TAKE BACK HALLOWEEN! CRUCIAL TRUTHS ABOUT WITCHES TO SHARE WITH FRIENDS, ACQUAINTANCES AND STRANGERS THIS HALLOWEEN
Look around this Halloween: When you see your co-worker dressed as a witch at your company Halloween luncheon, make the mental note that what you are really looking at is a gynecologist. Every “sexy witch” out at the party Saturday night is actually a gynecologist. And that little girl trick-or-treating in green face with an unfairly lumpy nose? She’s a gynecologist too.
Anytime you see a pointy hat or a magic wand, please know that what you are really looking at is a stethoscope and a speculum.
“Witches” were gynecologists. Historically, witches were female health doctors– peasant healers, not unlike acupuncturists, who used plant life and a bit of superstition to provide medical care predominantly to women and the lower class in the late medieval period in Europe. Most of what was considered magic at the time, we would now simply call “gynecology” and “obstetrics:” Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft would have more likely taught pap smears and labor induction than the Patronus Charm. Think of them as Ye Olde Planned Parenthood.
Halloween is tragically to these maligned healers what Thanksgiving is to the “savage heathen” Indians: a digestible vehicle for a mystified history, reframed in the service of a white male power play. It is for this reason that I propose this is the year we take back Halloween! If Americans can finally accept that Columbus Day is actually a celebration of a man who facilitated genocide while establishing American sex slavery, we can reframe Halloween for the witch.
We will no longer celebrate the misogyny that positioned wise women as ghastly, leather-skinned, hairy-chinned crones! We will no longer associate the desire to grant health to women with devil worship, baby-eating and demonology! Together, we can make Halloween the “Indigenous People’s Day” of peasant healers! Together, we can proclaim October 31st as Gynecology Day!
Gynecology Day will finally acknowledge that the concept of “the witch” was created by the medieval Catholic Church as a campaign to deny women’s access to healthcare (as prayer should be enough); to stigmatize female medical practitioners and prevent them from organizing; and to undercut any rise of populist medicine in order to keep the lower class dependent on the church.
The women accused of being “witches” were actually lay healers and wise women who were denied admission to male-only universities yet still provided traditional and herbal medicine to people who had no doctors. They specialized in the healing properties of plants and trees: they had access to painkillers, digestive aids and anti-inflammatory agents; and they discovered several herbs like Digitalis that are the foundations for the pharmaceuticals we use today.
They focused much of their care on women’s health- providing contraceptive measures, performing abortions, offering drugs to ease the pain of labor and menstruation- but only because the Catholic Church held firm that gynecological pain and disease was God’s just punishment for Eve’s original sin so medicine would be of no use. The Church maintained that only prayer could treat a threatened miscarriage or agonizing cramps, but these non-Christian peasant healers didn’t buy that, and formalized medicinal treatment that sought to alleviate these conditions which the Church viewed as a traitorous violation of God’s law.
The healers’ only crime was providing abortions to low-income women, which was outlawed by religious conservatives but only punishable by death so long as it could be however-tenuously connected to devil worship, which is exactly what the Church managed to do. It drew a false line between female healers and the devil, maintaining that witches received their healing powers literally from being fucked by the Devil himself—all to justify the legalized massacre of potential heretics and to stop women from organizing and asserting economic independence.
Vilifying these women provided one other important benefit to the Catholic Church: it limited access to medical care for the diseased and disenfranchised which forced them to rely entirely on religion and prayer for their for their very lives, keeping the Church in power. And the campaign to do so took the lives of tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of women in 15th and 16th century Europe (some German towns killed a thousand women a year; Toulouse, France, put to death four hundred women in a single day).
The face you see in your mind when you think of a “witch” is literally the filter of how the religious conservatives of the Middle Ages viewed women’s bodies and health: wart-nosed spinster hags with post-menopausal dry hair is what the Church thought of gynecologists. Such disdain the Church had for the female body that it associated its health practitioners to flying on brooms and eating babies, and celebrating “Halloween” only cosigns that disdain.
My proposed Gynecology Day is not a time for this kind of misogyny! Gynecology Day will not validate the medieval Catholic Church’s cruel reframing of the importance and power of female health doctors! (Nor its maligning of women born with warts on the tips of their noses!)
Gynecology Day is a day to honor brilliant strong beautiful female health practitioners throughout time who sacrificed greatly to help women in the face of sacred and violent men! Gynecology Day is a day to celebrate peasant doctors as feminist heroes and not sad, eccentric aunts with a hairy chin who own a bunch of cats and collect porcelain figurines she calls her babies.
