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“That’s not misogyny, babe”. 

If I were born four hundred years ago, I’m pretty certain I would have been burnt at the stake for being a witch. Being told to “shhh” and how “scary” I looked by a six foot-two, mullet-sporting man on Mayday morning at Magdalen Bridge reminded me of this fact. I forgot how ‘scary’ a woman with an opinion could be. 

Today we live in a society where the dialect surrounding misogyny has been transformed into something more clandestine. Whilst I cannot literally be condemned to death for possessing the qualities of a witch, I can still be condemned socially for the same reasons. If a woman is confident, passionate, or independent, it’s not uncommon that these traits will be translated by some men into ‘cocky’, ‘bossy’, or ‘overbearing’. Through these covert changes in language, misogyny is able to slip through the cracks. 

Four hundred years ago my left thumb might have been tied to my right toe before I was tossed in the moat surrounding the Oxford castle and prison. Had I sunk and drowned, I would have been innocent. Had I floated, I would have been a witch, fished out, and burnt at the stake. Not the best odds. The man on the bridge on Mayday looked like he’d have quite liked to toss me into a body of water, although he probably wouldn’t have gone as far as burning me. The reasons why a woman could be accused of witchcraft four hundred years ago were many and spurious. Watch out if your neighbour’s cow died or a child fell and hurt themselves outside your house or a man had impure thoughts about you. Also watch out if you lived alone, didn’t have children or were outspoken. The man on the bridge identified my ‘witchiness’ on similar grounds – I was wearing red eyeliner, which apparently made me look ‘scary.’ He repeated this word many times when I called him out. 

As I stood on the bridge being berated for being ‘scary’, I realised just how helpless these women must have felt when on trial. How does one prove they did not curse their neighbours’ milk? How could they show that their cat was not the devil incarnate? How would I respond to the allegations of sinisterness? When someone shouts something at you enough it starts to feel like your reality. After the fifth time, I began to wonder whether I should have spoken up in the first place, whether I was being unnecessarily provocative. It made me wonder whether, if a man in my town told me that I was a witch enough times, purely because of my stubbornness or because of the mole on my neck, I would believe it. I feel lucky to have been brought up to stand up for myself and for other women around me when faced with similar situations; however, this is not the case for everyone at Oxford, let alone across the world. I could not help but think of all the women stuck living with men such as the one on Magdalen Bridge, who have to take daily jabs at their intelligence, or have to make sacrifices in order to protect men’s fragile egos. Of course, encounters such as these may not seem like such a big deal in the grand scheme of things and, to an extent, they aren’t. Women across the world are still facing extreme persecution not dissimilar to, if not exactly like, actual witch trials. My experience with the casual misogyny on Mayday morning is incomparable. However, it is also important not to become complacent in the face of these types of interactions, as these casual, misogynistic behaviours will and have begun to become commonplace amongst young men. We must stop accepting misogynistic jokes in order to set an example for future generations. What does it say about modern society if men are allowed to start calling women ‘scary’ for speaking up. Is this not exactly how the witch-hunting craze started in the first place? 

Most astonishing was how the man in question began to back his claims with evidence, by pulling up a photograph of a witch on his phone. It was in this moment that I most sympathized with accused ‘witches’ of times past, not least Rachel Clinton, a Salem ‘witch’. Her accusers professed that she showed “the character of an embittered, meddlesome, demanding woman—perhaps in short, the character of a witch.’’ I felt as though the picture on the man’s phone was the modern-day equivalent. Fortunately, the absurdity of this man’s actions was enough to settle any anxiety I might have otherwise felt about being too ‘outspoken’. I told him that, had he just told me that he was misogynistic in the first place, we might have saved ourselves from the ensuing back and forths. At this point, his girlfriend felt it necessary to inform me that “that’s not misogyny, babe”. I found the misogyny pretty blatant in this interaction. A picture of an actual witch had been shown to me. However, it did make me think about all the small ways in which boys and men are able to belittle women without being called out or, in this case, by being defended. Even when I was clear in my mind of my ‘innocence’, I couldn’t convince him or his friends. Though we may no longer risk being tied to a cucking stool and dumped into the river Cherwell, we are nevertheless still tested on our ability to conform with standards set by men centuries ago. I did not fit his paradigm because I was not willing to accept his casual misogyny, so he used his physical dominance to shout down at me, I suppose in the hope of my surrender.

I suppose being a witch is a slightly self-fulfilling prophecy, one that I’m fond of myself. But whilst I might be able to laugh at my own ‘witchiness’, we must be careful that the road to casual misogyny doesn not become a slippery slope. Just consider how you might have reacted five years ago, had someone told you that Roe vs Wade would be overturned. Fairy tales, even the most sinister ones, can always turn out to be real. 

Image Credit: Robert Benner//CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

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