Catalonia’s left-leaning Parliament recently passed a resolution pardoning the hundreds of women killed as witches between the 15th and 18th centuries.
A similar bill is making its way through the Scottish Parliament. Both were motivated by the post-MeToo desire to remember those women who were executed for heresy by fire, gallows, or water.
In the same vein, Mona Chollet, a leading figure in Francophone feminism, writes “In Defense of Witches,” a sweeping, discursive review that is both thought-provoking and liberating.
Chollet honours 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 necessarily paired, often flout traditional beauty criteria (letting their hair go grey), and thus operate outside the established social order.
The French government, from its tax policies to its extensive public day care, is structured to support families and mothers, which is ironic given the country’s reputation for celebrating the femme libre. It is also, not incidentally, a country where a specific concept of femininity supports the economy through the biggest beauty business in the world.
Chollet has Obviously Touched a Nerve.
Her first novel to be published in English, “In Defense of Witches,” was a huge hit in France when it came out 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 captivated by clichés of French femininity. (Perhaps the best modern example of this is the show “Emily in Paris,” in which a naive American is introduced to the sophisticated culture of France.) Chollet, however, is a quiet revolutionary in the actual France of today, challenging stereotypes and the patriarchy that gives rise to them.
And who better than the witch to symbolise feminine strength and defiance of male dominance? The word “has had a magnetic pull on me,” Chollet adds, ever since she was a toddler. “Something about it fizzes with energy.
The term alludes to tacit understandings held by those who live close to the earth and have amassed a wealth of experience that is often overlooked or suppressed by authoritative accounts.
Women who come into their own power are portrayed negatively in “In Defense of Witches,” as are women who choose not to have children or who experience infertility. Furthermore, middle-aged women are largely forgotten about.
Rather than being publicly burnt at the stake, women today find themselves sidelined at work due to subtle forms of midlife sexism or outdated beauty ideals that put a premium on youth and equate a woman’s “expiration date” with her ability to bear children.
Chollet describes this phenomenon, in which a woman dissolves into motherhood or child care out of necessity or choice, as the “femme fondue,” or melting woman.
Chollet has a special distaste for men who leave their husbands for much younger women. She quotes the late, great Carrie Fisher, who passed away at age 60, saying, “Men don’t age better than women, they’re just allowed to age,” in a chapter headed “Shattering the Image of the Old Hag.”
What seems “particularly troubling about women’s ageing is their experience,” Chollet says, and this is true for both the witches of the past (who serve as a through-line in the book) and modern women.
Experience, however, is not a guarantee that one will gain assurance. “A woman who is confident in herself, who expresses her own thoughts, desires, and dislikes is very quickly cast off as a harpy, a virago, by both her boyfriend and peers.”
More than Anything Else,
“In Defense of Witches” questions what it means for a woman to choose not to have children and how she can still have a fulfilling life.
Chollet describes why she decided not to have children in a chapter titled “Wanting Sterility,” including her concerns about the effects of civilization on the environment and for other, more introspective reasons.
Nothing could convince her to help someone else through “those horrible ordeals known as childhood and adolescence,” she writes.
In this case, Chollet is primarily concerned with the reproductive options available to women who do not desire to have children.
She barely touches on the topic of women choosing not to have children for various reasons, such as financial hardship, their partners’ disinterest in having children, or a lack of easy access to fertility treatments, which were only made legal in France for single women and lesbians this past summer after a lengthy debate over bioethics.
If a woman lives in a country with some of the best maternity benefits in the world and chooses not to have children, she is obviously going against the tide. (She also avoids discussing trans people’s realities.)
Chollet may have been influenced by French authors (Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” is still required reading for feminists), but she uses a lot of English words to make American feminism more accessible to French readers.
Chollet praises Rebecca Traister’s 2016 essay “All the Single Ladies,” and “In Defense of Witches” can be seen as a kind of French rebuttal to that essay. She also mentions Susan Faludi, Adrienne Rich, Susan Sontag, Elizabeth Gilbert, Audre Lorde, and Rebecca Solnit among many others.
Chollet has a Readable Style.
She includes a dash of feminist theory but doesn’t let it overpower her insightful analysis of popular culture and personal anecdotes. There’s a sense of self-aware wonder in her voice. She is a journalist, not a polemicist.
(The British English translation by Sophie R. Lewis is excellent; but, the book as a whole could have benefited from a more thorough editing process.) The liberating message of “In Defense of Witches” has struck a chord in France, where it has been instrumental in dispelling negative stereotypes and giving women a sense of acceptance.
Chollet’s work was defined by journalist Valentine Faure as “personal political development: empowering and inciting insurrection, but via changing oneself as much as changing the world” in Le Monde.
Despite Chollet’s efforts to redeem the witch as a symbol of good, I for one would like to see the character retired. Isn’t there a better word we can use? The scope of Chollet’s work demonstrates how inadequate our terminology is when it comes to defining women in contexts outside than biology and family.
‘Making Yourself Small’ to Be Loved?’ is the subject of a chapter in her most recent book, “Réinventer L’Amour,” or “Reinventing Love,” in which she discusses French magazine covers in which Carla Bruni looks to be shorter than her husband, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
Together with the newest jeremiad by Éric Zemmour, a television pundit turned far-right presidential contender who has often complained how women’s empowerment to roles beyond motherhood has harmed French society, it has appeared on best-seller lists.
This year’s most talked-about sociological tome was written by Emmanuel Todd, who argues that the patriarchy never existed and that modern feminists are wrong to view males as the enemy (all that hullabaloo about femicide!) rather than as allies in the fight against economic collapse.
There has Been a Lot of Pushback From Feminists Against His Book.
Because of the climate, Chollet’s work has been groundbreaking and has provided crucial opposition. A woman’s decision to defy social norms, especially by choosing not to have children, is shown in “In Defense of Witches” to be a political act, even an act of resistance.