Ding Dong! Thatcherism and sexism are alive

I have a deep ambivalence over the playing of the song “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” to commemorate the death of Margaret Thatcher. I can well understand the desire to rebel against orders by the British right-wing establishment that everyone must celebrate the prime minister’s “accomplishments,” but the exercise in this form is nonetheless deeply sexist.

Surely there are plenty of political epithets to be hurled at her memory that reference the disastrous policies of her reign. Ronald Reagan was just as awful, but he wasn’t denounced as a witch at his death, was he? Clearly, few of those who took part in the campaign to have the song played on the BBC’s music-chart program stopped to think about the sexism inherent in branding a woman a “witch.” Yes, even when we are talking about someone as horrid as Margaret Thatcher.

What does her gender have to do with her policies? And can it truly be said sexism is a thing of the past because a woman became head of the government of one of the world’s most powerful countries? No more than it could be said that racism is a thing of the past in the United States because Barack Obama is president.

Prime Minister Thatcher imposed misery on millions of Britons; her defenders’ demands that no ill be spoken of her rightly deserves contempt. What mercy did she show to working people? But although the prime minister was powerful and notoriously impervious to opposition — I still have a vivid memory of her reacting to being showered with derisive laughter from the Labour benches during a Prime Minister’s Question Time session with a fierce stare that unmistakably said, “You are very lucky I can’t have you all killed or I surely would” — women as a group do not possess privileges.

Statue of Alice Nutter, English woman accused of witchcraft. (Photo by Graham Demaline.)

Statue of Alice Nutter, English woman accused of witchcraft.
(Photo by Graham Demaline.)

Unequal pay in the workplace, unequal opportunities, expectations of shouldering most of the burden of child care, violence at the hands of male partners, violence at the hands of men in general, sex trafficking, under-representation in governments and legislatures, difficulties being taken seriously, social and institutional discrimination — and this does not exhaust the list.

Social expectations are not separable from that list. Although most of those denouncing the prime minister as a “witch” likely think of themselves as making some sort of political statement, they are really just demonstrating their absorption of the sexism that permeates the world.

When we drill to the bedrock, branding Prime Minister Thatcher a “witch” has much to do with her not conforming to gender “norms.” She may have made her family’s breakfast in the morning, but there is no denying her ruthlessness and cold-heartedness in advancing her political career. Such behavior may or may not be liked in a male politician, but would not be seen as “abnormal behavior” in the way it often is in a female political leader.

An easy example are Bill and Hillary Clinton — she was portrayed on countless occasions as secretly possessing male genitalia and mercilessly ridiculed for supposedly being overly aggressive. Yet are her political positions, or her admittedly ambitious climb to political heights, in any way different than her husband? No — yet she is routinely mocked in ways her husband never has to endure.

If you don’t act ‘feminine’ you are a witch

The cultural history of “witch” is nothing to take lightly. A United Nations research paper reports that “more than 100 women are tortured, paraded naked or harassed … every year” in India’s Chhattisgarh state alone. Rita Banerji, founder of the 50 Million Missing Campaign, reports that more than 2,500 women were branded as “witches” and killed across India in the past 15 years.

In Ghana, there are six witch camps where women accused of witchcraft are banished, forced to live in wretched conditions to escape the near certainty of enduring torture, beatings and lynchings should they leave. The anti-poverty group ActionAid reports:

“Women who do not fulfil expected gender stereotypes, for example if they are widows, unmarried or cannot have children, are vulnerable to being branded as witches. … Some camps, for example Gnani, have male residents who have been accused of wizardry. However most of the camps contain only alleged witches and the total number of men in the camps is far lower than the number of women. This is because men are generally less vulnerable than women as they are economically better off and more able to resist physical violence. This illustrates that vulnerability is a key underlying factor in witchcraft accusations. … Though both men and women can be accused of witchcraft, the vast majority are women, especially the elderly.”

The UN research paper, written by Jill Schnoebelen, reports witchcraft accusations occur on every continent. These accusations often follow a pattern:

“The poor can be accused of jealousy-induced witchcraft, and the well-to-do can be accused of practising witchcraft to acquire wealth.”

A report in the Australian non-profit news Web site Global Mail, detailing mass accusations of witchcraft in Papua New Guinea, notes that communities stressed by the arrival of multi-national mining companies are scapegoating women:

“[T]radition has in places morphed into something more malignant, sadistic and voyeuristic, stirred up by a potent brew of booze and drugs; the angry despair of lost youth; upheaval of the social order in the wake of rapid development and the super-charged resources enterprise; the arrival of cash currency and the jealousies it invites; rural desperation over broken roads; schools and health systems propelling women out of customary silence and men, struggling to find their place in this shifting landscape bitterly, often brutally, resentful.”

The beneficiaries of oppression

These patterns were seen during the centuries of “witch” burnings across Europe and North America. In Germanic states, women were targeted as witches in order to take their wealth for benefit of states and well-connected individuals, while in the British Islands witch hunts mostly targeted poor peasant women, accused by wealthy individuals who were part of local power structures. The Inquisition peaked during a long period of famines, unrest and declines in population; women were systematically excluded from wage work in part to force them to bear children that would replenish the supply of workers in an era of falling population and in part to enable the sustainability of the male wage worker through enforced housework.*

Although witch hunts are today a relic of the past in those cultures, the underlying social forces driving them have not faded into history. As Fran Luck, host of the Joy of Resistance Multicultural Feminist Radio program, writes:

“[T]he oppression of women (and other oppressed groups) is not ‘an accident’ or a vestige from another era, but is an active process from which someone/someones are benefitting now!”

Accusations of witchcraft are no more separable from the cultures in which they arise than is the treatment of women in advanced capitalist countries. In the global North, the mass media and popular entertainment endlessly parade women as objects of pleasure for men, with serious consequences for women who refuse to conform. The oppression of women, as with the oppression of People of Color, national hatreds and similar chauvinisms, is woven into social fabrics, fostering social divisions.

That an individual woman such as Margaret Thatcher rises to a position of power in itself does nothing to alter those social fabrics. She is part of a system, not an individual deus ex machina, no matter how personally ambitious. The neoliberalism imposed by Margaret Thatcher, or Ronald Reagan, or Augusto Pinochet, is a natural consequence of the centralization of power and wealth, the beneficiaries of which have the ability to have their interests maximized above all other interests and to disseminate their ideologies through a multitude of institutions.

It did not take a “witch” to impose such policies, nor could one have imposed such policies if they weren’t already desired by the most powerful corporate interests. By denouncing a “witch,” opponents of Thatcherism not only blind themselves to the reality of the larger system of which it is a component, they actively promote the individualist ideology that maintains that system and the sexism that forms one of its longest-lasting components.

* This paragraph relies on Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation [Autonomedia, Brooklyn, New York, 2004]; Maria Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour [Zed Books, London, 1988]; Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, Witches and Nurses: A History of Women Healers (second edition) [Feminist Press at City University of New York, 2010]