At a fundamental level, Elizabeth Reis’s Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England (1997) presents an analysis of Puritan gender conventions and roles and theology in 17th century New England. According to Reis, in the years between 1620 and 1725, 334 people were accused, and 35 people were executed for witchcraft in New England. Significantly, Reis states that 78 percent of that number were women. In her synthesis of these themes, Reis ask the question: Why women? So, why were women more often accused of being witches, and why did more women confess to being witches? Reis comes to the conclusion that these answers largely stem from the unique way Puritan women of New England’s 17th century internalized their religious beliefs and sinful natures and the underlying gendered perceptions that New England colonists had about the women in their community.
Essentially, Reis argues that Puritan women, though hearing the same sermons as men from their ministers in church, interpreted messages about salvation, damnation, and eternity differently. While Puritans (stemming from Calvinist doctrine) believed themselves to be among God’s chosen people, many expressed anxiety about the true state of their immortal souls; as Reis points out, many women believed that their natures were inherently sinful, and, therefore, that sin was the result of their sinful natures. In contrast, Reis asserts that men were better at distancing their from their natures from the sins they committed. This difference was enhanced by the belief that since the body protected the soul, and women’s bodies and spiritual constitutions were weaker, women’s souls were less protected from Satan and therefore more susceptible to his temptations, various false promises, and even possession. In this argument, Reis provides a plethora of anecdotes, theological notes, conversion narratives, and other such documents as evidence that while Puritan theology preached equality, the reality was that women and womanhood became equated with evil and sin.
For me, the most interesting discussion Reis presents in her book (simply because I had very little knowledge of this before) is what she calls the “gender role fluidity” of the 17th century New England colonies in discussion of the soul and marriage. In this dialogue, Reis analyzes early New England masculinity and the Puritan understanding of the spiritual soul as feminine; thus, while the soul could be married to Christ or ravished by Satan in a heterosexual way, Puritans still clung to their beliefs in the sanctity and importance of traditional marriage and romantic or sexual relationships. Furthermore, Reis states that the soul was also referred to as the “inward man,” as the spiritual nature of a person that submits to Christ once converted; a man could be passive and submissive to God spiritually on the inside, but still remain masculine on the outside. Similarly, when Reis brings her narrative to the differences between men and women who were accused of witchcraft, Reis states that part of what evidenced deviancy or submission to the devil was the violation of gender roles through sinful acts, e.g. men who beat their wives instead of protecting them and women who were not dutiful mothers, wives, or neighbors.
Ultimately, Reis delegates the high numbers of confessions from women to two things: first, the knowledge that confession would result in reduced punishment, and two, women’s genuine belief that their sinful natures led them to “embrace the devil.” Court transcripts, testimonies, and manuscripts form the backbone of Reis’s chapter on confession, and because of inherent problems with using court documents as evidence, as Reis acknowledges, these answers remain, at most, best guesses based on interpretation.While there most certainly is a place for educated and thoughtful interpretational guesses based on evidence, Reis singularly uses religious evidence as the backbone to support her court cases. While religion was most definitely a central institution for the Puritan people, essential to their reasons for fleeing to America, Reis also mentions the complexity introduced by folklore carried over from European conceptions of the devil and witchcraft. Considering that much of Reis’s book is repetitive at times despite its fairly short length, and because she does mention witch folk lore, Reis could have brought even more useful analysis and clarification to the damned Puritan women of colonial New England by expounding on witchcraft in Puritan folklore.