An illustration of a woman's silhouette against a green flame

‘We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn’

In a month when violence against women has dominated the headlines, author Francine Toon examines the potent – and the persistent – symbol of the witch at moments of female pain and rage.

Francine Toon

Every so often, when my bedroom becomes too hot at night, I experience a recurring nightmare. The specific details will be slightly different, but the overall scenario is always the same. A small animal, a rabbit or perhaps a cat, is slowly hunted by a hidden, predatory animal. I can’t do anything to stop its advance. I have to watch the trapped animal and feel how they feel, until I know, with the deepest dread, that it’s game over. Then I’m awake, unable to move.

Earlier this month, of all weeks, that of International Women’s Day felt tragically like witnessing some form of recurring nightmare, as we learned about the disappearance of Sarah Everard. Details of the case were devastating in their specificity, but there was also something sickeningly familiar in the unfolding story that we were powerless to change.

When I have my recurring nightmares, I’m sometimes shocked at how horrible my imagination can be. Some people questioned why I have chosen to explore unsettling themes of toxic masculinity and violence against women in my writing. I would say that these are not themes I sought out, but themes that found me, over the course of my life and haunted me. As a child, I had recurring nightmares of being kidnapped. It wasn’t until my teens that I found out that, as a toddler, a man tried to take me away from my mother and she bravely fought him off.  This story is just one of many I could tell and one of thousands other women have been telling over the course of the past week.

'Where do we put the kind of white-hot feelings that have accumulated over the course of our lives'

Near misses, like this, I can just about share publicly. Other stories of feeling scared, and trapped and helpless, make me feel vulnerable all over again, like a cat on its back. Those stories are for sharing with close female friends, on a safe, quiet sofa, with a cup of tea. I admired all the women this week who shared their stories, swapping a trusting environment for the cold confines of Twitter, surrounded by people ready to undermine their traumatic experiences. During that week, a YouGov survey revealed that virtually all young women in the UK had been subjected to sexual harassment. Claire Barnett, executive director of UN Women UK called it a “human rights crisis”. Put simply, to interact with a woman is, statistically, to interact with a traumatised person.

As Sarah Everard’s case unfolded, women have been deeply angered and re-traumatised. Yet a question remains, as a close female friend asked me, where do we put this anger, this resurfaced trauma? Where do we put the kind of white-hot feelings that have accumulated over the course of our lives, the feelings that shapeshift and haunt us at night, again and again.

Women tried to find an outlet for these feelings in the form of a vigil in Clapham, to honour Sarah Everard’s memory and to try and experience a defiant sense of safety at night. What ensued was cancellation, and then young groups of women being split up in the dark, man-handled, thrown to the floor and arrested. I was struck by a viral tweet by Dani Garavelli, who described the now-ubiquitous photograph of Patsy Stevenson, being restrained by two policemen, as communicating “burn the witch vibes”. It was a photograph that spoke to an age-old dynamic of female subjugation, bravery and defiance in the face of male power.

Five years ago, I too wanted somewhere to put my feelings of rage, horror and anxiety around the amorphous subject of violence against women. I wanted to spirit these feelings out of my body and trap them in something external, breaking their spell. That something ended up taking the form of my novel Pine, the setting for which was inspired by an area near the Highland town of Dornoch, which back in 1727 was the last place in the UK to burn a woman on the accusation of witchcraft. As I fictionalised my childhood home, I also thought about “burn the witch vibes”. My main character Lauren and her mother practise tarot, palm reading and new age therapies as rumours circulate around their village, in the past and present.

WE ARE THE GRANDAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHES YOU COULDN’T BURN – paraphrased from the 2015 Tish Thawer novel The Witches of BlackBrook – is now a commonly seen slogan at feminist protests. The witch has come to symbolise misogyny’s long, grim history and the need for remembrance. Recently there have been plans for a national memorial to those people accused of witchcraft in Scotland, and The University of Edinburgh has created a virtual map, showing where 3,141 accused “witches” resided.

Yet, as well as evoking the cruelty and horror of the past, the witch also represents a feminine power that exists without the patriarchy. It was a power I found irresistible as a child when, despite the local history, I was drawn, age nine, to the witches of fiction. Unlike other female characters, they didn’t need a prince to rescue them from a tower, they’d fly out of it themselves, back to their confectionary-clad houses, a cat by their side.

'As well as a conduit for pain, defiance and female power, the witch is also a healing figure'

As a teenager, I moved on to the late-Nineties variety of witch, who had the power to save themselves from the dangers and vulnerabilities of being an adolescent girl. It was a power I could only dream of when, as a teenager, an unknown man tried to get me into his car as I was walking to school.

As well as a conduit for pain, defiance and female power, the witch is also a healing figure. In recent years witches and their covens have been reclaimed to express a spiritual side of feminism, one that feels more comfortable with the maiden, the mother and the crone rather than the father, the son and the holy spirit. The witchy sensibilities of tarot, horoscopes and crystals offer a form of healing and bonding, that feels more gender-inclusive.

During that week, of International Women’s Day, and the days that followed, we turned our rage, fear and sadness into collective action that will hopefully bring about new legislation. Yet we also need to take time away from the nightmarish horror that is trying to fight the repeated history of misogyny and process distressing feelings. Those exhausted, angry and seeking catharsis could do worse than embracing their inner witch.

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