Furthermore, Gynecology Day is a day to recognize and challenge the age-old religious paternalism that hyper-sexualizes and punishes the female body according to nonsense Christian dogma.
This year there will be no dressing up as levitating devil-worshipping witches! Only magical, brilliant Reproductive Endocrinologists! This year’s cutting-edge costume of choice is “female health coach”—complete with fun hormone-testing kit and yeast infection antibiotics! And when you see a sexy witch, or an ugly witch, or a white witch, or a zombie witch, you thank her for her unrecognized civic duty and wish her a most happy Gynecology Day!
Happy Gynecology Day, to one and all!
Like most progressive feminists, I celebrated this moment during the congressional testimony of Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards last week, when the particularly smug House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, produced an entirely slanted, politicized graph which he claimed he manufactured based on Planned Parenthood’s actual number of abortions. Ms. Richards recognized that the graph had actually been doctored by Americans United for Life, an anti-abortion group, and called him on it- which both effectively shut down his entire interrogation as well as pulled back the curtain on his affiliations- with a simple, steely “Check your source.”
As cathartic as that moment was, the most chilling and pivotal part of the clip for me actually happens earlier on, when Chaffetz is grilling Richards on why Planned Parenthood hasn’t administered a single mammogram this year. Through his badgering her and cutting her off, she finally manages to incredulously educate him that no medical providers have the technology to perform mammograms: only radiologists can do that, and all women must go to radiologists for that cancer screening. Even her.
This to me was the REAL curtain being pulled back: that the guy leading the congressional investigation on PP doesn’t feel he should educate himself as to how a basic mammogram works is a Big. Fucking. Problem. This is elementary stuff: it’s Healthcare 101! Mammograms don’t happen at doctors’ offices. Chaffetz didn’t know, his arrogance and condescension belying his ignorance of women’s health. And why should he? He would never have to have one. It’s not about him. To him, a breast exam is a hypothetical inconvenience, a talking point, someone else’s problem.
It was clear to me in that moment that this is what the debate of Planned Parenthood is about: how little men understand about or are interested in women’s bodies and health.
As a man, I sympathize. Our relationship to our bodies is very simple. The closest I- and any man really- have to any sensation in my lower abdomen is gas. The menstrual cycle is so far outside a man’s understanding of his own anatomy that it borders on science fiction.
As a male acupuncturist, I’ve had a specific exposure to female health that forced me to narrow the gap in my working knowledge of a woman’s body. I sat through gynecology classes in acupuncture school both enraptured and horrified. I’d pass a note to my lady classmates: “Can you feel…ovulation? Like…inside?”
Most pretended not to see it and I don’t blame them one bit.
The education I received was mind-blowing, mostly in emphasizing that the female body is an amazing complex system, that requires a lot more nourishing and management than the relatively-simple “Ford Explorer” male body. Women’s health is complex. Polycystic ovarian syndrome, pelvic inflammatory disease, fibroids and endometriosis are real conditions, very common and require a specific arm of healthcare to manage. Fertility, child bearing and child birthing are so intricate they actually necessitate a consortium of legitimate healthcare providers that a man would never seek out, let alone identify.
Women get urinary tract infections- a lot! Some women get them every single time they have sex, whereas most men have no real grasp of them. Birth control hormone replacement is a giant fucking can of worms we couldn’t possibly wrap our heads around- I’ve had patients who were put on the pill in their teens for cramps try to go off of it in their 30s, and the hormone shock was so intense they thought they were suicidal.
Just menstruation alone is demented: a week of intense, systemic blood stagnation, followed by 5 days of bleeding, followed by a week of anemia, to be repeated for 40 years, is not something a man can sympathize with.
It requires empathy. That’s the problem. If I was bloated and my pants were unreasonably tight for a week of the month, I would barely leave the house.
That is what this debate is: can men empathize? Do they even want to? Can men be interested and compassionate to problems that don’t specifically affect them or see the universe in a way that doesn’t relate to them? Will these men altruistically make the space in this conversation for things they don’t know, may never understand, and maybe makes them corporeally uncomfortable? Can they be interested enough in the female body to lift the lens on policy that tells them male health is the default?
To give women’s healthcare the respect and autonomy it needs requires legislators to get over their childish conviction that everything is about them, and recognize that there are whole worlds and sciences and industries that exist outside of male necessity. It requires politicians to engage policy as more than just a self-gratifying hall of mirrors.
It is very telling to me that when the conservative politicians debate over the “approved” medical procedures Planned Parenthood should perform –as opposed to the totally legal yet controversial abortions- it is always “cancer screenings” or “STD testing,” i.e. diseases that men can wrap their heads around because they are diseases that could actually happen to a man. They are never talking about vaginal infection checks, pelvic exams, thyroid screenings or abnormal bleeding exams: they think cancer is the worst thing that can happen to a woman because it aligns with their own limited fears for their own health.
