Cotton Mather: Importance of Gender in Colonial Identities

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Alexandra von Paris
ENGL221 0801

Cotton Mather: Women Possessed by the Devil

Importance of Gender in Colonial Identities

One cannot discuss the gender role of women in America without talking about the misogynistic craze of burning witches in Salem in the 1690’s. Cotton Mather was a paramount figure during this time, whose writings on witchcraft, particularly in The Wonders of the Invisible World, fed the hysteria that led to many women being persecuted, and for some, put to death. Mather, labeling himself as simply a “historian” (310), was able to poison his text with propaganda while keeping himself clean, in hopes to spur a hunt for witches. He focused on certain types of women in particular in order to further his agenda to sustain a Puritan way of life, serve as an explanation to the community for previous misfortunes and calamities, and control women’s independence. Cotton Mather, being related to two of the most influential first-generation Puritans in Massachusetts, had grounded Puritan beliefs and a reputation that he had pressure to maintain. According to Mather, witches had been sent as divine judgment against a sinful people. Therefore, witches – or sin – had to be destroyed before the Puritans could fulfill their destiny as “a people of God” in America (308). He writes that the lands “were once the devil’s territories,” and believes that the devil possessed individuals in hopes to “overturn this poor plantation” (308). He prophesizes, “we (the Puritans) shall soon enjoy halcyon days with all the vultures of hell trodden under our feet,” meaning that only once their community is devoid of all witches will they enjoy eternal happiness (309). In New England, the forces that drove Salem were God and the devil. Belief in Puritanism meant fear of the devil, so by opposing witchcraft he hoped for a spiritual awakening to counteract religious disinterest and unify the colony. Mather uses “factual evidence” to...
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