Kristen Sollee has felt an affinity for witches since childhood, when “cunning sorceresses” such as Maleficent, Ursula, and the Wicked Queen from Snow White captivated her attention. “My witch crush started in early childhood,” Sollee explains. “All the dark female characters that the Christian patriarchy deems ‘evil’ often embody the attributes I aspired to possess—strength, independence, wisdom, and a sick wardrobe.” Sollee’s passion for the mother, the maiden, and the crone ultimately helped her embrace her inner witch.
In her debut compendium, Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive, Sollee explores this journey alongside the historical, political, and cultural implications of the witch and adjacent identities—the slut and the feminist. Each page offers illuminating examples of women and femmes resisting the patriarchy and embracing their inner power. The connection between each of these archetypes stems not only from her childhood infatuation, but from her bloodline as well.
“My early obsession with fairy tale witches combined with having a feminist, intuitive mother and an atheist father—both from very Catholic families—put me on a path to the ‘darkside,’” she recalls. Once enamoured by myths and lore, Sollee now celebrates the complex narrative of the witch through spellwork, research, and activism.
Earlier this month, I chatted with Sollee about her book, the lessons that we can learn from witches, and the undeniable power of women and femmes.
What was the genesis for Witches, Sluts, Feminists? How did this project evolve?
I started explicitly focusing on the intersections between the witch, feminism, and sexual expression on my arts and culture website Slutist in 2013. Soon after, I began teaching a college course about the feminist lineage of the witch called “The Legacy of the Witch” at The New School, and through a chance encounter was introduced to ThreeL Media and the work they were publishing on alternative sexualities. After a little sex magic, the book deal came through and I got to writing Witches, Sluts, Feminists, using research I had accumulated from a lifetime of being engaged with this subject to varying degrees.
What was the biggest challenge in bringing this book to life?
Fighting the daily specter of imposter syndrome is so real. But as one of my best friends says, if you don’t do it, a mediocre white man will. The fact is there are so many women—particularly those who were executed for witchcraft over the past 500 years—who never had the privilege to tell their stories, which was something I had to keep reminding myself. It was like, how dare I waste time stuck in my own head, debating if I’m smart enough or if I’m allowed to write this book? Despite what the uninitiated might believe, this subject is so vast there’s room for hundreds of different slices of witchy, sex-positive feminist scholarship. So why not me, and why not you? These stories are too important to be lost to history.
What did that challenge teach you about yourself?
No woman is an island, community is a necessity. This book could not exist without so many amazing women and femmes who contributed their advice, their views, and their magic to the project. I feel very much like a curator and like a channel for them, and am so honored so many folks really helped midwife this project into being.
What can the archetype of the witch and the narrative of the slut and feminist teach us when it comes to activism?
“The witch,” “the slut,” and “the feminist” have been used as pejorative epithets, and yet they also symbolize women and folks on the feminine spectrum overcoming the odds. These identities, which have been forced on women and feminine folks—and embraced by many of them—can teach us that creating and reclaiming archetypes is a necessity. Otherwise, we will never be offered space in a society that suppresses the feminine.
Throughout your book, you highlight generations of witches, sluts, and feminists who’ve fought against and dismantled the patriarchy. Who are some of your favorites?
First is Matilda Joslyn Gage. Without this foremother of women’s suffrage, we may not have been introduced to the idea that witches can be more than evil hags hell bent on boiling babies or snatching penises. By reclaiming [those] stigmatized figures, the witch became politically viable. Gage reassessed the legacy of the witch in her 1893 book Woman, Church and State, a searing indictment of the European witch trials, patriarchal religion, and the collusion of church and state.
Then there’s W.I.T.C.H. They were the first group to use both the archetype and the aesthetic of the witch for revolutionary means. The first activist coven was founded on Halloween in 1969 and explicitly introduced witches into contemporary political action. Although many of the original W.I.T.C.H. groups were short lived, new versions of W.I.T.C.H. are on the scene in places like Portland and Chicago, using the historical and mythological weight of the witch to challenge heteropatriarchy and white supremacy.
And of course, there’s also Maryse Conde. Her novel I Tituba, Black Witch of Salem rescues the story of Tituba from the [margins] of history. Historical records don’t explain what became of the Barbadian woman central to the Salem trials, but Conde’s 1986 story reimagines who she was and what her life was like in a darkly ironic tale. It’s one of the best books to humanize the persecuted witch—and witches of color in particular—and it’s so beloved by witches and feminists alike that I often hear people repeating the plot points as if they are fact instead of fiction. That’s how much of an impact this book has.
You just celebrated the third annual Legacy of the Witch festival in Brooklyn. Could you talk a bit about the festival and its evolution?
The festival has really taken on a life of its own since the first one in 2015. Even though I curate it and choose who performs, new witches appear every year to guide each festival in a particular direction, imbuing each one with its own unique feel. In a way, I feel like the festival has become a community unto itself, as many of the same people return year after year. You can read about this so-called witch trend in pop articles, but experiencing the people who are devoted to witchcraft and feminism and sex positivity in the flesh affirms just how alive the movement really is.
Circling back to the identity of the witch, the slut, and the feminist, what can these identities teach each other?
Feminism is a social tool that can help liberate witches and sluts from the pejorative narratives that say women and feminine individuals who are smart, independent, dare to exist, and desire bodily autonomy should be punished. Witches, sluts, and feminists are all sides of the same coin.
How can the archetype of the witch empower women and femmes when it comes to selfhood, activism, or creativity? How can the witch help us honor our voices? Our experiences?
The witch is the ultimate embodiment of the divine feminine—and the demon feminine. She has as many faces as the moon, so regardless of your background there is an iteration for you. The witch connects us to an impossibly long line of female power and persecution and reminds us that not everyone is lucky enough to get the chance to take action, to be heard, to create. So, if you do have the opportunity, you have an obligation to take the reins and follow through.
How can the archetype of the witch empower us in our current historical moment?
The archetypal witch connects us to a lineage of resistance, and is a reminder that we’re never alone in our fight against gender inequality and sexual repression. It also inspires us to embrace the hell out of our darkness and otherness, regardless of how ugly or sick or wrong we’re told it is. …The archetypal witch reminds us that we aren’t separate from the Earth, we’re not above it, and we’re not here to dominate it, so working in harmony with nature is necessary for its survival and ours.
Do you have any advice for the modern day witch, slut, and feminist?
I’ve met a lot of older folks in this process and I can say that those who were here first have so much to offer: our elder sluts, our crones, our second wavers. Even though we may have radically different views, creating intergenerational community is crucial to expanding our definitions of what all these archetypes mean and how they can inspire change today.
You can learn more about Witches, Sluts, & Feminists during Kristen Sollee’s book tour.