Before seeing his actual words, I could dismiss Rush Limbaugh’s recent rant as his business as usual. But reading excerpts of what he said about the Georgetown University law student who wanted to testify before Congress in support of contraceptive coverage, I felt sick:
“What does it say about the college co-ed Sandra Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps. (interruption) The johns? We would be the johns? No! We’re not the johns. (interruption) Yeah, that’s right. Pimp’s not the right word. Okay, so she’s not a slut. She’s “round heeled.” I take it back
“So, Miss Fluke, and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives . . . we want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”
I reacted so strongly because his cruel misogyny reminds me of the 16th century European witch trials, a tragic and overlooked period of women’s history in which upwards of 40,000 women were burned at the stake or hanged as witches. In particular, Limbaugh’s words disturbingly echo a document of the time, called Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches), that became a guide to witch investigations conducted by secular authorities. Written by two priests and published in 1486 with a papal bull, it details causes and results of witch activity as well as a specific step by step process to conduct questioning, including torture, to coerce a confession.
This document launched witch persecutions as an attack on women, says historian Anne Llewellyn Barstow in Witchcraze. In the following negative portrayals of women from Malleus, note the assumption of women’s inherent sexual excess that is also found in Limbaugh’s comments about Sandra Fluke:
“ . . . since they are feebler both in mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come more under the spell of witchcraft.
“But the natural reason is that she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations. And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, . . . which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.”
“Women also have weak memories; and it is a natural vice in them not to be disciplined, but to follow their own impulses without any sense of what is due;”
“For as she is a liar by nature, so in her speech she stings while she delights us.”
“And that she is more perilous than a snare does not speak of the snare of hunters, but of devils. . . And when it is said that her heart is a net, it speaks of the inscrutable malice which reigns in their hearts. And her hands are as bands for binding; for when they place their hands on a creature to bewitch it, then with the help of the devil they perform their design.
To conclude: All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.”
The European witch trials are a cautionary tale for the 21st century. They resulted from social upheaval during a time of economic stress. Increased population led to food shortages, inflation and increased tensions between rich and poor, and the Reformation brought instability to the religious arena. Women became scapegoats, especially those in healing roles like midwives, because their involvement in the realm of sexuality seemed to challenge the clergy’s authority. For reasons not fully understood, the witch trials came to a stop almost suddenly by the mid-1700s, but the transformations in their wake that Barstow identifies offer food for contemporary thought: Women feared other women and avoided healers and midwives. “Women’s crimes” deserved severe punishment. Women internalized a message that their nature was demonic. Women feared speaking up for themselves.
I applaud Sandra Fluke for her courage.