TERFs Are Not Witches: They’re Witch-Hunters


Rhianna Pratchett, daughter of Sir Terry Pratchett, has hit out against TERF claims that he would be on their side were he still alive. I don’t want to talk too much about the claims themselves, which are pretty adequately debunked in the linked piece. I will say that aside from the times Discworld touched upon gender directly, the central metaphor running through the entire series is that maybe these folkloric monsters — historically used as a stand-in for outsider groups — are members of society too, and deserve the same respect.

The main reason TERFs seem so sure that Pratchett would have been on their side is that he wrote about witches in the same way he wrote about the other outsiders, with compassion and respect. But the identification of TERFs with witches is a piece of TERF self-mythologising that doesn’t, in fact, hold up to scrutiny.

TERFs identify with witches so that they can play the victim, as part of the DARVO I referred to in my previous post.

  • Joanna Cherry, who is a transphobe, compared being sacked from the SNP front bench to the Salem witch trials.
  • Daily-Stormer-approved TERF JK Rowling tried to claim that the term ‘TERF’ is equivalent to the term ‘witch’. (In fact, if a basic Twitter search is anything to go by, she relates being a witch to being a TERF almost as often as she relates being a witch to her famous series of books about a school for wizardry and witchcraft.)
  • Transphobic media continually compares objection to massive transphobia to “witch-hunts“.
  • Many Twitter TERFs took to incorporating ‘Goody’ into their handle — short for ‘goodwife’, a title used for lower-class married women in place of the upper-class ‘mistress’ until the mid-18th century, but associated with witches because I guess a lot of witches were tried under that title.
  • “We are the daughters of the witches they couldn’t burn” became adopted as a TERF slogan, etc.

Now that Western society has rehabilitated the image of witches and shown that the witch-hunters were on the wrong side of history, TERFs desperately want a piece of that stolen valour. Unfortunately for them, it turns out to be more accurate to compare TERFs to witch-hunters than to witches.

The Witch Hunts Were Misogynistic

There is a claim among certain feminist circles (I’m talking here, to be clear, about actual feminists) that the historical witch hunts were motivated by misogyny. I see no particular reason to doubt that — certainly significantly more women than men were accused and convicted of witchcraft — but it’s not a universally held belief. I am pretty certain that the conviction of women for witchcraft was at least enabled by misogyny, even if that wasn’t the motivating factor.

It is worth noting that Heinrich Kramer (also known as Henricus Institor), the author of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, wrote that witchcraft was tolerated by “effeminate men who have no Zeal for the Faith”. It is, perhaps, telling that Kramer saw fit to describe the men involved in witchcraft as ‘effeminate’.

But to draw a line between the misogynistic persecution of witches and opposition to transphobia is based entirely on the preconceived assumption that opposition to transphobia is misogynistic. As I said in my previous post, the problem trans people have with transphobes is all of that transphobia, but the problem trans people have with transphobes is cast as misogyny in order to deny the transphobia and subsequently play the victim.

In fact, many of the alleged victims of witchcraft were also women and girls. The protection of women and girls was an excuse used to justify the witch hunts, just as it’s an excuse used to justify transphobia.

The Trial

One of the principal injustices of the witch trials was that the evidentiary standard for witchcraft was so much lower than it was for other crimes. While, even in the olden days, accusing someone of a crime required you to produce actual evidence that they had committed said crime, trials for witchcraft admitted rumour and baseless assumptions about motivation (so-called “half-proofs”) as evidence.

This may not always have been the case. Kramer himself was admonished by the local bishop in a witch-trial for “presuming much that has not been proved”, but that was before he wrote the Malleus Maleficarum, which set the template for witch-hunts going forward. Witch-hunts after 1486 were heavily influenced by a book written by a man who had himself been accused of making presumptions.

In a way this makes a twisted kind of sense: on the assumption that witchcraft is some invisible force, it may not have left evidence by usual standards, and on the assumption that the witch need not even be present at the scene of the crime, something as prosaic as an alibi would have served little purpose. Still, that seems awfully convenient for witch-hunters.

When transphobes are singled out for being transphobic, it is almost always on the basis of something transphobic they have said or done — something transphobic, crucially, for which there is evidence that they have said or done it. That evidence is necessary, not only for integrity’s sake, but because it testifies against TERFs’ knee-jerk denial that the transphobe has done anything wrong.

This is rarely the case for anti-trans rhetoric, which is predicated on baseless claims (also known as lies) about what trans people do, want or think. For TERFs, as for witch-hunters, the only requirement of an accusation is that it serves as an excuse to continue their persecution of trans people. The actual truth of it is, to them, immaterial.

Harm to Children

Witches, it was thought, specialized in harming infants or young children or interfering with the reproductive process by preventing conception or causing miscarriages, deaths in childbirth, or “monstrous” (deformed) births. Those suspected of witchcraft were sometimes accused of destroying their own children, either in utero or after they were born, or of suckling evil spirits or the Devil instead of babies. They were also thought to cast spells on pubescent girls or to attack men in their beds at night in quasi-sexual assaults, beating, choking, or biting them; sitting or lying on them; smothering them; or otherwise sapping their strength.

