On a brisk autumn day in New York City, 1968, roughly 13 women spent the morning of October 31st dressing in black cloaks and dresses. They stuck feathers, leaves, and furs in their long hair.  One woman grabbed her enormous hat, roughly in the shape of a costume witch hat, but instead of a pointy top, it sported a paper mache pig’s head on a plate surrounded by dollar bills. These women were members of W.I.T.C.H., the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell and they were about to jump on their broomsticks and fly into the history books. 

TRANSCRIPT FOR W.I.T.C.H.

Written by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD

Produced and recorded by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD and Marissa Rhodes, PhD

On a brisk autumn day in New York City, 1968, roughly 13 women spent the morning of October 31st dressing in black cloaks and dresses. They stuck feathers, leaves, and furs in their long hair.  One woman grabbed her enormous hat, roughly in the shape of a costume witch hat, but instead of a pointy top, it sported a paper mache pig’s head on a plate surrounded by dollar bills. These women were members of W.I.T.C.H., the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell and they were about to jump on their broomsticks and fly into the history books. 

I’m Elizabeth

And I’m Marissa

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Elizabeth: On October 31st, 1968 Women’s Liberation adherents invaded the dour male domain of Wall Street in order to place a “hex” on New York’s financial district. The women chanted, “Wall Street, Wall Street, mightiest wall of all street. Trick-or-treat, corporate elite, up against the Wall Street!” They called upon mystic forces to hex the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which it should be pointed out – did drop unexpectedly the following day. 

Marissa: Pictures captured by Bev Grant, an activist, musician and photographer of the 1960s Movement show a group of young, white women having fun while making a political statement. Most pronounced in Grant’s photographs is Roslyn Baxandall who wears a black cape with “Witches, the Original Women Guerilla” emblazoned in bold letters on the back, a white paper mache skull affixed at shoulder level. Her co-conspirators, draped in shawls and costumes pass out leaflets to bemused men and women. They were there to protest the class struggle between the rich and the poor – it was a condemnation of American capitalism. Although they did not make the focus of this initial protest solely about the struggle against male oppression, the fact that they were protesting as women, and embracing this image of the WITCH as a feminine source of power – was radical in itself. 

WITCH on Wall Street October 31, 1968. Photograph copywrite Bev Grant. Used with permission.

Elizabeth: Soon after the hex on Wall Street, W.I.T.C.H. covens sprang up across the country – most prominently in Chicago and Washington, D.C. but also in Boston, San Francisco, Portland, and Austin, Texas. Leaflets passed out by New York W.I.T.C.H. maintained that “WITCH is an all-women Everything. It’s theater, revolution, magic, terror, joy, garlic flowers, spells, It’s an awareness that witches and gypsies were the original guerillas and resistance fighters against oppression… There is no “joining” WITCH. If you are a woman and dare to look within yourself, you are a Witch…Whatever is repressive, solely male-oriented, greedy, puritanical, authoritarian – those are your targets.” 

Marissa: Like the larger radical women’s movement, W.I.T.C.H. was based on collectivity, with a W.I.T.C.H. leaflet stating, “The power of the Coven is more than the sum of its individual members, because it is together.” 

Elizabeth: Robin Morgan professed that W.I.T.C.H. was a phenomenon in itself within the Women’s Liberation movement and each Coven had its own style and focus. W.I.T.C.H. claimed the subversive identity of “witch” in order to overcome the deleterious effects of the witchcraft purges of the Middle Ages and to take a term meant as an insult, and embrace it instead – a move they borrowed from the Black Liberation Movement.  However, claiming the label witch in this case was a political act of resistance and their protests, called “zaps,” was feminist street theater with a powerful message. This was not an embrace of witchcraft or goddess worship in general, although many in the women’s liberation movement did gravitate towards goddess worship in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, which Sarah touches on in her episode.  

Marissa: The original New York City WITCH coven formed from the group New York Radical Women (NYRW), that according to historian Alice Echols was in the midst of a internal politico-feminist schism. Politicos believed that women’s liberation should work alongside and from within the Left while radical feminists felt they had to forge a separatist route, focused on raising the awareness of women to their own oppression so that they could be organized into a collective class movement. 

Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation | Fair Use / Wikimedia Commons

_________________

Elizabeth: It’s important to highlight the connection between the Women’s Rights movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and the new Left in general during this time. Many women’s liberation organizers had participated in Movement organizing and brought valuable skills and knowledge from that work. This also meant that some organizers had deep ties to socialist leftist principles and resisted women’s liberation becoming a separate, stand-alone movement. Others saw how the Black Power movement was moving away from the Civil Rights movement, creating a stand alone movement by Black people for Black people, without white interference. Some women’s liberation members felt that was the best approach for women’s liberation as well. Basically, many early women’s liberation meetings broke down to the question “is our oppression capitalism or men?” 

Marissa: Radical women in the NYRW utilized a tool they called Consciousness Raising (CR) where women shared their personal experiences and testimonies. By sharing these experiences aloud, other women were able to understand that the struggles in their own lives were not individual problems but societal issues. The group used these personal experiences to examine the root of women’s so-called “personal” problems and understand that they are actually societal problems that takes collective action to fix. Peggy Dobbins shared her experience of being involved in the consciousness raising groups saying, “By sharing personal experiences we were discovering we weren’t crazy.”  Chude Pamela Allen recalled, “The topic I remember being personally profound was relationships to men. Somebody was commenting about her boyfriend saying something to her and everybody in the room went: ‘Oh, my god. That’s exactly what mine says to me.’ If women are all being accused of being too emotional, what does that mean?” 

I guess to our modern ears, this seems strange in a way. Like, how were these women not discussing these things with each other already – but they weren’t! Because they were expected to keep up the myth of the perfect daughter, wife, mother. So these CR sessions were really revolutionary for a lot of women. And again, going back to Sarah’s episode in this series, she gives an example of how frank discussions among her female cohorts in college were revolutionary for how she thought about sex and “normalcy.” So this idea of consciousness raising is still an important tool in overcoming oppression. 

Elizabeth: In the late 60s, radical women in the NYRW struggled with this internal question over whether women should work with men on the left or build their own separate movement. Should they focus on theory and consciousness-raising or direct action? These debates led the NYRW to split into various sub-groups. 

Marissa: The NYRW ended up becoming kind of an umbrella organization for radical women, with some politicos splitting off to participate with WITCH who wanted to do “action” and others gravitating towards the Redstockings, a group of radical feminists whose name was a nod to the disparaging label “bluestockings” given to early women intellectuals, and red for revolution. Listen to Marissa’s episode on Bluestockings and Gendered Insults in Britain for more info. The Redstockings became famous when they disrupted a New York State Legislature hearing on abortion, which had a panel of “expert witnesses” that included fourteen men and a nun. Redstockings organized a “speak out” in the West Village where the real experts, women who had actually experienced abortions, spoke before a large crowd. A link to the audio of that speakout is in the transcript of this episode on our blog, digpodcast.org.

Elizabeth: You can see this internal argument between a focus on capitalism and a focus on women’s oppression playing out in some of the WITCH writings. For example, the New York coven writes, “You are pledged to free our brothers from oppression and stereotype sexual roles (whether they like it or not) as well as ourselves.” So the WITCH politicos, who in 1968 and early 1969, still wanted to organize with men and the left. This argument also played out in the very first WITCH zap on Wall Street that emphasized the working-class struggle against capitalism, not necessarily the women’s liberation movement. However, as more women politicos in the Women’s Liberation movement experienced the intransigence of the Left and the Old Guard not taking them seriously, they began naming sexism as the central source of oppression. Morgan’s famous essay, “Goodbye to All That” called out the sexism of the Left and the misogyny of the everyday man, especially the ones that claimed to support “Women’s Lib” as they disparagingly called it while they made sexual jokes and relegated women to the typewriter and kitchen duty. Subsequently, politicos who originally aligned more with the left and a critique of capitalism began moving towards the radical feminists who were focused on male supremacy as being the ultimate oppressor.

