Writing on Women Writers

A site for college students to write about women writers.


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Vinegar Tom and the Feminist Revolution

It is Churchill’s feminist play that we see a harsh mistreatment of the woman of the witch hunts of Britain. In 1976, Caryl Churchill’s release of her famous play Vinegar Tom comes to the forefront of critics of Britain and examines the gender and power relationships from the perspective of women accused of being witches in the 17th century.

The play follows Alice, a woman living in a small village in her twenties. Alice and her mother have been accused of witchcraft after an argument with their neighbors and explores the path of both Alice and her mother through their trials and their inability to conform to society at the time. The play acts are filled with songs that discuss aspects of conformity and diversity surrounding any culture.

“In Vinegar Tom, Churchill attempts to not only deconstruct the subjugation of women, especially with respect of class issues, but also create a psychological realism and multiple subjectivities for her female characters. One of the ways she does this is through the structural manipulation of time frames.” She recognizes the structuring of time as a symbolic social act, where the perpetuation of linearity and causality mystifies the authorship of history and gender. This manipulation serves to alienate the spectator.”(
Khozaei, Gender Politics and Deconstruction of Patriarchy in Caryl Churchill’s Selected Plays, Pg.575)

The playwright Churchill, an influential feminist author who writes this from inspiration from the Women’s Right Act of 1970, writing this as a social critic of inequality at the time. It is in Churchill’s writing that we see this as a moment in time capturing on the cusp of a feminism revolution.

In a world where momentum is advancement for all genders and races, we see that the 1970’s was the start of a revolution for a feminist revolution in England and the world. Culturally, America can relate to this movement of advancement from the 1970’s following this ideal of a 1950’s “Nuclear Family” in America and England and the turbulent 1960’s of a revolution in America the 1970’s was a time of civil unrest for our own cultural reference.

The world itself was becoming smaller, with advancing relations, technology, and culture from America and England we see a world beginning to become smaller. Vinegar Tom was important in capturing the sentiment of this 70’s revolution in England. The 1970’s Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970 that worked to establish equal treatment between both men and women for Pay and conditions for working. It was passed as a reaction to the Ford Sewing Machinist Strike of 1968. The Machinist strike was a major impact within the UK as women sewing machinist stopped creating essential seat covers which eventually lead to a major production shut down of cars. This was the start of the feminist revolution for the UK. Later influencing legislation for equal pay, this was a culture shock for a stricter Europe at the time.

Churchill’s song in her play were set in a modern setting and allowed the audience to relate to the plight of the characters in the 17th century. The songs dealt with conformity, struggles to be different, and to stand alone from each other.  The importance of these songs are a way of displaying the problems with conformity in a society and gender relations between men and women and the structure of inferiority for many women in England.

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Blame On Women

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Caryl Churchill was born September 3rd 1938 in London. She emigrated to the Canada when she was ten but decided to return to England to go to college. Chruchhill graduated Oxford  with her B.A in English Litature.  In 1976 she wrote a play titled Vinegar Tom. The play was written in the time of the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts. The theme of the play is centered around the power struggle between men and women at this time. Women were being seen as witches if they were different from society. For example, the character Ellen, she is a herbal healer that uses very strange ingredients and methods. Even tho she does do anything bad, even being a good witch is a bad thing to the society.

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The fact that there were no men being accused as witches shows the reader who has the power in the story. When bad things happen, such as crops not growing, animals dying or people getting sick, someone needs to be blamed for it. Back then they did not have any idea about sicknesses or nature, so instead they blame someone that makes the most since. At the very end of the play, two of the characters are saying why women are witches,

Sprenger: Women are feebler in both body and mind so it’s not surprising
Kramer: In intellect they seem to be of a different nature from men…
Sprenger:…like children…
Kramer:…yes…

Sprenger: She was formed from a bent rib…
Kramer:…and so is an imperfect animal.
Sprenger:Fe mina, female, that is fe faith minus without…
Kramer:…so cannot keep faith.

They go back and forth listing all the reasons why women are less the men; backing everything up with so called “evidence”. It is much easier for them to blame someone who cannot do anything about it then actually take responsibility for there actions. They even encourage the so called “evil” behavior. At the beginning of the play a man is trying to persuade a women to sleep with him again. It doesn’t matter either way if she does it or not because there are consequences on both ends.

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At the end of the play there is a final song titled “Evil Women“. It is the response women have to all the accusations and blame they get placed upon them. They are saying that the men are the ones who are making the women seem so evil. This is the one time in the play where the women have a strong voice.

