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“Space Witch,” an NFT created by the author ©2021

Witch-hunts, power, and privilege from Salem to the stars


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There are no witches in space.

And, stating that sounds absurd. Why don’t we apply that same notion of absurdity to the idea of witches here on Earth? Witches and witch-hunts are an accepted, even celebrated, phenomena below the Kármán line. Yet, in reality there are no witches here on Earth and never have been.

Women are accused of being witches for many reasons, and especially if they express their desire for independence and parity.

The morning after Labor Day the American retail sector is transformed from red, white, and blue to witches, goblins, and ghouls. Halloween rules! Goblins and ghouls are portrayed primarily as male in the world of make believe. Are there goblin-hunts and ghoul massacres around the globe? Nope. Because goblins and ghouls do not exist in reality. Witch-hunts most certainly do.

Women are accused of being witches for many reasons, and especially if they express their desire for independence and parity. When she attempts to publicly share her experiences with male violence and harassment, her voice will be marginalized at best. At worst, she will be tried in a kangaroo court, stripped of her rights, tortured, and killed. Being at a disadvantage in terms of power and socioeconomic status isn’t doing any favors. Let’s just say that rockstar attorneys aren’t beating down her door. And if she were able to locate one who agreed to defend her, she can’t afford the $20,000 required retainer and $1,200 endlessly billed hourly rate.

The classical witch-hunts in Europe and the colonies occurred for about 300 years and resulted in roughly 50,000 executions. “Witches” continue to be accused, punished, and killed in sub-Saharan Africa and Papua New Guinea today. Politicians have skewed the term “witch-hunt” away from female genocide to refer to a moral panic and garner sympathy. Elected officials crying “witch-hunt” are not executed by hanging. Women are, and much worse.

I spent the summer researching how the role of fear and power asymmetry contributed to the events at Salem in 1692. Could examining the gendered environment within aerospace through the lens of the “witch” trials of Salem possibly result in any value? My professor was skeptical but approved the research project after I presented my proposed methodology.

To conduct the inquiry, I interviewed space industry experts (n=6) and constructed three unique datasets (n=91). The data source is the United States Department of Defense aerospace-defense contract awardees in July 2021.

Key findings of the inquiry are:

1. Executive leaders in aerospace and defense remain largely untouched from corruption penalties, both in terms of dollar cost and public shaming. Penalties are wholly insufficient and serve little to no deterrent as reform mechanisms.

2. While gender is used as a predictor variable to analyze traditionally male-dominated environments, such as aerospace, findings indicate that gender alone should not be assumed to predict outcomes.[1]

Key commonalities that I uncovered between the events at Salem in 1692 and modern space culture are:

  1. A fear-based environment
  2. Disproportionate suffering
  3. Cronyism
  4. Legislative privilege
  5. Gendered power dynamics
Does it bother you that 20 employees, including aerospace engineers, are so afraid of the repercussions that they won’t reveal their identities?

Alexandra Abrams, Blue Origin’s former head of employee communications, and 20 current and former employees recently described their experience at Blue Origin as “toxic.” Their attempt to reveal a culture allegedly rife with fear and gendered power asymmetry was dismissed. The open letter describes harassment, gender bias, and a workforce lacking in diversity. Blue Origin’s future vision of space “for all” is being shaped by very few voices. Abrams reveals that, allegedly, “One-hundred percent of the senior technical and program leaders are men.” The essay goes on to describe, allegedly, that the executive’s disproportionate level of legislative privilege hushed their voices, stating: “Bezos quietly mobilized an initiative to have all employees sign away their right to resolve employment disputes in court or to speak out about harassment or discriminatory conduct.”

The statement released from Blue Origin was quick to point out the company has “no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind.” If you haven’t read the letter, here’s the link.

How about if we consider this differently? While you don’t agree with workplace harassment you aren’t going to start a rally about it. As a veteran aerospace engineer with expert knowledge of the components necessary to build a rocket that meets, and even exceeds, safety standards, you don’t like the idea of cutting corners to compromise mission safety. Abrams reveals that, allegedly, “In the opinion of an engineer who has signed on to this essay, ‘Blue Origin has been lucky that nothing has happened so far.’ Many of this essay’s authors say they would not fly on a Blue Origin vehicle.” And, if you, as an aerospace engineer, wanted to take action against something like this, what would you do? Probably nothing. Not for lack of need, value, or consideration. Then, why? The wealthiest man in the world is protected by a team of ruthless and highly skilled mercenaries. Sorry, my bad. I meant attorneys. They will bring you, and everyone you care for, to your knees. Does it bother you that 20 employees, including aerospace engineers, are so afraid of the repercussions that they won’t reveal their identities?

In 1692, 28 people were convicted of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. Of the 28 convicted, 19 people—5 men and 14 women—were executed by hanging, five people died due to poor conditions, and one man was crushed to death. Women were disproportionately affected at the Salem event and remain so today. History repeats.

Is it possible that witches have been rebranded? Sort of like the update to defense companies that now prefer the label aerospace. And, instead of witches we’ve been rebranded as feminists.

Footnotes

  1. Martin, Layla. (2021) Harvard University. “Fear, Cronyism and Privilege from Salem to the Stars.” Political Corruption.

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