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Sex and Isolation
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Damned WomenDamned Women

Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England

Elizabeth Reis

Narrated by Susan Lowe

Available from Audible

Book published by Cornell University Press

In her analysis of the cultural construction of gender in early America, Elizabeth Reis explores the intersection of Puritan theology, Puritan evaluations of womanhood, and the Salem witchcraft episodes. She finds in those intersections the basis for understanding why women were accused of witchcraft more often than men, why they confessed more often, and why they frequently accused other women of being witches. In negotiating their beliefs about the devil's powers, both women and men embedded womanhood in the discourse of depravity. Puritan ministers insisted that women and men were equal in the sight of God, with both sexes equally capable of cleaving to Christ or to the devil. Nevertheless, Reis explains, womanhood and evil were inextricably linked in the minds and hearts of seventeenth-century New England Puritans. Women and men feared hell equally but Puritan culture encouraged women to believe it was their vile natures that would take them there rather than the particular sins they might have committed. Following the Salem witchcraft trials, Reis argues, Puritans' understanding of sin and the devil changed. Ministers and laity conceived of a Satan who tempted sinners and presided physically over hell, rather than one who possessed souls in the living world. Women and men became increasingly confident of their redemption, although women more than men continued to imagine themselves as essentially corrupt, even after the Great Awakening.

Elizabeth Reis is Assistant Professor of Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Oregon. She is the editor of Spellbound: Women and Witchcraft in America, American Sexual Histories, and Dear Lizzie.


“Reis makes a complex and persuasive argument that men and women defined their relationship to sin in different ways.... Reis has offered a richly textured and deeply informed study.... This is an important and valuable book, one that broadens our understanding of a variety of issues, particularly those related to matters of gender. Reis has presented a major contribution to the scholarship of seventeenth-century New England which also opens avenues for investigation that go beyond her splendid treatment of the 'witchcraft' issue.”

The New England Quarterly

“In this interesting book, Elizabeth Reis argues that ordinary Puritans were as much concerned about damnation as they were about sanctification.... In its attention to popular ideas about supernatural reality and their role in constructing gender, this book is an important contribution to our understanding of American religious thought—and a timely one, given the resurgence of supernatural beliefs today. Moreover, Reis's emphasis on the power of religious belief is enlightening, as is her skillful return to Puritan culture as a basis for understanding the historical development of American religious thought.”

Catholic Historical Review

“A reader unfamiliar with Puritan doctrine or its subtle deviation from Calvinism will quickly become informed. All key terms are clearly defined in context, and the book is heavily footnoted with early and modern sources. Most striking are the confessions by the unfortunate accused.”

—EBSCO Publishing/EBSCOhost and Northern Light

“An impressive book from which I learned a great deal.”

—John M. Murrin, Princeton University

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University Press Audiobooks