“Evil women
Is that what you want?
Is that what you want to see?
On the movie screen
Of your own wet dream
Evil women.”

-Erica Nelson


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A Woman’s Hysteria

   

“Hysteria is a woman’s weakness. Hysteron, Greek, the womb. Excessive blood causes an imbalance in the humors. The noxious gases that form inwardly every month rise to the brain and cause behavior quite contrary to the patient’s real feelings. After bleeding you must be purged. Tonight you shall be blistered. You will soon be well enough to be married.” (1249)

In the early 16th and 17th centuries, the term “hysteria” was strongly used to describe the mental condition of a woman whose behavior seemed to be out of the ordinary according to societal rules.  In her play Vinegar Tom, Caryl Churchill expresses the fact that an outspoken and controversial woman is seen as demonic and sinful, rather than independent.  In a moment of weakness, a woman was seen as being in a vulnerable state, one that causes her to easily be influenced by evil and supernatural spirits and was guilty of sin because of this.  They were not given a chance to explain their behavior, but were automatically subjected to a series of torturous “treatments” and in most cases were condemned to death by hanging.

During the 16th century, witch hunts became a popular form of rioting against women who were rumored to have been possessed by the devil.   “Moral panic” broke out and doctors coined the term “hysteria” to explain and describe a woman’s abnormal mental condition, leading to the assumption that she was under the influence of a supernatural body.

Churchill’s writing re-invented the views of the witch trials, bringing in topics from this century and incorporating those in the same manor that the witch trials were treated in the 16th century.  During an interview, the artistic director of the Royal Court, Dominic Cooke, stated, “The exciting thing about Caryl is that she always tends to break new ground. The degree of innovation is extraordinary. Every play almost reinvents the form of theatre.”  According to Cooke, Churchill was not afraid to expand her ideas about feminism, bringing in issues with women from the past and dissolving them into issues with women of the now.

The idea of “hysteria” is mocked in Churchill’s play, creating a sense that no matter what a woman were to do, she had no control over her body and what happened to it.  In earlier centuries, the common thought was that when a woman experienced her menstrual cycle, a toxic gas would be released, traveling to their brain and causing the woman to become panicked, emotional and crazed, or “hysterical”.  Churchill takes this historical fact and puts a feminist twist on it, treating “women’s hysteria” as the cause for all suffering.  A woman’s independence was stripped away from her, and no matter how much she tried to deny the fact that she was no possessed or did not commit a sin, this only fueled the assumptions that they needed to be treated in order to return to their “normal” state.


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Something to Burn

In Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom, she writes a section called “Something to Burn.”  Part of the section goes like this, starting at line 5-12,

Find something to burn.

Let it go up in smoke.

Burn your troubles away.

Sometimes it’s witches, or what will you choose?

Sometimes it’s lunatics, shut them away.

It’s blacks and it’s women and often it’s Jews.

We’d all be quite happy if they’d go away.

Find something to burn.

Also, here is a man singing it on stage.

I like that they had a man singing this song especially because people try to find anything to blame their problems on.  Specifically, in today’s society many people are breaking out of the societal expectations that were normal hundreds of years ago.  Now, not only women, but men are to blame also; something could be “wrong” with them, and if there isn’t an obvious reason, they will find something, anything! “Fine something to burn.” Below is a news report on Vinegar Tom, stating that Vinegar Tom is a play about witches with no witches in it.

The fact that Churchill wrote a play with no witches in the story, causes the audience to think about what the play is really about.  “Something to Burn” is especially significant in the play because the people at the time needed someone to blame for troubles in their lives, or if they saw some people acting differently, something must be wrong, so they chose witches to blame, or rather women.  These women were considered witches because they went against societal expectations; Alice was not married and slept with a man, and Susan wanted a remedy to abort her unborn child.  “It’s blacks and it’s women and often it’s Jews” shows that individuals need to blame someone, even if that someone didn’t do anything wrong.

Churchill’s play examines how outspoken women were seen as troublemakers, and therefore must be witches.  Churchill once said, “Women are traditionally expected not to initiate action, and plays are action, in a way that words are not” (1237).  Through this play Churchill’s true action conveys a story of how women were viewed when they went against the norm of society.  Churchill did not only speak about what her feminists beliefs were, but she wrote about them and incorporated them into her plays, where the audience would be able to actually see the acts take place.  Women were aloud to speak back in the day, but to have an audience witness an event like Vinegar Tom take place, it was even more powerful Churchill because it showed that these accusers were wrong.