Marissa: After the zap on Wall Street, subsequent WITCH zaps happened across the country and the WITCH acronym could be morphed into what suited the zap best. In one iteration, WITCH became Women Inspired To Commit Herstory when they protested the treatment of Black Panther women held in the New Haven Niantic Women’s jail. The Panther women were held in solitary confinement under armed guards and lights shining in their cells 24 hours a day. Ericka Huggins, who we talk about extensively in our Black Panther episode was one of the women held in solitary confinement. 

Elizabeth: Other Panther women, Francis Carter and Rose Smith, were forced to give birth under armed guard in the prison and were denied prenatal care. News of their treatment brought a multiracial coalition of over three thousand women to New Haven in November 1969 in protest. A WITCH coven joined in these protests, this is before Carter and Smith had given birth. The WITCH hex includes the foreshadowing of their births:

Guards will be there.

When the babies are born.

Guards will be there.

To take them away. 

The State will decide

Who’s “fit” and who’s “not fit”

To guard and be guardian

Of mother and child….

Therefore, WITCH curses the State

And declares it unfit…

Oppressors:

The curse of women is on you.

Marissa: When AT&T fired two typists who refused to be called “girls” and insisted they be called women, WITCH became Women Incensed at Telephone Company Harassment. They wrote in their leaflet for this protest zap: 

How Does a Girl Become a Woman? When she defines her own life and stops being controlled by her family, her boyfriend, or her boss. When she learns to stand up and fight for herself and other women- because she has learned that her problems aren’t just her own. 

So again, highlighting the collective action necessary for real change. In a WITCH card from “Hellmark,” WITCH became Women Interested in Toppling Consumption Holidays and encouraged the mothers in their lives to “renounce your martyrdom! Become a liberated mother, a woman, not a ‘mom.’”

Elizabeth: And my favorite hex, by the WITCH Women’s Independent Taxpayers, Consumers, and Homemakers:

Double, bubble, war and rubble,

When you mess with women, you’ll be in trouble;

We’re convicted of murder if abortion is planned;

Convicted of shame if we don’t have a man,

Convicted of conspiracy if we fight for our rights;

And burned at the stake when we stand up to fight.

Double, bubble, war and rubble

When you mess with women, you’ll be in trouble.

We curse your empire to make it fall-

When you take on one of us, you take on us all!

Marissa: Not everyone in the Women’s Liberation movement was impressed with the “zaps” and theatrics of WITCH. Radical feminists like Kathie Sarachild and Carol Hanish, both organizers of the 1968 Miss America pageant protest, felt that the WITCH theatrics were an attempt to keep up with the members of The Youth International Party, known as Yippies. Yippies performed political street theater and pranks, famously running Pigasus the Immortal (a pig) for president in 1968. WITCH theatrics seemed to go a bit too far in one of their last zaps. 

Elizabeth: In February of 1969 ten thousand stickers stating “Confront the Whoremongers” appeared all over New York City in advance of the first New York Bridal Fair. On the day of the event, WITCH demonstrators showed up wearing black veils singing “Here come the slaves, off to their graves,” and carrying signs that said “Always a Bride, Never a Person.” They were protesting both the oppressive elements of marriage but also the sheer consumerism of the whole wedding complex – the “need” for a full china set and 18,000 different types of linens. 

Marissa: WITCH demonstrators performed an “Un-Wedding” ceremony in the morning, declaring themselves – in the name of Revolution – Free Human Beings. Later in the day, they released 150 white mice onto the show floor but instead of running and screaming like the WITCHes had hoped, the bridal show participants actually tried to save the mice from getting stepped on.  

Elizabeth: Instead of endearing themselves to the very women they were trying to reach, WITCH zaps like this tended to antagonize other women with an attitude of “I’m woke, and you’re not” or in the term of the day, “I’m liberated and you’re not.” Not surprisingly, women attending the bridal show didn’t like being called slaves and whores. After the Bridal Fair, WITCH turned towards more consciousness raising activities, like their radical feminist sisters. They still operated under the banner of the NYRW. 

Marissa: Morgan later wrote of the WITCH theatrics, saying it was “clownish proto anarchism.” and had not “raised our own consciousness very far out of our own combat boots.” She looked back at the emulation of groups such as the Yippies as disastrous, however she wrote “we were also, in all fairness, newly aroused and angry about our own oppression as women- and we wanted to move. It seemed intolerable that we should sit around “just talking” when there was so much to be done. So we went out and did it.”

