Witches! AKA Women With Power

Holidays like Halloween may have pagan roots in harvest festivals as well as in the Christian tradition to honor the dead. Today, that history has morphed into Fall symbols like pumpkins, shafts of wheat and bonfires, and the ghoulish and gory like skeletons, ghosts and the undead.  The holiday fits in today’s gender-fluid world, with few strictly male or female roles, save one: The Witch.


Perhaps like me, you grew up with the horrific history lesson about early Americans in colonial Salem, Massachusetts, who accused scores of women of practicing “witchcraft” and executed dozens of them. The Salem Witch Trials came at the tail end of hundreds of years of “witch hunts” in Europe, in which tens of thousands of people[1] – mostly women – were executed, sometimes in especially gruesome ways like beheading and burning[2]. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that Massachusetts apologized, more than 250 years after the fact.

The history of witches goes back long before Salem.  The term “witchcraft” shows up in Medieval times to describe the use of magical, supernatural or otherwise inexplicable powers. The typical focus was on the use of this power to cause harm in communities, but often good results were suspect, too.  (Because it seems no matter what women do, it can raise hackles.)

But what was this all about? And why the focus on women, at a time when women held little if any power?  Or did they?


Those accused of witchcraft were almost always women, typically with some talent and authority in their communities. They were women with power.  The checklist for hunting witches then pretty much outlined all the same issues women in modern times still face today: sexism, ageism, scapegoating, and the status quo.

Replace the “W” with a “B” and sadly you’d have a not uncommon reaction to women who exercise power today.


Most of those accused of witchcraft were older women, without a male family member for protection, or impoverished, without means to protect themselves. If you’re in a position of power, you’re likely older.  That experience can cut both ways – it was a hitch for the witches, who learned their trade or skill over time, and that talent could make them a target.

In power struggles today, it can sometimes seem not worth the effort to strive for the C-suite or other coveted position at work.   In its annual report this year, Leanin.org noted that women at the top of their professional careers are leaving in droves.[3] In part, the majority of women with power at work are still coping with societal norms that cast them in the role of primary caretaker at home, too.  Up-and-coming women at work don’t see that as a fair trade, and so the pipeline of female leaders carries fewer contenders for the top jobs.


What really seemed to get those Medieval guys’ bloomers in a bunch was the picture of women together, making merry, drinking wine, and without a man in sight. Witches were threats to order and stability, and hunting them was a system of persecution as well as a means to keep other women silent.

Historian Lucy Worlsey, Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces in the UK, tracked down the first witch in British history, in Scotland in 1590. Agnes Dawson was a midwife, a healer, a widow without children. She was female, older, and on her own, working at a time when the Protestants and Catholics were fighting over followers, when single women were especially vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft.

Single women today may be solo but aren’t necessarily alone; they have friends, colleagues, often the communal support of urban living, along with some money of their own, that can take the place of a husband, brother or father as protector. Having that money of one’s own can also protect a woman from the intimates in her life who may be protectors in name only. Yet a woman being happily single is still met with suspicion by some today.


It’s true sometimes reputation and status in the community highlighted those who were accused of witchcraft, making them less safe when exercising their power. But how do you succeed at work without developing a reputation?  Of becoming known for something?

Is it better not to strive for power? Let’s quash that idea upfront.  Each of us has talents to offer and everyone – perhaps except those clinging to the status quo – is better off with all of us participating in economic life to our fullest potential.  So how can the power that comes with talent, with reputation, with influence work best for women? In fact, for everyone? The nature of planning itself is to exert power, to control outcomes, or at least, to plan for flexibility to weather events when things don’t go as planned.  And like planning, there are multiple parties who can benefit: you, your family, colleagues, friends, community.


Witches were accused of having powers that could be disruptive, stepping over a line in a world in which power was a means of maintaining control and order.  But power has two sides.  Power is more than just strength. It’s a savviness, too. We think about one side of power – control – while we neglect the other – connection.  You could call them “classic” and “contemporary” sides of the same quality.

The classic show of power is a show of strength: command and control, making the tough decisions, and perhaps anger if emotion showed up.  The other side of power is connection.  The focus is on the community, consensus-building, and the emotional quality is empathy.  In 16th century Scotland and the colonies in the 17th century, having the first kind of power was essentially impossible for women; they were then and for generations after, property and not people, without rights of their own. Power-less by definition. But having the second type of power, having connection to family, status in the community, could serve as protection.

We emphasize strength and power over people, and not the power of connecting with them.  But that trustworthiness, that emotional intelligence has a role in reaching your goals.  In fact, often the hardest work is that we have to do through other people. In the callous corporate calculus of “Outplay, outwit, outlast”, an understanding of both sides of power is central.


You want power because you want control over your life, and the quality of the lives of those you love.  Power can be defined at “the capacity to control or influence the rewards and punishments experienced by others.”[4] You want to build your life, use your talent, enjoy the people around you and to protect you and yours from what can throw you off track. We can also think of power as impact. That impact includes how people are affected by you. This means asking for feedback.

Researchers Shelley Cornell and Caroline Simard reported in The Harvard Business Review that women are systemically less likely to receive specific feedback tied to outcomes, both when they receive praise and when the feedback is developmental.  Men are typically offered a clearer picture of what they are doing well and more specific guidance of what is needed to get to the next level.

With work performance being assessed for the next review cycle as we close out the year, when your performance review comes up, take the instruction to do better – and demand the specifics.  No one is protecting you from harm by not providing clear guidance of what you need to do.  (And if they can’t be specific, that might be telling you something, too.) Provide clear instruction to those reporting to you – and offer the specifics. Feedback ideally works both ways.

Feedback is a certain kind of alliance.  It is give and take while in a relationship.  It’s not transactional. Planning for power, for amassing it and wielding it, involves not just a show of strength, but also the show of connectedness.  The Give-and-Take includes:

  • Developing alliances that support and evolve with you
  • Giving and receiving feedback that promotes mutual power.

This idea of mutual power is anathema to the classic power dynamic. Yet each of these tactics supports the other: feedback when done well is a certain kind of alliance. And perhaps greater connectedness among “witches” would have helped them watch their backs.


Part of our fascination with the Salem Witch Trials stems from the idea that it might have happened to anyone. Its captivation for me is the radical and revolutionary idea of a woman making her way on her own – no spouse, family or other support, but making her way in a world that did not support her being a full, complete human being with talent and skill to share.

A current exhibition at the New York Historical Society, The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming, asks what we would do if faced with an accusation of witchcraft: In moments of injustice, what role do we play?

No question, the witches of yore were caught in a system, a power structure that dictated behavior. Your environment, at work, at home, in your community, also prescribes what tactics can work. Taking the time to seek out the opinions of others can help forge connection so that your work isn’t standing for itself – you are connected to other decision-makers.  Lasting power is less about domination and control, more about alliances and connection.


[1] A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials, Smithsonian Magazine (Oct 23, 2007). Retrieved Oct 24, 2022. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-the-salem-witch-trials-175162489/#:~:text=The%20Salem%20witch%20trials%20occurred,the%20families%20of%20those%20convicted.

[2] Were witches burned at the stake during the Salem Witch Trials? (Sep 1, 2018) Retrieved Oct 24, 2022. https://www.history.com/news/were-witches-burned-at-the-stake-during-the-salem-witch-trials

[3] https://www.npr.org/transcripts/1132163742

[4] Keltner, D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Anderson, C. (2003). Power, approach, and inhibition. Psychological Review, 110(2), 265–284.