“We Are Products of the World That Hunted Witches”

The feminist journalist and writer Mona Chollet became a publishing phenomenon in France with In Defense of Witches, set to arrive in U.S. bookstores on March 8. This book offers an impressive overview, deconstructing stereotypes about older women and those who choose to not have children. Born in Geneva in 1973, Mona Chollet studied literature and journalism, and now works on the editorial team at Le Monde diplomatique. We spoke to this discreet woman who writes to explore her own contradictions.
© Joan Forteza

In early January, four of her books were on the list of the top 100 best-selling essays in France. In first place, Réinventer l’amour (2021), a subtle observation of the patriarchy’s impact on heterosexual couples. And in ninth place, In Defense of Witches, published in 2018, with 350,000 copies sold and translations in 15 languages. Driven by this success, her first two feminist books, Beauté fatale and Chez soi, are still on the list, several years after their publication. In a publishing and media landscape transformed by #MeToo, where new books, magazines, and podcasts about feminism appear every month, Mona Chollet has carved out a distinct niche, as proved by the lines of readers (mostly female, some male), for her book signings. “They say that my books resonate completely with them,” she says. “The biggest lesson from this success is that you shouldn’t hesitate to take a highly personal approach.”

This is one of her trademarks. Based on personal experiences, she tries to explain her own contradictions in an effort to explore major themes by drawing on theoretical works and references to pop culture, movies, and TV shows. Throughout In Defense of Witches, which has become an emancipatory tool for many women, she analyzes the negative stereotypes associated with old and childless women, transforming the terrifying creature from children’s stories into a positive figure. “I wanted to write about feminine ageing and women without children, but I didn’t know how to connect them. When I identified it, the subject of witchcraft expanded the theme of the book. In Defense of Witches talks about socially condemned women since the witch hunts which created feminine features viewed as repulsive and modeled one type of socially acceptable behavior while rejecting others. We are products of the world that hunted witches.”

The Witches of Eastwick (1987), starring Susan Sarandon, Cher and Michelle Pfeiffer, is one of the many references to pop culture witches that Mona Chollet mentions in her book. © Warner Bros.

As she admits in her books, describing herself as a “wimp,” a starry-eyed girl who likes romantic movies, and a “nice bourgeois woman,” Mona Chollet writes to give herself courage. “I only step out of line when I have no other choice, when my convictions and my aspirations force me to,” writes the discreet author. Her total sincerity could be described as inclusive, as could her way of never dominating or intimidating her readers. “I didn’t complete advanced academic studies; I couldn’t intimidate someone if I tried,” she says. “For each book, I start with something almost selfish, with the ambition of making it into something useful for others. Otherwise, I would just be writing a diary.”

Virginia Woolf, Gloria Steinem, and Her Mother

Born to a Swiss father and an Egyptian mother, she discovered feminism “through trial and error.” “My mother fought to be able to study and moved to Switzerland on her own when she was 22 to escape marriage. She has always been very combative, without theorizing it. My parents were adamant that I study and placed great value on intellectual efforts, although the family model was quite traditional.” At the age of 15, Mona Chollet already knew she would never have children – a stance that hasn’t changed since. “When I started seeing my friends having children, I felt total incomprehension. It was like I was an alien. It’s still more or less the case, as we are a very small minority.”

After a book about Internet users and two others on politics, she published her first openly feminist book in 2012, Beauté fatale, about the beauty standards imposed on women’s bodies and the alienation tied to the obsession with beauty. “People may have thought that I had a somewhat condescending perspective at the time, as I struggled to show my own ambivalence. I too fall prey to the fears and the blackmail directed at women to make them conform to beauty standards. If I were to do it all again, I would be more honest.” In her following book, Chez soi (2015), the self-confessed homebody inspired by Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own explores the domestic space as both a place of timid withdrawal and a protective refuge. “Whether in terms of beauty, the home, or love, I am sorting through the heritage I received as a woman. I try to distinguish between what appears truly harmful, alienating, or problematic, and what seems beneficial or worth claiming.”

A protest by the U.S. feminist group WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) in Chicago, 1969. © Odyssey
American journalist, author, and feminist activist Gloria Steinem in New York City, ca. 1974. © PL Gould/Images/Getty Images

Her models, references, and inspirations, which she quotes at length throughout her books, are often American feminists: Gloria Steinem, a “free, emancipated figure” whose autobiography My Life on the Road has been “very important”; Susan Sontag, for her pioneering article on the unequal vision of ageing between men and women; Starhawk, who has an “uninhibited spiritual approach while also being totally progressive,” and the late bell hooks, for her “very astute way of articulating feminism and love while remaining rooted in radical thought.”

Mona Chollet is also radical in her own way, through her books that shake things up by connecting feminism with social and environmental issues, and through the liberating image she presents, one of a 48 -year-old woman who wears her gray hair with pride and who chose to live alone after 18 years sharing a home with her ex-partner. Her critics have been waiting to trip her up since In Defense of Witches was published in France, and she is regularly lambasted by both masculinists and certain lesbians, the latter reproaching her for not condemning heterosexuality outright. “This success can be experienced as a blow for other feminists, but that’s not my fault. I write the books I want to write. I have had to go with the flow; I have found myself a little mainstream, which I’m not used to. It’s an adjustment I’m learning to accept.”


Article published in the February 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.