Witchery and Womanism in New Orleans

How a trip to my favorite city reminded me of why I’m a womanist.

Whether it’s because of the ghosts or the food, New Orleans has long been as happy to me as Disney World is to the rest of the earth.

In the spring of 2018, I finally visited the city for the first time as a birthday celebration for me and my boyfriend, John, who was born just nine days before me. We ate our weight in crawfish, we learned some haunted history, and of course, we partied down Bourbon Street.

John and I had an amazing time on our trip, but even still, we felt the tiniest bit of disappointment that we hadn’t made enough room in our itinerary for the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum. It was a mistake that we were sure not to make on our next venture to The Big Easy.

This past week, John and I spent another three days in New Orleans, this time with his friends and their significant others. Every person in our group of seven, with the exception of another girl and myself, have been employed in emergency medical services. We were missing the Pharmacy Museum this time.

Located in the French Quarter, the small museum looks like the quaint, slightly creepy apothecary of my witch-loving dreams. The walls are lined with dangerous powders and potions, frightening sharps and tools, and an archaic soda fountain in the front corner of the room.

A needle made from lead. Photo taken by my boyfriend.

During the guided tour, the museum’s charismatic curator detailed the history of pharmaceuticals and medical practices of the 19th century. We learned that barbers performed amputations, consumption was fashionable, and that heroine was often to prescribed to children… as well as everyone else.

Which brings me to my point.

The medical industry as a profession was dominated by men in the 19th century, despite the fact that women had been acting as healers and midwives in their own communities. Medical care for women and by women was completely disregarded, as men believed that a woman’s body was just a less complex version of a man’s. Any medical condition experienced by a woman was believed to be an illness of the uterus. Isolation, forced hysterectomies, and more heroine were used to treat “hysteria” or “women’s woes.”

Not only were people being prescribed heroine for anything and everything, they were also treated with other lethal substances like lead and strychnine. Unsurprisingly, addiction ran rampant in the 19th century New Orleans. Who was most affected? Women.

Women were the patients most frequently given heroine and other hallucinogens as medicines. When these women would begin showing signs of hysteria, they were institutionalized. So not only were women seen as less complex than men, but they were mentally unstable drug addicts who needed to be kept away from society.

Now, who would let a woman like that vote, or own property, or make her own reproductive decisions?

And here we are.

Long after we left the Pharmacy Museum, I could not stop thinking about these medically neglected women. How far have we really come? Yes, women have more rights now than they did before, but look at how much we still have to fight to keep them. Women are still disregarded as hysterical (now hormonal), we’re losing the power over our own bodies, and we cannot avoid condescension from male doctors. Some of the questionable practices and the horrific experiences from the 19th century don’t seem all that different from today.

Once we left the museum, we spent the rest of the trip exploring the French Quarter until it was time to return to Bourbon Street. Our nights of bar hopping and dancing did not go without incident. A man spanked a girl he didn’t know on stage during a dance contest. I gave an earful to a stranger filming me and one of the girls, leading her husband to pose behind me like a bodyguard while I shouted. And before you can say, “not all men,” I must mention the belligerently intoxicated woman who full-on groped one of my girlfriends at a karaoke bar.

After the filming incident, I apologized to my friends if I made them uncomfortable by yelling at a stranger.

“My blood is boiling, I’m so angry, who does he think he is?” I drunkenly rambled.

My friends all assured me that I was in the right for sticking up for myself and my friend. They went on to say that it’s ridiculous that the man with the camera wasn’t ready to back off until another man appeared. The guys in the group explained that similar instances had happened multiple times during our nights on the strip. Men would circle too close or look too long, but would shuffle away after the glares from my boyfriend and his friends.

In my continued frustration, I asked why is it that women aren’t treated with respect, but their men are. Why do I have to be attached to someone from you to not act like a creep?

I also thought back to the Pharmacy Museum. I thought about the women institutionalized for their “woes”, I thought about the female healers and midwives who’d been accused of witchcraft in Europe**, and I thought about how women are still fighting.

One of John’s friends, the one who let me confront the man with the camera, sympathized with me, sharing his own frustrations while understanding mine. He called me “the sheep dog” of the group, and said that he hopes that his owns daughter grows up with that same assertiveness.

Here I thought I was just being hysterical.

*New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, 514 Chartres St New Orleans, LA 70130

** by Barbara Ehrenreich-Deirdre English — Last Work Press — 2016

curly hair with a womanist flare