Elaine Tyler May, Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness, Harvard University Press, 1995

A couple of these claims, particularly the claims about children being harmed and pubescent girls being spellbound, are frequently echoed by TERFs. When we acknowledge a trans child’s transness, TERFs (incorrectly, of course — gender confirming surgery is rarely if ever performed on children), refer to those children as being “mutilated”. The subtitle of Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage is literally “The Transgender Craze Seducing our Daughters”.

Let’s be 100% clear about this: TERFs literally accuse us of exactly the same thing witches were accused of, and then claim they are the ones being treated like witches when those accusations receive pushback.

When TERFs like Janice Turner can write articles in The Times under inflammatory headlines like ‘Children Sacrificed to Appease Trans Lobby‘, it stretches credulity to breaking-point to characterise objection to that as a “witch-hunt”.


In Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman wrote: “Most books on witchcraft will tell you that witches work naked. This is because most books on witchcraft are written by men.”

While there is some truth to the concept of ritual nudity in some Wiccan traditions, they had the right of it in suggesting that the public consciousness of this practice is amplified by equal parts titillation and moral outrage.

As far as I can tell, no TERF has ever been accused of dancing naked around a fire in the moonlight, but TERFs do find it alarmingly easy to assume that trans people are exhibitionists. Every argument that TERFs make about changing rooms and the like is based on the (false) assumption that trans people want to be seen naked, accompanied by graphic and prurient fantasies about a hypothetical trans woman waving “his” (sic) penis about.

The technical term for being afraid of undressing in from of other people (i.e. the opposite of exhibitionism) is ‘dishabiliophobia’. I wouldn’t like to speculate too much about whether there’s an overlap between that and being trans, but it’s certainly true that a manifestation of gender dysphoria can be discomfort at seeing oneself naked, or that gender dysphoria may be triggered by being required to show parts of one’s anatomy to health professionals — let alone complete strangers! There are plenty of reasons for trans people to avoid being naked, but TERFs, of course, ignore all that because their scaremongering about all the transes being exhibitionists is a more convenient excuse for them to persecute us.

There’s too much to unpack in the intersection between the societal shame of nudity and being trans for this post (or, indeed, my own psyche), but suffice it to say the idea that we all run around naked certainly has parallels with accusations made of witches.

Sex and Predation

Heinrich Kramer (him again) wrote the Malleus Maleficarum after he had been expelled from Innsbruck. He had been in Innsbruck to participate in witch-trials, but Kramer’s “obsession” with the sexual habits of one of the accused — one Helena Scheuberin — led to her trial being suspended and him being expelled by the local bishop. You know, the more I hear about this guy, the more it sounds like his deal was, “I’ve been cancelled, now buy my book!”

TERFs are likewise obsessed with the sexual habits of trans people. Exhibitionism is not the only paraphilia TERFs falsely attribute to trans people. They even invented new ones, like “autogynephilia”. TERFs have constructed a framework in which any form of having-a-sexuality-while-trans is construed as sexual fetishism, and have unilaterally decided that that proves that trans people are nothing but sexual fetishists.

The quote from May, above, mentioned accusing witches of sexual assault. This is a thornier topic, as there has been a recent trend of powerful men referring to sexual assault allegations against them as “witch-hunts”. But we must separate the allegation that a man did a thing from the allegation that a trans woman must do a thing because she is trans.

I have been called a rapist and a paedophile, as have many people I know, but the difference between us and those men is that there is never any specific reference to our hypothetical victims. Exactly whom we are supposedly harming is always vague and nebulous. Because we’re not accused of these things on the basis of anything we’ve done, but on the assumption that that’s what a trans woman is.

This is perhaps the most dangerous of TERF behaviours, because the baseless accusations of sexual predation are weaponised by the right-wing as a shorthand for “this person deserves violence”. Pizzagate and QAnon serve as modern exemplars of how “nonce-bashing” is parlayed by the extreme right into political terrorism, and TERFs seem to think that’s a jolly good idea.


While rehabilitated Western notions of witchcraft associate it with Paganism and its attendant fertility rituals, this was not always the case, nor is it the case in parts of the world where witch-hunts survive today. In many cases, either infertile women are/were accused of being witches, or witches are/were accused of causing infertility in other women.

Continuing on from the previous quote in Elaine Tyler May’s book:-

The historian John Demos, in his study of the New England witch-hunts, noted, “Many witches were believed to have an inordinate, and envious, interest in infants and small children.”

Many women who were accused of witchcraft were, in fact, childless. Nearly one in six was barren — twice the rate of the female population at large. And those who did bear children had fewer than the norm. Out of a total of sixty-two married women who were accused of witchcraft in seventeenth-century New England, twenty-three had one or two children, thirty-two had three to five children, and only seven had six or more children. This is a low birthrate compared to the New England population at large at the time; 60-70 percent of all couples produced at least six offspring.

