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Monday, March 16, 2015

Report of discussion with Max Dashu

 January 27, 2015

Before I left Oakland for home, I stopped by Max’s archives.

I met with Max for four hours; it was extremely interesting and helpful.

My goal in the meeting was to learn from Max about the Witch Hunts.  I achieved my goal; I learned so much.  It was in reading Caliban and the Witch that I saw that the motivation of the Witch Hunters went beyond their desire to suppress women’s sexuality and their activities which were competitive with the developing medical profession, and by reading John Riddle’s book, I also realized the existence of and the significance of a widespread knowledge and use of contraception and abortion.   This was the real power of women-the power to decide whether or not to create the next generation.  This was the power that those who were in control could not abide.

I originally learned about the Witch Hunts from Witches, Midwives and Nurses by Ehrenreich and English and I knew that women who were burned as witches were many times healers.  I definitely saw that what we were doing represented a revival of women’s knowledge around healing.  

Max rounded out my knowledge hugely. 

Max became irritated with me because she said I wasn’t listening.   It is true that I sometimes interrupted her (as she did me), and also I sometimes didn’t get the full import of what she was trying to communicate. 

Despite certain differences, mostly in emphasis, it was clear that we profoundly agree about the origin and nature of women’s oppression.  We both see that the development of patriarchy resulted in the lowering of women’s power and status. We both see capitalism as an “advanced form” of patriarchy.  We both think that ethnicity and class have to be taken into consideration in any historical explanation.  We both think that the causation of the Witch Hunts and other attacks on women as being multi-causal.  Both of us distinguish between capitalistic or imperialistic patriarchy and the patriarchy found in non-capitalistic or imperialistic societies, and agree that patriarchal capitalism and imperialism is worse for women. In other words, “all capitalistic societies are patriarchal, but not all patriarchal societies are capitalistic.”

Both of us kept the free-ranging discussion from turning into an argument; neither of us were there to convince the other, so we kept bringing the conversation back to a discussion where each of us would have the opportunity to explain our points more fully, etc.

We also talked about the recent attacks of trans-gender women.  Max has worked with atheist groups, and told me about a recent conference where transgender women wanted to participate in a female-only workshop that is traditionally held at the atheists’ conference.  The workshop is held in the nude and the females did not want the transgender women to attend.  (I know she said they wouldn’t allow those who had not had surgery, but I don’t remember whether she said they also objected to those who had had genital surgery).  In protest, the transgender women sat, knees akimbo, around the entrance to the workshop and sent looks of disapproval to the participants when they came in.  Max supported the females by also sitting on the floor and encouraging the participants when they came in. 

We both see this is a serious attack and it constitutes a crisis in feminism.  We also agreed that those who want to destroy feminism, including some leftists who have always been hostile to feminism, are taking advantage of this opportunity to attack feminists by supporting the transgender women.  I think the support is also material.

We talked about Caliban and the Witch.  Max was critical of Federici’s mischaracterization of the era prior to the 14th century.  Federici said that Witch Hunting had started then; that before there was no Witch Hunting.  She has the references to show that in fact, there was Witch Hunting several centuries prior.

I don’t think that Federici’s definite assertion that there was no history of Witch Hunts in the preceding era, negated the value of her insight that the crime of Witchcraft, which focused on contraception and abortion, was invalid.  In reading the whole sentence that Federici had stated, she left room for at least some of the facts that Max had alluded to.  Perhaps I’m conflating the explanation of Heinsohn and Steiger with Federici’s, but I recall that she emphasized that the crime of Witchcraft (as compared to Sorcery) was invented in the 14th century.

Max feels that everything flows from the establishment of patriarchy, and we should not focus on some of the subsequent developments, but rather fight against patriarchy in all of its manifestations.  I feel that a quantum leap happened as a result of the Witch Hunts (as well as the enclosures) that helped the feudal lords to accumulate capital, that this enabled them to launch a campaign of conquest and pillage and colonialization that would result in the establishment of capitalism in Europe and in the huge expanse of territory in the colonies.

We didn’t talk about it too much, but I agree with Max that the viewing the earth as a resource to exploit, and starting with seeing women as resources to dominate and exploit is the root of the problem.  I just think that we need to apply that insight into the current manifestations of this patriarchal/capitalist/imperialist/industrialist outlook.  

Max recognized a lot of the components of the creation of capitalism, bringing precious metals to Europe to enable monetarism, raw materials, slaves, etc.  But, if she sees that these developments forced women into the modern mold, the housewife who recreates the labor force and recreates the worker too, she didn’t say so.  She did say that her criticisms of C&W are “additive”, meaning she doesn’t criticize what Federici said, but thinks she omitted significant information.

My impression is that Max thinks that I over-generalize to pinpoint a particular point in history.  She sees the evolutionary aspect of patriarchy and how it leads to capitalism.  How men in patriarchy saw women as a resource, the same as other natural resources.  I agree with that, but I think that the Witch Hunts had the effect of terrorizing women, resulting in seeing their reproductive activities as resources to enable the modern work force to arise.

We also differed on whether the reason they went after the Witches was to control their sexuality.  To me, patriarchy wants to control women’s sexuality as a means to control their reproduction.  

Max has devoted her life to studying and gathering together the information to support her view of history, and the result is awesome.  She allowed me to read her manuscripts. (Much of the original material that she viewed at the local San Francisco Library was right on the shelves.  She said they’ve now been placed in less accessible sections.)  The wealth of detail that she has gathered brings home the reality of how the Witch Hunt played out all over Europe over four centuries.

I agree with her that the concrete detail is necessary to prevent us from romanticizing the Witches and seeing the Witch Hunts as some kind of medieval aberration.

As to the Witch’s costumes.  She said that women accused of witchcraft were forced to march through town wearing the pointed hats.  Also, she said that much of the details, like the shoes and the dress come from the everyday wear of poor women, especially older poor women. She mentioned Belgium, in particular.

We both are worried about what may happen in this country if the depression gets worse and people are turned against each other.  Some modern version of the Witch Hunts are possible.

Academic Women:
  Our discussion of the role of academic women is illustrative of how Max and I both agree and still go a different place with the significance for action.  She sees the way that the academic world influences academic women to look at their goal as getting prestige, seeing who can get their papers published, etc.  I focus more on the power relationships and the way that patriarchal academia uses its control of jobs and the prestige that goes with it to derail young feminists who seek a career in women’s studies.  I think that we see the cause and effect differently, but we both see how empty and irrelevant most of their work is.  I, in addition, believe that they are being manipulated by academia to spin their wheels, or even worse, to attack the second wave of feminism with their emphasis of personal liberation and changing society by changing labels and self-definitions.