Susan’s role is especially significant to me because the audience knows that she is not a witch, but by the end of the play Susan is admitting to herself that she is in fact a witch.  This character is what I believe ties the whole play together.  Susan out of everyone should know that she is not a witch.  Her and most everybody else is caught up in hearsay and believes so strongly in what other people are saying and accusing each other of.  The fact that Churchill chooses the women that are outspoken to be convicted of witchcraft, also can show that women, not men, were to act appropriately in society or else.

“We’d all be quite happy if they’d go away,” can show that society doesn’t want to admit that their is something wrong with themselves.  Everyone is going to have a flaw, if society just accepts the facts that there are going to be troubles, then they may be able to live a happier life.


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Where There is Witch, There is a Way

In early modern European history, the population was consumed with panic over witches being among them. This led to the witch hunt. The witch hunt was a mass hysteria that occurred between the 15th and 18th centuries. People who were involved with “witchcraft” were accused of worshiping the devil. During this time period people were often looking towards something or someone to place for the happenings that they did not understand.

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In Caryl Churchill’s play, Vinegar Tom she mimics an English village during the 17th century. The play labels witches as outspoken women as showing another example of people during this time needing someone to blame. The play uses a contradictory tone that mirrors other events in history that deal with oppression.

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Throughout Churchill’s play, Churchill uses songs or poems to develop a further analysis of the play while taking the audience out of the context of the story. Churchill did not give music notes to rhythms or any types of instruction when it came to these songs. Churchill instead only gave the lyrics. There is something special that was done here. Churchill is allowing each group who puts on the play, to have their own interpretation of how to sing, or stage directions that they choose feels right.

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Here is one interpretation of “Something to Burn” done by Quinnipiac University Theater for Community.

“What can we do, there’s nothing to do,

About sickness and hunger and dying.

What can we do, there’s nothing to do,

Nothing but cursing and crying.

Find something to burn.

Let it go up in smoke.

Burn your troubles away.

Sometimes it’s witches or what will you choose?

Sometimes its lunatics, shut them away.

It’s blacks and it’s women and often it’s Jews.

We’d all be quite happy if they’d go away.

Find something to burn.

Let it go up in smoke.

Burn your troubles away.” (p. 1252).

This song shows the most significance to contradictory ways of people blaming others. The line even connects to Antisemitism as well as anti-feminists   Churchill take a role new approach to showing the injustice throughout history, well still making connections to what may even be occurring in the world today with women. Churchill started a movement for women that landed her a spot among the great by challenging everything around her. Using Vinegar Tom, Churchill is able to discuss sexual politics as well as oppression of women while still connecting to historical events.


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I Put A Spell On You, Vinegar Tom

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Salem witch trails were probably the most confusing time and the most uneducated. People were going back and forth accusing each other for being witches. Even some animals got accused of being witches. It caught on like wild fire for people to blame people to be witches if that person bothered them.All people had to do was point fingers and say a lie how they changed water into blood or something like this. In Churchill’s play, Vinegar Tom she made it a point to show how easily woman were accused of being witches but she also brought up different points to focus on the social changes that was going on during the time she was writing this which was in 1976.

 Something To Burn      

What can we do, there’s nothing to do,

about sickness and hunger and dying.

What can we do, there’s nothing to do,

nothing but cursing and crying.

   Find something to burn.

   Let it go up in smoke.

   Burn your troubles away.

Sometimes it’s witches, or what will you choose?

Sometimes it’s lunatics, shut the away.

It’s black and it’s women and often it’s Jews.

We’d all be quite happy if they’d go away.

    Find something to burn

     Let it go up in smoke.

     Burn your trouble away.

The song pretty much describes how anyone would just play everyone to burn something. They would not care who it was, they would just burn it. If something went wrong. When someone’s crops would die, they would assume that a curse was put on them. If someone got sick, a witch must have hexed them. People weren’t not educated enough to know that sickness and losing crops were just part of life. They thought if they burned something that problems would all go away. But they kept coming back so people kept thinking that a witch just cursed the whole town. It was almost heart breaking that girls and even men would plead that they weren’t twitches but people accused them.

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Also one of the other songs that stood out was Evil Woman.

Evil women.

Is that what you want?

Is That what you want to see?

In your movie dream

Do they scream and scream?

That song stood out because it’s saying that the world wants to see evil woman and nothing else. They do not want to see the good woman, they want to watch a woman go up in flames, not caring if she was innocent or not. It’s rather sad to think about. I think especially for the part, on your movie screen is that they are not focusing that these woman were real. The shock factor that they were actually killing innocent people was no where to be found. It was like they were living life like a movie so it took away reality.

