Forty-eight years ago, a coven of self-styled witches gathered to curse Wall Street bankers, beauty pageants, and the Playboy Club. We speak to two former W.I.T.C.H. members about their spellbinding campaign against sexism.
W.I.T.C.H. demonstrators at a Wall Street protest. All photos by Bev Grant
On Halloween in 1968, Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (W.I.T.C.H.) was born in New York. Dressed as witches, complete with brooms, capes and pointy black hats, chanting "Wall Street, Wall Street, up against the Wall Street," the group descended on the financial heartland of the United States to administer a hexing. A day later, the stock market reportedly fell 13 points.
In the coming months and years, various W.I.T.C.H. branches sprung up across the United States and as far away as Japan. Their targets included universities, beauty pageants, and Playboy Clubs. Anti-marriage leaflets distributed by W.I.T.C.H. featured the warning, "Always a bride; never a person." They protested wedding fairs, singing, "here comes the slaves, off to their graves" to the music of the traditional bridal march. At one such fair in Madison Square Garden, W.I.T.C.H. released 100 white mice into the crowd, leading the host of the event to quip, "I think they're just a little teed off because nobody ever proposed to them."
Blending the then radical demands of the burgeoning women's liberation movement with the iconography of witches, W.I.T.C.H. was provocative, fun, and, as founding member Robin Morgan writes in the anthology Sisterhood is Powerful, "unhierarchal [sic] to the point of anarchy." Groups played around with the W.I.T.C.H. acronym to suit their needs, coming up with Women Interested in Toppling Commercial Holidays and Women Infuriated at Taking Care of Hoodlums, among others. Becoming a member of W.I.T.C.H. was straightforward. According to the group's 1968 manifesto, "There is no joining W.I.T.C.H.. If you are a woman and dare to look within yourself, you are a witch."
"W.I.T.C.H. drew on the role of women at the edge of society," Heather Booth tells me over the phone. Booth took part in Chicago W.I.T.C.H. actions and remains a trailblazing campaigner and organizer. "It also referred to medieval times and to Salem. One way to reclaim to your identity in the face of oppression and to take the sting out of attacks that may be made on you is to take the word of opprobrium, of criticism, and say, "OK, I'll own that". In W.I.T.C.H., we used it as guerrilla theater."
While W.I.T.C.H. was serious about critiquing the twin evils of capitalism and patriarchy, they also knew how to enjoy themselves, as Booth recalls. "It was fun. It was a little bit anonymous because we all dressed in similar witch-like costumes. Some put makeup on their faces so you couldn't tell who they were. Afterwards, you just returned to your normal life."
"When we heard about the New York action in Chicago we created our own W.I.T.C.H. group. There were several actions that we ended up doing. One was at the Chicago Board of Trade. We did another one at the American Medical Association annual conference and one at the University of Chicago. I remember part of that hex: 'Knowledge is power, through which you control our mind, our spirit, our body, our soul—HEX! And then we'd run onto the stage and people would say, 'What was that?'"
Booth notes that many activists who took part in W.I.T.C.H. were also active in other feminist causes. She herself was the originator of Jane Collective, a large Chicago-based underground service that provided 11,000 abortions in the years 1969 to 1973, prior to Roe v. Wade.
While the emblem of the witch was a key part of W.I.T.C.H. actions, witchcraft itself was not necessarily practiced. "There were some who took a more serious study of witches," Booth explains. "They learned the chants and the history of the witches and how badly they were treated by society. They were dancing by the moon, looking to lead a more natural existence. They perhaps met once a week, whereas for us, it was a more ad hoc approach."
I ask Booth about people's reactions to W.I.T.C.H.. "For people who were part of it, it was funny, exciting; it was building sisterhood. We were bonding together. It was a little scary, you know, to take this action. We didn't know what would happen, we were learning together."
"For people who were the target, I imagine it was both confusing and somewhat annoying because it was a short term disruption of whatever they were doing—a change in focus. For people who were around it, I imagine their reactions started a conversation. There were some actions we did where now I might ask, 'How does this help us recruit? Did it build support or increase opposition?' I'd still do it again but I think we might add additional strategic concerns."
Laura X is a renowned social justice campaigner who was a driving force in the second wave fight to outlaw marital rape. She took part in Red W.I.T.C.H., a socialist spin-off of W.I.T.C.H. which was created by teaching staff at UC Berkeley who had spent time in Chicago and witnessed the W.I.T.C.H. actions there.
"Women's liberationists were definitely anti-capitalist," Laura tells me on the phone from her hometown of St Louis, where the Laura X World Institute for the Legacy and Learning of Social Justice Movements is based. "Many of us had been in some kind of socialist organization earlier in the 60s. Some of us still were, some of us were driven out by—this the politest way I can put it—he contradictions between the ideals of radical males and their behavior,which was unconscionable [and] in some cases as horrible as Trump. I remember at one anti-war meeting, a woman got up to speak and some guy who was a major leader shouted, "Take her off the stage and fuck her." W.I.T.C.H. organizations were very much speaking to that kind of male entitlement."
Although W.I.T.C.H. is often seen as a fringe movement, their legacy endures. Earlier this year in Chicago, a performance collective of young women calling themselves WITCH in honor of their foremothers held a ritual protest against gentrification and the erosion of local housing rights. It is the kind of collective action both Booth and Laura X emphasize when I ask what made second wave activism like W.I.T.C.H. so important and so powerful.
"The most important thing is to organize with other women into consciousness raising groups, into action groups, but be as careful as possible not to be isolated because these times, like those times, are quite maddening," Laura X says. "It was so much fun to do something with your anger and to illuminate what was wrong with a particular institution that we were outside yelling about. And how much fun it was to be saying out loud what we believed and to do it very creatively."
Booth notes that the of action W.I.T.C.H. favoured is still very present in the form of flash mobs and modern day performance protests. "I'm not saying any of these people think about W.I.T.C.H. as they do this, but it is the same tradition of hit-and-run-visibility that's funny, serious, engaging, memorable, and has an impact on a broader audience and has an impact on the people who are involved in it. Because one of the main things is that the women's movement changed us. We changed from traditional roles, from being in the background, not being so visible, not taking risks, not challenging traditional conventions, to taking action, taking risks, and standing up for what we believed in."