WITCH on Wall Street, October 31, 1968. Photo by Bev Grant, used with permission.

Elizabeth: Many activists involved with WITCH participated in other feminist actions and organization. Heather Booth, a WITCH activist in Chicago was one of the originators of the Jane Collective, a large Chicago-based underground service that provided underground safe abortions in the years 1969 to 1973, prior to Roe v. Wade. We discuss the Jane Collective a little bit in our episode Birth Control and Abortion Before Roe v. Wade. Other WITCHes continued to be leaders in the women’s liberation movement. Even as WITCH zaps faded away, the women of WITCH continued to fight for the radical women’s movement. Also, to be clear, the lines between WITCH, the Redstockings, and other organizations were not clearly defined. Many members of the various NYRW sub-groups participated in both groups.

Marissa: So up to this point we’ve really been talking about a small contingent of radical feminists in the Women’s Rights Movement as an important part of second wave feminism. 

The other, and more prominent faction was liberal feminists, represented by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and prominent women like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinam. Liberal feminists were and are committed to working within the system, such as getting more women elected to office, more women as the CEO’s of large companies, etc. NOW’s statement of purpose put it, “to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society,” largely by means of equal pay and equal representation. 

Elizabeth: Whereas radical feminists argued that women constituted a sex-class, that relations between men and women needed to be recast in political terms, and that gender rather than class was the primary axis of oppression. According to radical feminist Jo Freeman,, “women’s liberation does not mean equality with men” because “equality in an unjust society is meaningless.” Radical feminists coined terms that we are familiar with today like “the personal is political,” and “sisterhood is powerful.” They also produced much of the must-read second wave feminists texts such as Anne Koedt’s “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,” Pat Mainardi’s “The Politics of Housework,” Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, Carol Hanisch’s “The Personal Is Political,” Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, and Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will. These foundational texts laid the foundation for women’s studies programs in universities across the country. 

Marissa: Over time liberal feminists began adopting some of the views and practices of radical feminists. For example, liberal feminists adopted consciousness raising, something Betty Friedan had once chastised as “navel gazing.” 

It’s pretty hard to imagine for those of us born after the sweeping changes brought about because of second wave feminism, what it was like for women in the Movement. I think one of the hardest things to understand, or wrap my brain around, was how women just didn’t talk about their own oppression or politics in general the way we do today. Prominent writer and feminist activist Alix Kates Shulman said this about her introduction to the women’s liberation movement:

I was home in Manhattan with my children when I heard these women on the radio talking about [NYRW and] this thing they called women’s liberation. I was a perfect specimen of who they were trying to reach: a genuine housewife. I’d had to leave my job as an encyclopedia editor when I got pregnant, because back then there was no maternity leave. The thing that was so shocking to me was that these women were talking with authority about politics -— I’d only heard men talk that way.

Elizabeth: As women became more aware of their own place within the larger protests movements in the late 60s and 70s, the women’s liberation movement grew and their anger mounted. In an oral interview for the documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, Ruth Rosen, historian and author of the feminist historyThe World Split Open, explained how male oppression colored every aspect of women’s lives. Speaking of her experience in academia she said:

 “I was in the history department and I knew zip, nada, zero about women’s history. And we realized we didn’t know very much about women’s literature, or women’s art. In fact we realized that we had gotten degrees and we knew nothing about women.”

So they did something that is terrifying and totally bad-ass. She got a group of women together with their advanced degrees, so PhDs and Masters degrees, and they called the press, and they took their degrees and publicly burned them. But the reason they did it was because they were angry. Rosen says she “felt so duped, like I had been fooled my whole life.” 

Marissa: Can you imagine going to college now and not learning any women’s history? I mean, even an engineering student or something is going to at least take a general education history or English literature class and get exposed to some women’s history and intellectualism. And if you’re a liberal arts major, it’s more than likely a major theme in at least some of the classes you take. It’s just hard to imagine life without women’s intellectualism and history being a major part of our world.

