In a curio cabinet of a historical society in a small New England town is the story of the town’s witch. She was a woman who lived in the mid-1700s and was called a witch but was, most likely, not someone who healed with herbs or practiced a non-Christian spirituality. She did wear a long red cape. In the 1700s in New England, apparently this was enough to cause an entire town to ostracize a woman and call her a “witch,” no small thing given that it was within living memory in her time that people were hanged as witches not too far away.
She had received the cape as a gift and liked to wear it when she went out and about. Of course, given that the consequences of doing this showed that it was clearly more significant than just a fashion faux pas in the culture in which she lived, her wearing of it was possibly just one of many other rebellious acts. Maybe she spoke out against some of the small hypocrisies and tyrannies that she saw going on in the town. Perhaps she refused to do some of the duties of the meek and mild perfect wife and mother that were expected of her. It isn’t too hard to see her reading books that were not the Bible; questioning religious, political, and social assumptions; talking back to her “betters,” as any man in the town would have been considered to be. It could be that she was just plain cranky, Goddess bless her.
To me, her story holds much significance. First and foremost, lots and lots of women were born, lived, raised families, and died in that town. Almost all of them did exactly what they were supposed to do and were buried with, one can imagine, the minister praising their obedience, their lives of unselfish service, and their blessed silence when it came to any issue of importance. Not a one of them has her story told in any curio cabinet in the historical society. I think our witch – somehow I think of her as belonging more to our time than hers – would have enjoyed the fact that women like you are reading her story nearly 300 years after she lived.
Second, you have to wonder how many other women’s stories that would inspire and speak to the real lives of women in past times are hidden in curio cabinets in small town historical societies. Only when I happened to be in the back room of a public building housing the curio cabinet did I read our witch’s story. If we all did a little digging, perhaps we could, together, write new chapters of American and women’s history.
Last, we only have to read the newspaper or examine our own lives to see that times have not significantly changed. Intolerance of people who do not do as they are expected and seem to challenge authority has certainly not gone away. Our society still has its own lethal witch-hunts. Women, especially those who are born into communities or families with strict rules about what women should be and do, must still look and act within very narrow bounds in order to survive. We may shake our heads at the idea of a woman being shunned and called a witch for wearing a red cape, but it is not hard to figure out what the “red capes” of our time are, especially if you happen to “wear” one of those “red capes.”
I love that woman with the red cape, and if I could, I would put flowers on her grave and invite every young woman in that town to come with me to celebrate her by doing the same. Unfortunately, I don’t know where she is buried. But, there are plenty of women with “red capes” in my own time and place: women who fight back against abuse, women who question authority and have their jobs and family’s well being threatened because of it, really, all of us have our own “red capes.” Maybe the best thing to do is to honor her by working even harder to make it so that it is less than 300 years before people shake their heads that women could be alienated for such things.