"A witch is always a woman. I do not wish to speak badly about women. Most women are lovely. But the fact remains that all witches are women. There is no such thing as a male witch. On the other hand, a ghoul is always a male … both are dangerous. But neither of them is half as dangerous as a REAL WITCH" (3).
A crucial detail in The Witches, and especially in its reception around the world, is the fact that witches can only be female. Some critics have called this misogynistic and protested that the book instills and reinforces a negative view of women as cruel and manipulative behind their facades of beauty. Others have held that Dahl is simply passing on the folklore of witches as it was told to him and has many strong female characters in his books that balance out these evil women. This controversy led The Witches to be one of the most challenged books in the period of 1990-1999, even while winning multiple prestigious awards in the same period.
In "Boil, Boil, Toil and Trouble: a critical look at the controversy over Roald Dahl's The Witches", Elizatbeth Oliver analyzes early reactions to Dahl's novel, writing of the above quote, "this statement does split the sexes, and provides readers with the viewpoint of evil only inhabiting the female sex. Even though males are ghouls, they are not half as evil as the female witch; however, such strong reactions against the female-only witches were due to the time of release. The Witches was published in 1983 when second-wave feminism was robust and prosperous, fighting issues of unofficial inequalities and sexist structures. Many adults, fearing the perpetuation of sexist order, protested The Witches. Others feared the presentation of the witches promoted a rebellion against all adults, not only females" (Oliver). She notes, however, that the book was not only protested by feminists but also by adults fearing that the text encouraged dislike and distrust of all older people, as well as by Wiccans, and by authors whose work was more explicitly educational.
Anne-Marie Bird's "Women Behaving Badly: Dahl's Witches Meet the Women of the Eighties" delves even further into the issue, citing specific critiques from the years following the publication of The Witches. For example, Catherine Itzin wrote in 1985 that "The Witches is a dangerous publication...[it] re-enforces culturally conditioned misogyny" (Bird). However, Bird also comes around to Oliver's point that the true antagonist in the story is adults: "Female sexuality is not introduced as a weapon or threat in Dahl's text; or, at least, not as overtly as in many other fairytales. And, while Dahl asserts that 'all witches are women,' he goes on to state that 'a ghoul is always a male. So indeed is a barghest' (Dahl 9). Dahl clarifies this later: 'Witches are not actually women at all ... they are totally different animals' (Dahl 30). So, what must be emphasized is that, in Dahl's text, the child narrator's story is central; his relative powerlessness [is] against the potential or actual threat issuing from the world of conspiratorial and 'all-powerful' (Dahl 39) adults" (Bird).