Book Review, NYT, A French Feminist Tells Us to Embrace Our Inner Hag, reviewing, Mona Chollet, In Defense of Witches: The Legacy of the Witch Hunts and Why Women are Still on Trial
Catalonia’s left-leaning Parliament recently passed a resolution pardoning the hundreds of women executed as witches between the 15th and 18th centuries. A similar bill is making its way through the Scottish Parliament. Both were inspired by growing outrage about historical — and contemporary — femicide and by a post-MeToo impulse to honor women who were burned, hanged or drowned as heretics.
This same spirit of exoneration runs through “In Defense of Witches,” a thought-provoking, discursive survey by Mona Chollet, a bright light of Francophone feminism. Chollet celebrates not only the witches of the past, but also the so-called “witches” of today: independent women who have chosen not to have children, aren’t always coupled, often defy traditional beauty norms (letting their hair go gray), and thus operate outside the established social order. That’s especially true in France, which may celebrate the femme libre, but which, from its tax laws to its robust public day care, is built to promote the family and motherhood. It is also, not incidentally, a country where a certain vision of femininity supports the economy through the biggest beauty industry in the world.
Clearly, Chollet has struck a nerve. “In Defense of Witches,” her first book to appear in English, was a best seller when it came out in France in 2018. A Swiss-born journalist and an editor at Le Monde Diplomatique, she has grown a following with work that calls attention to sexism, the gender gap in salaries and the societal pressures placed on French women in a culture with clear ideas about how women are expected to look and act — and of course to make it all look effortless. Anglo-American women have long been obsessed by clichés of French femininity. (Today that’s perhaps best exemplified by the series “Emily in Paris,” in which a naïve American is inducted into the worldly ways of the French.) But in today’s real France, Chollet has emerged as a quiet revolutionary, pushing back against the clichés and the patriarchy that shapes them.***
“In Defense of Witches” explores how women who assert their powers are too often seen as a threat to men and society, how those who don’t bear children are too often seen as a disturbing anomaly and how women at middle age too often disappear. These days they’re not burned at the stake but sidelined at work by the insidious invisible hand of midcareer misogyny, or by standards of beauty that place a higher premium on youth, with women’s “expiry date” tied to their fertility. Sometimes, by choice or by circumstance, a woman becomes what Chollet calls a “femme fondue,” or dissolving woman, who becomes overwhelmed by “the service reflex” and disappears into motherhood or child care, losing her grip on the first person.
April 14, 2022 in Gender, International, Legal History, Theory | Permalink
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