Review: Elizabeth Reis' Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England

by Aimee Noe

Little doubt remains among scholars of history that religion has been one of, if not the most dominant force in the development of human civilization. Societies have looked to theology and spirituality to define their place in the world, explain the unexplainable, and define right from wrong, good from evil. Even in present-day America, with its emphasis on the separation of church and state, religion seeps into every fiber of our being. The election of leadership, the construction of laws, and the definitions of appropriate gender roles are rooted in patriarchal notions backed by archaic doctrine and, until recently, little consideration has been given to the ways in which theology has disproportionately affected women. With a renewed focus, Historians, Feminists, and Scholars of Women’s and Gender Studies are revisiting events in history to gain a better understanding of the role religion has played and its lingering effects on women. One such Historian, Elizabeth Reis, author of Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England, does just that. Reis explores one of the most popular events in early America’s history, the New England witch trials, and examines this period through the lens of Puritan ideology and its effect on women in the seventeenth century. Arguing that “…although Puritan theology held that men and women would be equal before God and the devil, the mundane world mediated those tenets, making it easier for Puritans to imagine that women were more likely than men to submit to Satan and become witches.”[1] Carefully examining the correlation between theology and gender, Reis effectively concludes that the foundations of Puritanism – the feminization of the soul, woman’s physical inferiority, and woman’s inherent depravity as a result of Original Sin - led them to be more susceptible to the temptations of evil culminating in hundreds being accused of or confessing to witchcraft.

By far the most compelling evidence in support of Reis’ thesis is the feminization of the soul. According to Puritan theology, whether it be with God or Satan, the conversion of one’s soul was equivalent to the covenant of marriage. As both men and women were expected to enter into this bond, preferably with God, one had to account for the implications of homosexuality when a male soul became bound to God or Satan. Both of which were considered male entities. Thus, to avoid any possibility of immorality, Puritans gendered the soul as female. Puritan clergy, in seventeenth-century colonial America, preached that God and Satan vied for souls literally and metaphorically and an unprotected feminine soul was particularly vulnerable to being led astray. Puritans also gendered the soul female due to its unsatiable nature and to allow men to submit their souls to God without compromising their masculinity.

In order to reach the feminine soul, Puritan doctrine claimed that Satan would first attack physically and men were more capable of resisting the temptations and tortures of the devil due to their physical superiority. Women on the other hand were physically inferior, their bodies too weak to withstand the onslaught of Satan’s forces. Thus, “women were in a double bind,” both body and soul.[2] Justification for this line of thought included the notion of a woman’s inwardness. Puritan theology asserted that the reproductive organs of both males and females were identical, with one gender’s, male, being external and the other’s, female, being internal. This logic led Puritans to believe that inwardness equaled female; thus, if the soul was feminine and a woman carried the burden of her body’s fragility her contract with Satan was inevitable. Furthermore, Puritans stressed that a woman’s brain was weaker than that of a man’s, leaving her with a “tender and feeble constitution.”[3] In their literal interpretation of minister’s sermons, the laity became convinced that “because women’s bodies lacked the strength and vitality of men’s… the devil could more frequently and successfully gain access to and possess a woman’s soul, thus bringing them into “…full Submission, and entire Resignation to his Hellish Designs.”[4]

According to Reis, another reason women were accused of or confessed to witchcraft more often than men was their belief in the intrinsic depravity of their souls. Woman’s inherently corrupt nature originated from the biblical story of the Garden of Eden in which Eve committed the Original Sin. Puritan theology ingrained that all women were born with the seed of sin and that their souls were naturally vile. This corrupt nature and the idea of the degenerate soul convinced women that no matter how pious they were or how adamantly they refused Satan’s temptations they were damned, as sinfulness encompassed their entire being. Thus, Satan and natural sin worked in tandem to tempt the weak feminine soul.

An enlightening and timely analysis, Elizabeth Reis’ Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England, provides convincing evidence to support the argument that Puritan settlers were indoctrinated into the belief that women were linked to the devil through the Feminine Soul, their weaker bodies, and the Original Sin. By embracing “a sense of themselves as essentially depraved, as sinners bound to the devil” women were more inclined to accuse others of witchcraft or confess themselves.[5] In their attempt to define and defeat evil, Puritans used their theology and thus judged and condemned women solely “on the basis of religiously founded notions of their nature and proper sphere.”[6] Casting aside prevailing theories of hysteria, rebellion, a form of punishment, and even poisoning, Reis offers, albeit limited in scope, a fresh perspective on one of the most discussed topics in the history of America. By examining religion’s role in the development of society, individual communities, and gender roles, present-day scholars can expand existing narratives and gain a clearer understanding of the how and why behind major events in history.

[1] Elizabeth Reis, Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), 5.

[2] Ibid, 94.

[3] Ibid, 108-109.

[4] Ibid, 110

[5] Ibid, 151.

[6] Ibid, 11.

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