Five Historical Female Cannabis Activist
Posted: March 1, 2021 in Blog
Female Cannabis Activists ahead of their time
To celebrate Women’s Month, I will highlight the achievements of five historical female cannabis activists spanning millennia from ancient Egypt to the 20th Century. These women were way ahead of the times in which they lived when embracing the use of cannabis as medicine by women was highly controversial.
Ancient Egypt: Hatshepsut
Hatshepsut was one of the few female pharaohs and the most successful one to rule Egypt. She was the sixth pharaoh of the 18th dynasty whose reign spanned from 1479BC to 1458BC upon her death. According to historical reports, she used the hemp plant to relieve her painful menstrual symptoms.
She was clearly not the only woman to turn to the cannabis plant as a source of pain relief. The 110 page Ebers Papyrus, written in Hieratic, mentions the use of the hemp plant to relieve pain due to menstruation and childbirth. Cannabis was mixed with honey and inserted into the vagina to ease menstrual pain. The document is one of the oldest and most extensive records of ancient Egyptian medicine dating to approximately 1550BC. It contains over 700 formulas and folk remedies used to cure a myriad of diseases and conditions. It included several chapters relevant to women on the following; contraception, pregnancy, menstruation and other gynecological conditions.
The Middle Ages: St. Hildegard von Bingen
Hildegard von Bingen, (1098-1179) was a Benedictine abbess, musician, writer, poet, composer, herbalist, and mystic, later sainted by the Catholic Church. The first convent she founded in 1150 was located near Rupertsberg, Germany. During a time when women were expected to stay in their lane and remain quiet on academic topics, von Bingen wrote a health guide, Physica, about herbal medicine, a passion of hers. She included an entire chapter about the use of hemp as a treatment for a variety of conditions; headache, stomachache, nausea, ulcers and wounds, to name just a few.
She grew cannabis in her garden and made tinctures with it. She also recommended that hemp be eaten to relieve stomach problems. In addition, she endorsed the use of hemp as a poultice, applied to the stomach, and to treat ulcers and wounds. She recommended the use of hemp as an integral part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
Victorian Era: Queen Victoria
Nineteenth-century Victorian England was one of the most conservative,
restrictive eras, especially in regard to the activities of women. It seems that the monarch at the time, Queen Victoria, may have been quite progressive when it came to the use of cannabis. While several sources have cited the possibility that Queen Victoria was prescribed a cannabis tincture by her physician to help alleviate menstrual cramps, other sources disagree that this was the case.
Richard J Miller, Professor of Pharmacology at Northwestern University, believes that Queen Victoria was prescribed a cannabis tincture and that this amused her greatly. He included this anecdote in his 2013 book about psychotropic drugs, Drugged: The Science and Culture Behind Psychotropic Drugs.
To further support this assumption about her progressive tendencies, an article about Queen Victoria was featured in The History Press, a British publishing company that specializes in the publication of articles about local and regional history and culture. It disclosed that she was one of the first high-profile people to test the use of chloroform. She was prescribed the chloroform by her physician, Dr. John Snow, to dull the pain of childbirth. She did give birth to nine children! According to Dr. Snow, she described the effects of chloroform as “soothing, quieting and delightful beyond measure.”
Cannabis in The Literature of the 19thC: Louisa May Alcott
I know you will recognize this author, Louisa May Alcott, famous for writing the novel, Little Women, in 1868. But, were you aware that she wrote two works that featured characters who used hashish?
The first work is a play called Perilous Play, written in 1869, in which a group of young members of the upper class eat hashish bonbons. One of the characters, Rose St. Just, who is thought to be a substitute for Alcott herself, confesses to trying the hashish, hoping it would “make me soft and lovable, like other women. I’m tired of being a lonely statue.” The play ends with her paramour announcing that “Heaven bless hashish if its dreams end like this.”
The second work is a novel called A Modern Mephistopheles published anonymously in 1877. The main character is an opium addict who seduces Gladys, the innocent young wife of his colleague, by giving her hashish. After the effects of the drug kick in, Gladys announces that “I feel as if I could do anything tonight” and that she is “longing to find some outlet for the strange energy which seemed to thrill every nerve and set her heart beating audibly.” She was “carried beyond self-control by the unsuspected presence of the drug, which was doing its work with perilous rapidity.”
While it has never been entirely clear whether Alcott was a cannabis user, it seems likely based on her vivid and accurate description of the behavior of her characters who use it.
20th Century – Margaret Mead and Cannabis Legalization
American cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead, was one of the most vociferous female advocates for the legalization of cannabis of the 20th Century. She was born in 1901 in Philadelphia, PA and earned a PhD from Columbia University. She traveled the globe, doing fieldwork while challenging Western social norms.
She gave an emotional speech at a Senate hearing on October 27, 1969, proclaiming that anyone 16 years or older should be free to smoke cannabis. She described the illegality of cannabis tantamount to “a new form of tyranny by the old over the young.” She pointed out the hypocrisy of allowing adults to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes while criminalizing cannabis. It has less toxic effects than cigarettes, is not addictive like heroin and is milder than alcohol. She felt that restricting young people from using cannabis had ended in creating worse social consequences than those associated with Prohibition in the 1920s.
Sadly, soon after her speech, even more draconian legal measures against cannabis were instituted. This included the establishment of the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 (CSA) where cannabis was placed on the most restrictive list, Schedule I. The War on Drugs was launched in 1971 by President Nixon. Margaret Mead died in 1978 and was spared living through the Reagan Administration which intensified the Drug War by increasing cannabis arrests targeting minority communities.
Contemporary women continue to advocate for progress on cannabis law reform thanks to the courage and activism of their predecessors.
weedmaps.com, 5 Prominent Women in Cannabis History
smithsonianmag.com, The Queen Who Would Be King, Elizabeth B. Wilson, Sept. 2006
historyofinformation.com, The Ebers Papyrus, the Most Extensive Record of Ancient Egyptian Medicine
smoke.io, High History/Part XII/St. Hildegard Von Bingen,@lordoftruth,
veryimportantpotheads.com, Louisa May Alcott