Elizabeth: Right, and economic structures too. Now of course, we still have light years to go as far as universal child-care and the gender pay gap but really- there are HUGE strides that have been taken. I mean, women couldn’t open up a credit card in their own names, they couldn’t buy a house or a car in their own names. They were flat out told they couldn’t be hired, or accepted to an education program, or whatever because they were female. So although we are still fighting, we also have to acknowledge the huge strides that have been made thanks to the angers, the zaps, the consciousness raising, and the hell raising by second wave feminists.

Marissa: It’s kind of “cool” now to bash second wave feminism, just as it’s “cool” to bash first wave feminism as too white, too middle-class, to stuffy, etc. However, sociologist Benita Roth eloquently chronicles the development of feminisms among U.S. based women of color in her book Separate Roads to Feminism. She shows how feminists of color created their own spaces within the larger movement of second-wave feminism, while also highlighting the real blocks that racial inequalities had on the possibilities for feminist union. 

Elizabeth: Additionally, the media and America’s right turn in the 70s and 80s caste dispersions on the feminist movement, overshadowing radical feminists insistence that the society had to change entirely in order to work for everybody, both white women and women of color. In 2013 Rosen wrote a response to the viral article written by Anee-Marie Slaughter. In her essay, Slaughter chronicled the high profile and high stress job she had in her quest to “have it all.” Meaning the job outside of the home, and the husband, and the children, and a good sex life, etc. etc.  Slaughter complained that even though she had a helpful husband and the means to pay for domestic help and childcare, she still couldn’t manage the guilt she felt for not doing it all perfectly. Rosen countered that “having it all” was never what women’s liberation wanted. Radical feminists wanted society to change so that women wouldn’t have to try to do it all. In a reconstructed society, men would do their half and women would have more options than working for wages while also bearing the brunt of domestic and childcare duties. Rosen reminds us that this radical vision was for all women, not just elite white women who could afford to hire women of color to clean their houses and watch their children while they manage to “have it all.”

Marissa: By 1970, WITCH was dead, most of its members moving on to other groups and actions. However, the interest in reclaiming the term “witch” as a positive term took on new meaning as women in the 1970s and onward began practicing witchcraft, wicca, or some other form of goddess worship – inspired by the female-centered feminist writings of women like Starhawk who wrote The Spiral Dance in 1979 and Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, also printed in 1979. Today many practicing wiccans, witches, and neo-pagans consider themselves as practicing in the feminist tradition. 

Elizabeth: In more recent times, images of a new wave of political WITCHes have appeared at resistance rallies since the election of Donald Trump. W.I.T.C.H. PDX and W.I.T.C.H. Boston profess “to follow the spirit of the original W.I.T.C.H. protests and strive to enhance political consciousness through public rituals, protests, and raising awareness of concerns in our communities around the city of Boston, as well as the country at large.”

Members of W.I.T.C.H. Boston holding signs counterprotesting the Boston Free Speech on August 19, 2017

Marissa: We’ve got some great images on the blog post of the original WITCHes and the newest iteration. So that’s it for us today. Make sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook. 

Elizabeth: And please leave us a 5 star review wherever you listen to your podcasts. Have a safe and a patriarchy-smashing Halloween!

Sources:  

Brownmiller, Susan. In Our Time: Memoirs of a Revolution. New York: The Dial Press. 1999.

Echols, Alice. Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975, Thirtieth Anniversary Edition. University Of Minnesota Press. 2019. E-book.

McGill, Mary. “Wicked W.I.T.C.H: The 60s Feminist Protestors Who Hexed Patriarchy.” Vice, October 28, 2016.

Meyers, Pam.“Free Ericka!” Battle Acts, Volume 1, issue 2, December 1970-January 1971.

Morgan, Robin. Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement. Vintage Books. 1970.

Press, Joy. “The Life and Death of Radical Sisterhood,” The Cut, 2018.

Quinn, Annelise. “How did ‘Witch Hunt’ Become the Complaint of the Powerful?,” The New York Times, June 6, 2017. 

Rosin, Ruth. “Who said we could ‘Have it all?'” Open Democracy. August 2, 2012.

Multi-Media:

Redstockings Abortion Speakout, March 21, 1969, New York City

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry

Bev Grant Photography

Jo Freeman WITCH Images


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