As far as I’m concerned, every time one of these jackass politicians mentions “cancer screenings” instead of osteoporosis, yeast infection, or vaginitis testing, he is demonstrating what he doesn’t know about female health. He is talking about men and pretending it’s about women. He is talking about himself, and masquerading it as compassion. (Also, keep in mind that both male-only cancers – prostate and testicular- miraculously and somewhat suspiciously have a 99% survival rate.)
This is the same narrow-mindedness that produced the original witch hunts in 14th century Europe: the vilification of female health and the restriction of medicine to the lower class. Much of what was considered “magic” at the time, we would now simply call “gynecology.” This isn’t new. Women have always had these concerns. ALL women’s bodies require a bit of extra care that can never and will never affect men. It’s ok. It’s not because women are the weaker sex, or dirty, or sluts: it’s simply because a woman’s body is complicated in ways that a man’s is not.
I’m not a political person; and I’m probably mostly only compassionate in ways that I hope people are watching and secretly giving me credit for, so I have no real leg to stand on. But I am interested in other things and other perspectives than just my own experience, and that is my hope in writing this post.
I would not presume to imagine what Rep. Jason Chaffetz wants of his life or this world but I would ask of him exactly what I am asking of you: Be interested. Be curious. Make space in your life for a bit of magnanimous fascination. Be willing and wanting to learn about the very things that exclude you or preclude you. Open yourself to the possibility that the infinite height and infinite depth of the human experience could be more compelling than infatuation with your own existence. Inquire with altruism. Engage in a world outside of your self-identification: the very fabric of society depends on it.
Curiosity has its own reason for existing. And women must have their magic.
I found this email I had sent to a patient of mine several years ago. She is a young woman, with a lot of responsibilities for a young person and a slight addiction to the stress of her life (as I surely did in my 20s), who was having a lot of seemingly unrelated health issues for which she was beating herself up and hating her body. It is so important to me that my patients know that their bodies haven’t betrayed them or abandoned them: health is not a punishment; rather, it is an opportunity to learn how best to electrify the pursuit of living.
These “health hiccups” are actually wonderful lessons for you, as priceless as anything else you’ve picked up over the years. They are here to show you your body’s limitations, and that is a true wealth of information if you can choose to see it that way. You perceive these limitations as “weaknesses” or “failures” ONLY because you are deranged- and because you are viewing your perceptual world through the lens of responsibility you feel for others and through the weight of your own ambition. But the other way of looking at these limitations is to show you the real strength of your body and just how far you can push it before it pushes back. The TRUTH is, you pushed it quite far (way further than I ever could have) and it responded amazingly for a while. And now you know where your line is (though you will continue to move that line for the rest of your life) and knowing that limit will serve you so well in the future (which you cant see just yet because you are still in the middle of trauma.)
Most adults wont get that lesson or that bit of self-awareness until well into their 30s at the earliest. Im still getting it. Most men not til their 40s (and when it happens we call it “Baby’s First Cardiac Event.”) ALL DISEASE is a conversation between your body and your brain. It’s your body’s way of saying “Hey, what ya doing there, buddy?” or “Maybe we shouldn’t be doing that?” You are getting that conversation and that lesson younger than most (because in this lifetime, you have been blessed with the tricky gift of learning things early.) Having a “high tolerance to stress” is foolish. Its like having a “high tolerance to fire” and keeping your hand in a flame and allowing yourself to be burned. Id rather know exactly how much heat I can handle before I burn myself down. You found you’re wall and that is fucking rad.
In the context of your life, you will see all of these cumulative diseases as a turning point for when you started to understand your body in a way you never did as a child. And as an opportunity to treat your body better.
Remember all growth is painful. ALL GROWTH IS PAINFUL. Also remember, all advice is more for the giver than the receiver so this email is more for me than it is for you.
Love love love,
“CLOTHES CLOTHES CLOTHES MUSIC MUSIC MUSIC BOYS BOYS BOYS” by Viv Albertine. Trust me on this.
The very first chapter opens with Mr. Lear calling his mother to tell her that he has been chosen as one of the very first inductees to the Academy of Television Arts & Science’s Hall of Fame in 1983, amongst a very small group that included Edward R. Murrow, William S. Paley and Lucille Ball:
“My mother didn’t miss a beat. ‘Listen,’ she said, ‘if that’s what they want to do, who am I to say?’
In all the years since, I have rarely spoken publicly without sharing that story.”