The Devil in the Shape of a Woman by Carol Karlsen (1987) astutely focuses attention upon the female as witch in colonial New England, thus allowing a discussion of broader themes regarding the role and position of women in Puritan society. Karlsen's work, which has been well-received, focuses on the position of accused witches as largely females placed in precarious social and economic positions, often because they stood to inherit, had inherited, or lost an inheritance in property. Karlsen departs from the idea that women accused of witchcraft were boisterous beggars, a depiction "tantamount to blaming the victim" (Nissenbaum) and instead points to these "inheriting women" as being socially vulnerable in a patriarchal culture.
Karlsen's work is not merely of historical significance to the Salem outbreak of 1692. In fact, "that year remains something of an anomaly" (Nissenbaum) as one-third of the accused witches then were male compared to less than one-fifth of accusations made otherwise in colonial New England. Instead, Karlsen's study brings "women strongly back to center stage, locating them in a rich patriarchal matrix that integrates it with class and family." (Nissenbaum). One reviewer notes that within this context, Karlsen offers significant insights. The first is a look at the "ambivalent assessment of women within New England's culture." (Gildrie). Karlsen finds a scenario marked by its time and place in which women embodied the "Puritan ideal of women as virtuous helpmeets" (Boyer). In an odd duality, women were both the new stewards of God's spiritual leadership on earth, while subservient to a Medieval, misogynist gender role which largely placed their fate at the hands of men.
Secondly, Karlsen focuses attention on the accusers and finds that they were engaged in a "fierce negotiation... about the legitimacy of female discontent, resentment, and anger." (Karlsen; see Gildrie). Accusations of witchcraft were often an outlet where this...
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