Once upon a time, and still in many traditional cultures today, this time wasn’t seen as an ending. It was a celebration of feminine wisdom, the beginning of our fullness, a time to step into the role of healer, leader, matriarch.
What happened?It’s a complicated story that involves thousands of years of suppression of women’s power. I’d like to share some history about one small piece of this story, and it isn’t pretty. And it’s so important to know the truth.
Psychologist Resma Menakem in his brilliant book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Healing Our Hearts and Bodies speaks of the importance of understanding the history of trauma from which European colonists were coming from out of the Middle Ages and how this caused them to be capable of the indescribable brutality of the genocide of native Americans and the enslavement of African peoples. Trauma begets trauma. I want to be absolutely clear that a history of trauma is in no way a justification for historical atrocities or for racialized oppression and violence today. And it’s vital to understand the roots of the ancestral trauma we are still carrying, allowing us to heal and move towards ending the cycle of perpetuated violence.
If you are a white, European descended woman as I am, this information I’m about to share is about what directly happened to your ancestors.
If you are a woman of non-European descent living in the western world, you’re in a culture imposing European/American colonist values on you and all of us, shaped by factors including this history.
Have you heard about the witch hunts of Europe between 1450-1750 A.D.? Most people haven’t. Maybe we’ve heard about the Salem witch trials of colonial America in our high school history classes, but few of us know the history of what happened previously in Europe.
Modern historians estimate that in this three hundred year period, at least 40,000 and as many as 100,000 people were killed by the Inquisition, accused of witchcraft or other heresy against the church. Some historians have estimated the number was much, much higher than this, maybe into the millions. I’m sure most of this brutality was unrecorded and that the numbers are significantly higher than what’s recorded. Of these people killed, 80% were women, and most often, these women were over the age of 40.
In the hundreds of years leading up to the colonization of American, tens of thousands of menopausal women in Europe were brutally tortured and murdered, accused of being witches. This was the label used to vilify any woman who was seen as a threat – a community organizer, a woman who owned inherited land a neighbor wanted, an herbalist or midwife challenging the newly established medical industry run by men, or simply women who were outspoken, powerful, didn’t follow the dominant religious paradigm, were connected to the earth, neurodivergent, or “unacceptable” in some other way. Older women were more likely to be knowledge holders, property owners, or have influence in a way that made them be viewed as “dangerous.” People all over Europe would have known about the witch trials even if they didn’t live in one of the towns where witches were being publicly tortured and murdered.
Can you imagine what 300+ years of this did to terrify older women into silence and staying small?
During the time period immediately after this dark time in history, sometimes called “The Burning Times” is when the modern medical recognition of menopause came about. At first menopause was characterized as another form of women’s “hysteria” and then became another part of our lives to be medically managed.
How do you think this history affected how we think about menopause and what it meant about our safety as older women? How do you think this history influenced the medical view of menopause and our cultural narrative about the value of older women?
This history is still deeply affecting us personally and collectively today. I believe that we’re carrying this in our nervous systems as a mandate to stay small, silent, and forgotten as we age as a way to stay safe. As a psychotherapist, I’ve studied the reality of how we carry ancestral trauma over generations, and how trauma can create culture. I believe the trauma of the European witch hunts has helped created the culture of silence, shame, and fear that we currently have in our culture around menopause.
This is a secret history of oppression of women’s power, infrequently talked about, purposefully lost in time, and carried in our female bodies and in our culture’s views towards women. It’s part of the larger suppression of the history of trauma towards women, people of color, indigenous peoples, LGBTQIA+ folks, and the violence towards the more-than-human world and the earth.
It’s time to know about, talk about, and honor this history. I think the best honor we can give the women killed in the Burning Times is to personally reclaim our menopausal transition as a rite of passage into power & wisdom, not the disempowering silence we’ve been taught to observe.
Witch Trials in the Early Modern Period
This Halloween, Remember Witch Hunts Were Created by a Patriarchy Terrified of Older Women