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How Past Roles Of Women Compares With Their Present Roles

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“In general, all women are perceived to behave in an expected manner fixed by social norms; whereby the desire or likings of women are often ignored and oppressed.”

In terms of societal ideals in Western society, Puritanism has permeated through regular conventions (specifically in the United States) from the days in which it was popularized. These cultural norms have stood the test of time and while changing in severity, one that has yet to change as much as it should regards women. The vilification of women from colonial times (specifically during the events of the Salem Witch Trials) to the current day is a byproduct of lapsed justice within American society as well as its lack of ability to change from its old Puritan origins. This can be seen throughout events such as the Witch Trials in 1692-1693 as well as literature from the same era such as The Scarlet Letter.

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The Salem Witch Trials took place from 1692 to 1693 and were a series of events that eventually culminated in the trial and death of nineteen women accused of witchcraft. Witch hunts, believed by many to be a mass search for practicing witches, were used to identify those involved in dark magic rather than pursuing those who were already known to be. Witches during this time were often believed to be women who worshipped Satan. Puritans during this time already believed that the United Sates was the Devil’s territory, so finding these practitioners and punishing them was a high priority (Britannica).

These women were identified first by suspicions and rumors – often started by other townspeople. The gossip then traveled and if it grew in severity and popularity, it would morph into an accusation. Typically, how this would happen is if a woman (or, less commonly, a man) were to act in an anti-social manner, such as mumbling to herself, walking around after sunset, etc., she would be under suspicion of being a witch. Accusations were often announced publicly in town centers and squares in order to publicly shame the wrongdoer. Next came conviction and execution. A popular test for determining if someone was a witch was repeated dunking into a river or pond. The accused witch would be repeatedly dunked into the water for about thirty seconds at a time until she drowned. If she floated, she would be deemed a witch; if not, she was pardoned of the accusation. However, this pardoning was pointless as the accused witch would be dead regardless, having suffered for a crime they did not commit (Britannica).

The trial and accusation of witches, many years after its conclusion, was deemed to be a result of overwhelming church politics, family feuds, and hysterical children. This was due to Tituba, a well-known voodoo practitioner. Three young girls were left in her care just before the Trials and were rumored to have had been taught fortune-telling by Tituba. The practice was in the form of dropping oil into water and reading one’s future by the pattern and path the oils would take as they fell. The three girls, with this newfound knowledge, began reading townspeople’s’ futures and eventually started to exhibit signs of witchcraft. They began to speak to themselves, thrash their limbs, scream, and act oddly. This later was deemed as simple childhood delinquency, but during the 1690’s, these acts were seen as proof that the children were harboring satanic energies and beliefs. The Puritan code of conduct and belief embedded within American society at this time – a monoreligious societal structure – did not allow for much wavering in what possibly could have been wrong with the girls (Britannica).

Eventually, Tituba was questioned on her practices and relationship to the children and she confessed. During the Trials, if a witch were to confess, she would not be sentenced to execution, as Puritan followers believed that God would punish her/him for the sins they had committed. It was only if the accused witch did not confess that they would suffer conviction. Later on, the neighboring town of Salem, Massachusetts found inspiration in the trials and began their own versions, which continued on for several years until executions regarding witchcraft ceased just before the 1700s (deathpenaltyinfo.org). The events of the Trials eventually helped coin the idea of innocent-until-proven-guilty in courts as many of the executions of witches were performed on innocent individuals. Instead it was assumed the women were guilty due to Puritan ideals and beliefs, which at the time (and still to this day) had no governmental weight, as the United States has never had an official religion.

From the events of the Salem Witch Trials, one may see similarities in how women continue to be vilified within society. This can be seen heavily in terms of sex and sexual promiscuity. Puritans had incredible restrictions on sex, specifically pre-marital sex. Although crimes related to sex were equal in severity for both men and women, women were more sought out for the expression of sex (gettysburg.edu). An example of this can be seen in the novel The Scarlet Letter. Following a woman by the name of Hester Prynne, the novel’s premise revolves around the idea of female sexual expression and public shaming by means of visual adornment. In the novel, Hester is found guilty of adultery, a capital crime, after she gives birth to a child without being married and refusing to reveale with whom she performed the act. Council members and townsmen, having mercy on her, decide to adorn her chest with a scarlet letter A that she is required to wear for the rest of her life to remind herself as well as fellow townsmen of her act. “The unhappy culprit sustained herself as best a woman might, under the heavy weight of a thousand unrelenting eyes, all fastened upon her, and [concentered] at her bosom… she had fortified herself to encounter the stings and venomous stabs of public contumely” (Hawthorne 49).

This public shaming can be seen in the Salem Witch Trials which took place relatively at the same time as the events of The Scarlet Letter. The stigmatization of sex has remained prevalent in society to this day. However, the ways in which women are vilified has changed over time. Currently, while the punishment and crimes related to sexual promiscuity have been lessened, the social stigma of being a promiscuous or “unclean” woman remains. Called names like “slut,” “whore,” and “hussy,” women are often harassed and shamed for exuding any sort of sexual identity.

The [stigmatization of sexual promiscuity and pre-marital sex] can be defined from a social psychological stigma approach, in which the context of sexual labeling is principally about distancing the self from a stigmatized, and thus low-status, sexual category. (wacanaseni.usm.my)

Today, women who express their sexual identity by means of their clothing, actions, makeup/hairstyles still follow many Puritan social and religious expectations. Moreover, as a society, Americans continue to publicly shame and ridicule “loose” women. Of course, women are no longer put on scaffolding in front of crowds so that others might point fingers and extoll all of the bad things they have done as in The Scarlet Letter; however, women are often socially ostracized and given negative reputations for sexual misbehaviors and the social consequences of sexual acts can last years, or even a lifetime. Although women are not required to wear a visual adornment as a shameful reminder of their sexual promiscuity, the reputations and social constructs placed on them as a society are sufficiently shame inducing.

Times have not changed much in terms of women’s place in society. They find little justice in practicing what is innate in humans (sexual expression, having sex for pleasure, etc.) and have been punished for centuries on the basis of what has been deemed right and wrong by the code of conduct of a religion. The Puritans believed in a relationship with God and when one did not have that relationship (in their eyes), they were condemned as a God-less being without any respect for their creator.

While religion may not play as heavy of a role in today’s perception of women, Puritanism continues to heavily influence expectations of women. Taking into account American’s views on nudity, sexual intercourse, and sexual expression, it is clear that we as a society still rely heavily on Puritan ideology, placing women below men. Women, in general, have been an oppressed people and America’s rooted belief system and attributes of justice have yet to change to relieve them of their oppression.

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