Elaine Tyler May, Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness, Harvard University Press, 1995

This isn’t limited to 17th-century New England. In some parts of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa, infertility is still blamed on witchcraft to this day.

The idea of referring to pregnant people as, well, “pregnant people”, rather than “pregnant women” is intended to include people who (a) can get pregnant, and (b) are not women, neither of which apply to trans women, who cannot get pregnant and are women (TERFs, of course, contest the latter point, but it hardly needs said that any claim about our motivations needs to be consistent with our worldview). That is to say, it’s about including trans men and some non-binary people.

But TERFs, because they only hate, assume that it’s about trans women being envious of pregnancy in the same way Demos said witches were believed to be envious. It’s not, of course, an assumption that makes any damn sense — referring to pregnant people as ‘women’ does not invalidate trans women’s womanhood in any way, while it does invalidate trans men’s manhood — but making sense is often a distraction to that kind of unbridled hate.

Physical Grotesquery and Masculinised Caricature

Tying in with the theme of misogyny, early animosity towards witches seems to have been Patriarchal alarm at women “appropriating” male power. This — combined with an unhealthy heaping of antisemitism — led to a caricatured stereotype of witches being de-feminised.

This may seem to contradict Kramer’s warning about “effeminate” men, but it’s perfectly in line with the misogynist doublethink where men are better than women, men who are like women are as bad as women, but women who are like men are the worst of all.

In the maiden/mother/crone archetype, the stereotypical witch (less so the historical witch) is invariably the crone: a post-menopausal woman whose womanhood is “used up”, who has run out of the “large immotile gametes” that in TERF lore are the markers of womanhood — once again the tying of womanhood to fertility.

J. Inscoe wrote more in-depth on this particular part of the TERF association with witches in their article Trans/figuring the Witch: On J.K. Rowling and the TERF Mystique.

As Banquo says to the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Act I Scene III), “You should be women, but your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so.” Now, Macbeth was in many ways a play about gender roles: Lady Macbeth later gives a speech saying she wants to be a man, because as a woman she is not allowed to be cruel, and Banquo’s statement foreshadows that. (Incidentally, Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters — as might be inferred from the title — liberally borrows from Macbeth but centres the three witches.)

But bugger me if it isn’t something I’ve heard TERFs say a thousand times. As Banquo’s quote illustrates, the witch’s womanhood is called into question because she is ugly. And this kind of top-quality “feminism” is streaked through TERF rhetoric. You can’t go a day without seeing a TERF acting like we are disqualified because of how we look — often, indeed, with Banquo-like references to ‘beards’.

There are the odd comments about TERFs’ appearances coming from the other side, but mostly this extends to saying they have bad haircuts. Which they do.


The easiest way to persecute someone has always to pretend that they have all the power and that you’re bravely fighting against them. Again we see the relationship between witch-hunts and antisemitism.

The verb ‘bewitch’ (of obvious etymology) originally meant simply “to cast a spell on someone or something”, but by the early 16th century, it had taken on the more specific meaning it has today. To talk of ‘bewitching’ somebody conjures up an image of mind-control: robbing them of their senses, implanting other thoughts and desires directly into their mind.

Of course, TERFs don’t call it ‘bewitching’; they call it ‘brainwashing’ or ‘indoctrination’, but it’s essentially the same charge — that we somehow have the mysterious power to make people think what we want them to think.

The precise mechanism by which this supposedly occurs doesn’t make any explicit reference to magic, but instead relies on “puppet master” conspiracy theories with a deep history of antisemitism. Of course, the primary antisemitic trope of this sort is that “Jews control the media”, but even TERFs know that claiming that about trans people would be too far-fetched. So they focus on other institutions, such as education, using every scrap of acknowledgement that trans people exist and should be treated fairly as “evidence” of some nefarious plot against “normal” people.

Ultimately, this is all used as an excuse to censure trans people speaking on our own behalf, lest we bewitch the audience with our mysterious powers, and also to dismiss our allies, who are obviously victims of bewitchment and not to be trusted. In the end, only TERFs’ righteous judgement about trans people can be trusted. Does that sound more witch or witch-hunter to you?

Pratchett’s Witches

Having realised there were still two or three Discworld books I hadn’t read, I just finished reading A Hat Full of Sky, which is about witches (specifically, it’s about children who are learning magic, and is a much better book in that regard than… that other one). At the end, on the subject of witches’ hats (though really on the subject of the book’s central metaphor), Pratchett wrote: “The only hat worth wearing was the one you made for yourself, not one you bought, not one you were given.”

Witches in Discworld are, if they are anything, people who refuse to let other people tell them who they are. I don’t want to continue this ridiculous argument by putting words into Pratchett’s mouth, but the heart of literary criticism is interpretation, and my interpretation is that trans people make a hat for themselves, which stands in contrast to TERFs’ off-the-shelf rhetoric and received opinions.