On Tuesday, March 8th, people around the globe celebrated International Women’s Day. Conversations about abortion, women’s education, and the wage gap flooded news outlets everywhere as the world took stock of the fight for gender equality. Few, if any, discussed the multi-billion dollar industry, which promises to be the first of its kind not dominated by men. The enterprise in question? Cannabis.
The history of feminism and cannabis far pre-dates modern marijuana reform. From playing an integral role in ancient spiritual practices to ending economic disparity, cannabis has been a crucial part of the fight for female empowerment. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ll be exploring the evolution of cannabis as a tool for women’s liberation everywhere.
What is Women’s History Month?
Women’s history was first celebrated on a national scale in 1982 after Congress passed a bill calling for the nationwide, week-long celebration of women’s achievements in 1981. The first “Women’s History Week” began on March 7, 1982, and was celebrated for the following five years until the National Women’s History Project demanded the entire month of March be dedicated to the cause. Since 1987, Congress has authorized the president to declare each March as “Women’s History Month.”.” In the United States, this month celebrates the achievements and contributions of American women across various fields and backgrounds throughout U.S. history.
Internationally, women’s history is celebrated on a day in the second week of March, a tradition dating back to the beginning of the 20th century when socialist groups across the globe sought to create civil and political awareness of women’s contributions worldwide. Like most forms of social activism, International Women’s Day was borne of fringe political groups: the socialist parties of New York City, Germany, Australia, and Russia. It shouldn’t be surprising that progress occurs at the margin. “Radical” causes are often interconnected with and bolstered by one another. Some famous examples are the pairing of democratization and abolition, socialism and feminism, and the civil rights movement with antiwar sentiments. Therefore, the connection between marijuana legalization and the ongoing quest for women’s equality is not without historical archetypes, but how far back does it go? And how deep is the relationship?
Why is Cannabis relevant to the celebration of Women’s History Month?
Cannabis makes for a rare and remarkable feminist icon. Female business owners have pioneered the commercial market for the plant, making CBD and marijuana products a source of economic equalization in the face of glaring financial disparities between the sexes. Yet the plant has played far more roles in the fight for gender equality than most people know. Women have gained social and political power on both sides of the legalization debate, while cannabis offered still more women spiritual authority before the advent of elected government. The plant’s role in the enrichment of women’s social, political, and economic lives makes it an essential part of any discussion of women’s history and those surrounding their future.
Healing and Spirituality
For thousands of years, cannabis has been an integral part of religious ceremonies, many of which celebrate goddesses and are intractably connected to the celebration and empowerment of womanhood. The ancient Sumerian goddess, Inanna, who would be adopted by Babylonian and Assyrian cultures under the name Ishtar, is a potent early example of the link between cannabis and female power. Named “the Queen of Heaven”, Inanna was the patron deity of healing, love, war, justice, and political power, and appears in almost every Mesopotamian myth, from which the majority of Greek mythology is plagiarized. The goddess’ sacred herb was cannabis, from which she derived her healing abilities. Empowered by the worship of Inanna, women in Sumer were encouraged to act as practitioners of herbal medicine, granting them independence and social authority in their communities. As time went on, however, Ishtar became an increasingly sexualized figure and her association with healing and the cannabis plant faded away, taking with it the power of female healers. At the end of her popularity, the goddess and her female worshippers had been transfigured into a representation of beauty and sex.
In separating women from cannabis, their only source of power had been stripped from them.
By the end of the Bronze Age, female practitioners of herbal medicine were persecuted throughout the western world. It was not until the secularization and democratization of society that cannabis would again become a means by which women could exercise and engage in the male-dominated spheres of social and political power.
The first significant mobilization of women’s political power in the United States is often considered to be the Prohibition movement, which culminated in the passage of the Eighteenth amendment in 1919, formally prohibiting the sale of alcohol. It was not a coincidence that the Nineteenth Amendment was passed only a year later, granting women the right to vote. Alcohol, however, is far from the only substance politically minded women have tied to the fight for their social, political, and economic independence.
