Women's History Month: Prominent Women in Cannabis History
March is Women's History Month, and to honor women, we're paying homage to some of the most important women who were ever involved with cannabis. As cannabis use becomes less stigmatized, it's easy to forget that it was once a difficult subject to talk about, so this one is for the women who helped shape the cannabis industry we see today and to those who continue to advocate its use today.
Female Cannabis Figures in the Ancient World
Hatshepsut - Hatshepsut was one of the very few female pharaohs in Egyptian history, and reportedly used hemp to help manage the symptoms of painful menstruation. The Ebers Papyrus, a herbal medicine text from the time, also cited the use of hemp in many women from her era for treating menstrual pain and soothe some of the discomfort associated with childbirth.
Goddess Ishtar - Ishtar was the goddess of healing to the ancient Mesopotamians. While it's unclear whether or not the diety was based on a real woman, her figure encouraged cannabis use as an herbal remedy, holding the plant and its wisdom in high regard.
Princess Ukok - Princess Ukok's mummified (and ornately tattooed) remains were found in 1993. She was found with six saddled and bridled horses and entombed with ornaments of bronze and gold as well as a small container of cannabis. She was a high priestess of the Pazyryk people in the Altai mountains, who were related to the nomadic Scythians who were known for their ritualistic, spiritual uses of cannabis.
Female Cannabis Figures in the Middle Ages
Hildegard von Bingen - Hildegard von Bingen was a German nun who lived during the Middle Ages and later sainted into the catholic church. She was known for her medicinal prowess in a time where women weren't allowed to speak about academic subjects. In texts she'd written at the time she recommended the use of hemp for healing wounds as well as physical aches and pains, such as headaches. Later, she chronicled her remedies for a 12th-century German audience, though she added her own mystical beliefs about hemp as part of a balanced, healthy lifestyle. While they rejected many of her findings, modern studies have found her views to have been quite accurate.
Joan of Arc - The story of Joan of Arc is a bit tragic. She started hearing voices at the age of 13, with her visions becoming more frequent until she claimed she could hear God telling her to help the dauphin (the French prince) defeat the English army and reclaim his throne as the rightful king — and she did. However, the Catholic church later tried Joan as a witch. Many scholars say she practiced paganism (which was a faith that openly used cannabis and psychedelic mushrooms) since it was still very prevalent in the countryside she grew up in. She was charged for using "witch herbs" including cannabis and put to death for wearing men's clothing, though the church was also suspicious of her periodic apparitions, clear-headedness in battle, and speedy recoveries from war wounds - which may have been the result of using cannabis and psychedelic mushrooms.
Female Cannabis Figures in the 19th Century
Louisa May Alcott - Louisa May Alcott was the author of Little Women as well as a lesser-known novel called "Perilous Play" in which the characters experiment with using hash derived from cannabis. Cannabis use influenced her work, and the experiences she documented by the characters were quite vivid. She writes: “A heavenly dreaminess comes over one, in which they move as if on air. Everything is calm and lovely to them: no pain, no care, no fear of anything, and while it lasts one feels like an angel half asleep.” While this isn't exactly activism, it helped to shed some of the negative stigmas around cannabis use at a uniquely conservative time.
Queen Victoria - Queen Victoria's reign was one of the most socially restrictive periods in all of history and was responsible for many conservative moves in England. However, she partook in the use of cannabis to ease menstrual cramps per recommendations from her doctor and is said to have been "amused" by the effects of the tincture. She was progressive when it came to drugs and was even one of the first people to test chloroform, which she used to dull the pain of childbirth. Her physician, Dr. John Snow, recorded Queen Victoria as saying the chloroform was “soothing, quieting, and delightful beyond measure.”
Female Cannabis Figures in Present Day
Margaret Mead - Margaret Mead was one of the most prominent people advocating for legalizing cannabis in the 20th century. She gave an impassioned speech at a Senate hearing in 1969 where she argued that anyone over the age of 16 should be allowed to use cannabis. In the speech, Mead said that keeping marijuana illegal was akin to “a new form of tyranny by the old over the young". She argued that marijuana "doesn't have the toxic effects that cigarettes have,” is not addictive like heroin and is milder than alcohol. She even asserted that “The attempt to restrict the use of this youth choice has resulted in graver social consequences than those associated with Prohibition in the 1920s.” Still though, even stricter measures were passed by the Nixon administration when he launched the war on drugs in 1971. She died in 1978 before the Reagan Administration developed the industrial prison complex of privatized prisons fueled by funneling hundreds of thousands of people (mostly minorities) into jails for mere cannabis possession. (see the history of cannabis in the US here)
Maya Angelou - Maya Angelou was a famous poet who recounted her experiences with cannabis in a few of her works. She grew up in the 1930s and had a drastically difficult childhood, becoming a single mother in her teenage years. In her second autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, she wrote "Smoking grass eased the strain for me…. From a natural stiffness, I melted into a grinning tolerance. Walking on the streets became high adventure, eating my mother’s huge dinners an opulent entertainment, and playing with my son was side-cracking hilarity. For the first time, life amused me.” Her works helped ease some of the stigma around cannabis use and her legacy continues on after her death in 2014.
Mary Jane Rathbun - Mary Jane "Brownie Mary" Rathbun was a cannabis activist who focused on getting cannabis legalized for medical patients. She was known for baking cannabis-infused brownies and distributing them to cancer patients and AIDS patients. She was arrested three times for cannabis advocacy in the 80s and 90s and was dedicated to cannabis law reform. In fact, she was one of the key figures involved with influencing the passing of Proposition 215 in California back in 1996 which finally legalized medical marijuana for the first time since it was criminalized in 1937. She continued to make her brownies and distribute them for free as an act of compassion until the demand surpassed her means to supply.
Wanda James - Wanda James was the first woman (and African-American!) to open a legal and compliant cannabis dispensary in 2009. She acts as the CEO of Simply Pure dispensary and works with her husband to run a dispensary, cultivation facility, and edible company. She's been a long-standing advocate for cannabis reform which led her to be named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Cannabis by High Times magazine in 2018. She's an advocate for social equity in Colorado and the cannabis industry as a whole and is pushing to diversify the industry with more women and minorities in the space. She's also currently setting her sights on reforming the social consumption laws.
Jane West - Jane West was let go from a long-standing corporate position for publically promoting cannabis use. She founded Edible Events Company, which hosted cannabis-friendly cocktail parties in Denver to help normalize consumption, and was asked to resign from her job of 8 years because the company didn't want to be associated with her while she was in the cannabis spotlight. As more and more women reached out to her to learn more about getting into the cannabis industry, she switched gears to focus more on organizing women0lef initiatives within the cannabis industry. Jane founded Women Grow which helps women in the cannabis industry network and organize within the industry. Since 2014, over 100,000 people have attended Women Grow networking events. She has also built a multifaceted brand while keeping diversity and social equity intact while doing so. 80% of the company is owned by women and people of color.
Women Have Shaped & Will Continue To Shape The Cannabis Industry
While this is just a brief glimpse into some of the women who have influenced the cannabis industry through literature, activism, and cultural uses, there are still thousands of women powering the cannabis industry every single day. As the laws continue to change, only time will tell who the next influential women in cannabis history will be. If you know of any women in the cannabis industry today, be sure to take some time to appreciate them this month.
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