Toil and Trouble: a brief history of women using the occult as a form of resistance

Toil and Trouble: A Women's History of the Occult is a new book from Melanie R. Anderson and Lisa Kröger that describes itself as "a celebration of magical women and nonbinary people in American history, from Salem to WitchTok." Like the authors' previous outing, Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction, Toil and Trouble is a collection of short entries about a wide range of women and gender non-conforming people in the Western world who used magic or occultism (be it allegedly real, or deliberate parlor tricks) to push back against society's rules and expectations, or otherwise claim the power that society had denied to them.

It's a neat idea — and certainly a positive premise for representation. But there's also an intrinsic trick to that setup, which is that it's broad and unwieldy (even when you mostly limit your list to people from the US and Britain, as this book does). You not only have to define what, exactly, constitutes as "magic" or "occult," but you also have to explain the male-centric context in which the things these people practiced were supposedly radical. This leads to sections like the one on Marjorie Cameron, "Hollywood's Scarlet Woman," which spends half of its six pages talking about Aleister Crowley. Similarly, the entry on Madame Marcia, "Political Psychic Advisor and Houdini's Nemesis," largely defines her in terms of her relationship to the men she served, and the ones (like Houdini) who had a grudge against her. Even the Universal Public Friend is included — which is great for gender diversity, but also strange considering that the Friend was a Quaker.

Toil and Trouble places its progressive politics front-and-center right from the book's very intro, which talks about TikTok witches casting a hex on Donald Trump in the summer of 2020. This is both one of the book's biggest selling point (in my humble opinion), and also one its struggles — as in the chapter on Joan Quigley, who served as the personal psychic advisor to First Lady Nancy Reagan of all people. Quigey inclusion certainly tracks with the broad unifying themes of the book — she's a woman who used some sort of non-Christian mysticism to claim a sense of power that she would otherwise likely be denied. But the book also tip-toes around any real critical engagement with the, well, Nancy Reagan of it all. The result is sort of "Hire more womyn prison guards!" vibe — less of a celebration of femme/gnc/enby resistance, and more hashtag #TheResistance energy. There's even a whole chapter celebrating people who monetized occult-ish practices. Again, this is certainly relevant to the book's themes. But it is also ends up being an uncritical celebration of people using capitalism to exploit spirituality for personal gain … which is a much less progressive tack.

Similarly, the book has uneven relationship with diversity and inclusion. The authors make an explicit effort in the early pages to ensure that they're being inclusive of trans- and non-binary people. Which is good! And they do a great job acknowledging these caveats and complications when discussing historical women whose magic or occult beliefs were explicitly connected to things like fertility, which would give them a sort of TERF vibe in a modern context. Similarly, the authors frequently point out that subversive spirituality practices have often just been standard religious practices appropriated from indigenous, Black American, East Asian, or other non-white or colonized cultures. Which is true! But the book again fails to critically point out any specific situations where this happened. For every entry about Black magic women (of which there are not many, let alone non-Black people of color!), there's another white occult woman whose journeys to India or exploration into "pagan" (read: indigenous Gaelic) gods and rituals is presented as a completely normal and above-the-board act of magical resistance.

To be clear: this book is trying to cover a lot of territory in a short amount of time, and it's damn near impossible to address every possible nuance that arises. That's fine! But it feels incongruous to thoughtfully address gender inclusivity, while only paying light lip service to racial diversity. It's okay for a book like this to exist from a largely Western colonial perspective; but it's weird to do that while claiming to be a progressive and deconstructionist work. The result is the Women's March of femme occultism. The only thing missing is a hollow land acknowledgement without any action to back it up.

All that being said: it's a charming book full of fascinating historical figures, if you don't scratch the surface, and it could be a great entry for someone interested but uninitiated in the intersections of feminism and magic/occultism/subversive spirituality.

Toil and Trouble: A Women's History of the Occult [Melanie R. Anderson and Lisa Kröger / Quirk Books]