Cannabis criminalization in the United States began in the early twentieth century, as the Food and Drug Administration worked to create more rigorous regulation for a wide range of narcotics, including cocaine, opium, as well as cannabis, which appeared in many products, especially medicines, at the time. Cannabis laws grew more and more strict as the century wore on, with no greater critics than those in the medical world. Doctors and nurses defended the medicinal benefits of cannabis but to no avail. Restrictions on cannabis continued to increase, reaching their height during the War on Drugs. At the same time, the HIV/AIDS epidemic was beginning, revitalizing the medicinal marijuana movement. Nurse Mary Jane Rathburn, also known as “Brownie Mary”, became well-known in San Francisco for her work with people living with AIDS. Not only had she lobbied for cannabis legalization since the 1960s, but she also risked jail time to provide AIDS patients with her famous marijuana brownies in an effort to reduce their pain and increase their appetites. She would later open the first medical cannabis dispensary in the United States.
Occurring at the same time as the second-wave feminist movement, the War on Drugs offered fertile ground for female intellectuals to exercise their newfound voice. Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead gave a speech before a 1969 Senate hearing, describing marijuana criminalization as “a new form of tyranny”. Though her speech did not result in a de-escalation of the War on Drugs, Mead’s appearance made her one of the first women to offer expert testimony in a Congressional hearing, marking an important shift in the nature of political power and intellectual authority in the United States.
As cannabis legalization spreads, the market for cannabis and cannabis products grows with it. Women are on the frontier of this expanding industry, taking on executive positions as well as important roles in auxiliary fields, like cannabis research. In 2019, women in the cannabis industry held a greater percentage of executive positions than the U.S. average for women. The past few years have altered these numbers, decreasing the number of women in cannabis executive roles and bringing them to equilibrium with the national average. Fortunately, other statistics offer hope for women in cannabis. Women in businesses tangential to cannabis retail, like lawyers, scientists, and journalists, are not included in the report, despite their integral roles in the growth of the industry. Women in the business run some of the most successful cannabis companies, including Trulieve, the most profitable multi-state cannabis operator in the industry. Young women, moreover, make up the largest growing consumer base for legal cannabis products, which may force companies to revise their hiring processes to appeal to this demographic.
The Gendering of Cannabis Use:
Though cannabis has played an essential role in women’s equality movements throughout history, the actual consumption and attitudes surrounding the plant remain intensely gendered. Despite generally being more liberal on political issues than men, women have been found to be less supportive of marijuana legalization than their male counterparts. Significantly, white men were found to be the demographic most in favor of legalization. This disparity likely originates from the greater risk women and people of color face when consuming, or even discussing, cannabis.
Women who consume cannabis are often considered a minority group, and while more men do consume marijuana than women, the disparity is relatively small. Yet stereotypes do more harm than many would imagine. Because women are not considered to be regular users of cannabis, the women who do imbibe are believed to be more deviant than a man in the same position. While men of color are at significant risk of arrest for marijuana use, much more so than the rest of the population, women find themselves in danger of losing their parental rights when found consuming cannabis in any form. The use of even medical marijuana by a mother can result in an intervention by Child Protective Services. In some cases, children have even been removed from their homes.
Feminism is an ongoing, intersectional project. To be a feminist is to be aware of how different forms of discrimination intersect and contribute to one another. Past and present incarceration practices regarding marijuana disproportionately target people of color, making cannabis legalization an important issue to feminists and anyone else who would like to end discriminatory practices. The decriminalization of cannabis will be a crucial step in dismantling the racist systems which obstruct the economic and social mobility of people of color. As long as cannabis is wielded as a weapon against marginalized communities, it will continue to be a focus of feminists everywhere. Women’s work with the plant is far from done, though it is thousands of years in the making.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, it is important to remember that each moment we remember now was once lived. Today and tomorrow easily transform themselves into yesterdays. The work we do today with cannabis to close the wage gap, fight for parental rights, and support the incarcerated community will soon be the milestones of history. The best way to honor history is to make it so as we remember the women who have changed the world, know that we can be those people too.