A song that I felt was appropriate for this play was the song I Put A Spell On You.


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The Striking World of the Seventeenth-Century Witchcraft

Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill in 1972

A socialist-feminist playwright, the author of more than forty plays states in a 1988 interview with Linda Fitzsimmons,

“Women are traditionally expected not to initiate action, and plays are action, in a way that words are not. So perhaps that’s one reason why comparatively few women have written plays” (1237).  

Churchill reaches audiences across the political spectrum and ordinary playgoers because of her realistic and sometimes satiric themes. In 1976 she wrote Vinegar Tom to examine how a “community’s misogyny caused its members to label outspoken women as troublemakers, and how these women’s social marginalization led them to be condemned and executed as witches” (1238). As I read the play many topics seemed to interest me and spark my attention. Topics such as the treatment of women, beliefs of witches and sexual and economic tensions which moved the women to turn to one another. The various songs throughout the play were intriguing and allowed the reader to understand the voice of women along with their struggles and frusterations towards womanhood, life tasks and marriage. Women were often accused of being witches because they could reproduce, leaving men to believe they had a lot of power instead of understanding the reality of pregnancy and birth.

Who are Witches?

Witches were believed to be people with an ability to harm by mystical means, who were often motivated by hatred or malice and who might have been charged with a variety of offenses. Within the play, various women are accused of black magic; however, the audience knows that their only crime is having courageous social norms. “Witches could be blamed for a variety of illnesses, such as rheumatism, arthritis, and stroke. No specific illness or disease was always blamed on witchcraft, although strange, unidentifiable and inexplicable diseases were particularly likely to be attributed to witches. Strokes and epilepsy, and unusual illnesses in animals, for example” (Sanders 1). There was no form of knowledge such as bad bacteria or other infections, people just assumed that the witches were at fault for their cows and animals randomly dying. Margery says to Jack, “What you think of those calves then? Nothing to be done is there? What can we do? Nothing. Nothing to be done. Can’t do nothing” (1250).

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Witches and ‘Familiars’

Familiars are another form of how a witch can carry out their actions and powers. These usually took an animal form and were given names that showed the personal nature of the relationship between the witch and familiar. Within Vinegar Tom, the ‘familiars’ were considered the tom cat and the rat. Margery states in anger towards Mother Noakes, “And while we were talking we thought of her great cat that’s always in my dairy, stinking it up and stealing cream. That’s her familiar sent her by Satan” (1254). Jack replies by mentioning what the rat is responsible for as well, “I’ve seen a rat run out of her yard into ours and I went for it with a pitchfork and the spikes were turned aside and nearly went in my own foot by her foul magic. And that rat’s another of her imps” (1254). The tom cat and rat were seen as a nuisance and were supposably sent by the witch to cause harm and disruptiveness to their every day lives.

The “Witches Mark”

The witch fed her familiar on her blood through some place on her body which then left what is known as the “witches mark.”  Others who were looking for evidence looked for this to show proof. If a mark was absent, it was known that a witch might have removed it, or it might just come and go. As we read Vinegar Tom, Churchill mentioned several times about interrogators speculating for a “mark” to declare who the witch is. Within the text, Packer searches for the “spot” on Alice. “Have I the spot though? Which is the spot? There. There. There. No, I haven’t the spot. Oh. It’s tiring work. Set this one aside. Maybe there’s others will speak against her and let us know more clearly what she is” (1260).

Overall, witchcraft within Vinegar Tom plays an important role on the plot and is an interesting topic to look into because people believed in witches and trickery for many many years. The men in the play automatically assume women have a stronger power than them and are determined to stop such powerful actions provided by the witches.

To watch a clip from a performance of Vinegar Tom click here and follow along with the lyrics that help explain how all women were portrayed as being a witch:

If You Float
If you float you’re a witch.
If you scream you’re a witch
If you sink, then you’re dead anyway.
If you cure you’re a witch
Or impure you’re a witch
Whatever you do, you must pay.
Fingers are pointed, a knock at the door,
You may be a mother, a child or a whore.
If you complain you’re a witch
Or you’re lame you’re a witch
Any marks or deviations count for more.
Got big tits you’re a witch
Fall to bits you’re a witch
He likes them young, concupiscent and poor.
Finers are pointed, a knock at the door,
They’re coming to get you, do you know what for?
So don’t drop a stitch
My poor little bitch
If you’re making a spell
Do it well
Deny it you’re bad
Admit it you’re mad
Say nothing at all

They’ll damn you to hell.