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Double, Double Toil And Trouble: Or, Why Images Of Witch Burnings Are A Bad Idea

October 17, 2010, 3:16 pm

Decades ago, feminists really cared about the casual use of images that exploited women’s bodies or that used violence against women as a way to sell a product.  A billboard that went up on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles in 1975 was the catalyst for feminists to form Women Against Violence Against Women, the first of numerous groups in the United States, Canada and England that began to link the anti-battering movement to images that articulated violence against women as part of the status quo.

By the 1990′s, the feminist consciousness that promoted swift and effective action in such cases had gone under cover, due in part to profound disagreements about what constituted a radical feminist agenda and what women’s civil liberties meant.  I am writing a book about why that was, so I won’t go on at length, but you will be hearing more about this topic at Tenured Radical in the coming months.

In the meantime, I would like to pass on an email I received over the N-Net listserve from Julie Landwebber, assistant professor of History and Women’s Studies, Montclair State University:

I would not ordinarily post a “take-action” request, but this particular issue hits home for historians of women and gender — in particular, anyone working on late-medieval or early modern Europe, or colonial America.

Please take a moment out to send a note to Tomme@lostabbey.com, the founder of Lost Abbey Brewery in San Marcos, California. They have just released a new beer, Witches’ Wit, featuring a highly disturbing image of a very décolleté woman being burned alive at the stake while hundreds of upturned men watch with interest. For those of you who are unaware of this unlovely chapter of European history, roughly 100,000 women were killed by the Catholic and Protestant churches in the 16th and 17th centuries for, most often, the crime of being a woman. I’m sure the creative team at Lost Abbey can come up with a lot of great medieval imagery that doesn’t involve women being burned at the stake.

It’s difficult to see in the picture at right, but you get the drift.  Let’s underline the point here:  it’s not the witch thing that is at issue, particularly since this is a seasonal beer that seems to be available in the fall, but rather, what is being done with the witch.  As you are trying to decide whether Tenured Radical is just another humorless feminist after all, try this consciousness-raising exercise:  given that thousands of men were also burned, beheaded and dismembered as heretics and witches by the church, would a beer company produce an advertisement depicting that? Would a beer company put a Jim Crow-style lynching circa 1925 on the label of a beer named, oh, say, “Baptist Brew”? And if not, why not?



A similar version of this post has been cross posted at Cliopatria.

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