early American literature, Cotton Mather, witchcraft, pregnancy, women, childbirth, Puritan, religion


Over the decades, scholars have been holding two adjacent conversations about witchcraft and gender in Cotton Mather’s works that surprisingly have not been put in dialogue. On the one hand, they have examined Mather’s witchcraft ideology and motivations for involving himself in the Salem witch trials. On the other hand, scholars have discussed how Mather seeks to exert control over women spiritually and physically. However, no one has yet explored how these conversations might converge. I suggest that we can see how Mather intertwines discourses of witchcraft and gender in the section titled “Retired Elizabeth” in The Angel of Bethesda. This paper examines the occult-coded language in “Retired Elizabeth” in context of two significant Puritan beliefs: first, that women by nature are highly susceptible to devilish influences, and second, that witchcraft is the ultimate manifestation of feminine evil. By approaching “Retired Elizabeth” with this historical context, we can readily see Mather’s fear of women’s reproductive capability becoming twisted into a form of witchcraft. This perspective not only lends insight into why Mather is so concerned about the occult in “Retired Elizabeth” but also why he makes such a concerted effort to intrude into the birthing room—and women’s personal and spiritual affairs more generally. In light of this reading, “Retired Elizabeth” becomes an important point of convergence for studies regarding seventeenth century ideas of witchcraft and Puritan attitudes regarding women.

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