Dressed in black witch costumes, they put hexes on exploitative businesses, sprinkled hair and nail clippings to protest the firing of a feminist professor, and staged an event to “confront the whoremakers at the bridal fair.”
Calling witches the first fighters against oppression, Women’s International Terrorist
Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH), formed on Halloween in 1968 in New York. Covens informally spread to major cities across the U.S. and as far away as Tokyo to protest patriarchy, capitalism, and the institution of marriage, which they considered “legal whoredom for women.”
Historical documents from February 1969 published in the book Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement (1970) capture the group’s spirited approach: “Sisters! Let us confront the whoremakers at the Bridal Fair (and at every bridal fair across the country) but more important, confront and overthrow the institutions of marriage and capitalism which make such bridal fairs possible!” Protesters were encouraged to bring “posters, brooms, costumes, consciousness, anger, witches’ brews, love, bridal gowns, tambourines, hexes, laugher, solidarity, and alternatives.”
WITCH argued that bridal fairs enforced expectations for women to be self-sacrificing servants and consumers obsessed with looks and status. In the historical documents, the group called out bridal fair sponsors for investing in South Africa, which practiced apartheid at the time, and for exploiting labor in South America.
In the historical documents, WITCH protests the limited roles for women at that time:
"Always a bride, never a person. Women were the first slaves, the first barter items way back when the monied economy and patriarchal structure were just beginning. Ever since, the pressure has been on women to marry or face society’s rejection as a spinster—a species of subhuman. A woman is taught from infancy that her only real goal in life is to fulfill the role of wife and mother to male heirs. She is allowed an identity only as an appendage to a man. An unmarried girl is considered a freak—a lesbian, or a castrating career girl, a fallen woman, a bitch, “unnatural,” old maid, sick. In the end, the belies these innuendoes herself. There is no way out—marry or die."
More than 50 years later, it can be easy to forget the legal restrictions that women faced when WITCH protested bridal fairs. At the time, for example, there were no laws against spousal rape. Before Congress passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974, banks legally could deny loans and credit cards to unmarried women and require a husband’s permission for married applicants. Women legally could be fired when they became pregnant before the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 was passed.
WITCH was a brief but colorful part of women’s history as members moved on to other approaches. The group didn’t make bridal fairs or the institution of marriage disappear. Now, weddings are a bigger business than ever, with the average wedding costing $28,000, according to a survey by The Knot. Bridal fairs are just around the corner since the weeks between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s day are considered engagement season. Nevertheless, we are indebted to the bold, irreverent WITCH members – along with many others who fought to expand women’s rights. Thanks to them, women have the legal rights necessary to seek financial independence, although wage inequality persists and U.S. women face much higher rates of poverty than men. More than 50 years after the WITCH protests, we are not forced
to marry for survival – if we choose to marry at all.
Femspec’s study group is reading Sisterhood is Powerful. Find more information here; https://www.femspec.org/workshops.
This post is written by Kim Horner who is part of Femspec’s volunteer collective.