a bad witch was dictated by the will of the patriarchy as a means to not only keep women divided, but mistrusted. This is what we would read or see on the silver screen - that if a witch were to exist it would be in the image created by men. She needed to be beautiful, morally good, love children and protect the status quo. Anything otherwise would be deemed ‘abnormal’. That the idea of witches eating children all came out of rumor as a means for witch-hunters to justify their actions of murdering innocent women. To protect the patriarchy, the child hating witch was born and used as a means to keep women afraid. That to make the decision to not have children, means that there is something deceptive about your intentions, as it only seems natural for a woman to want to have children - to be mothers. To make any decision of the contrary would be regarded with suspicion and scorn. Often the image of the witch and the childfree woman are approached in the same way.
In 2021, childfree women are still regarded with stigma. We are often characterized as “selfish, cold and non-nurturing” (Trauma Blog) which is often the same characteristics applied to a witch While these women are comparatively living happier and healthier lives, we are still “othered”, and often have to fight harder for resources. This is because we are subverting the traditional patriarchal defined role for women to be mothers, which threatens the ability of men to continue to deny female agency. To question or reject the traditional gender roles in parenthood is to be a threat and who has historically been deemed a threat to the patriarch? THE WITCH!
Robert T. Muller, " Childfree women are still subjected to Stigma" The Trauma & Mental Health Report, York University. September 9 2021 (https://trauma.blog.yorku.ca/2021/09/childfree-women-are-still-subjected-to-stigma/)