Ganja Goddesses: A Brief History of Women and Weed, Part 1

For centuries, women have best understood the plant’s health, wellness and beauty benefits (as well as its contribution to good living). Marijuana matriarchs—mothers, daughters and sisters—have played an important role in defining cannabis’ uses and for most of history served as caretakers of the plant’s many parts: seeds (food and oil), roots (medicine), stems (textiles, rope and paper), leaves and flowers (intoxication and medicine). 

So, who are our role models today? Who are the women that have kept the plant alive, even when society turned its back or maligned it? Let’s start at the beginning.

  • 3rd millennium BC: Goddesses and plants were exalted for their healing powers. The Sumerian goddess Ishtar was associated with cannabis and people in temples burned kaneh bosm (cannabis) incense in her honor.
  • Ancient Egypt: Cannabis was ground and mixed with honey to induce contractions and ease childbirth.  
  • Mayan and Aztec women took baths with medicinal herbs including cannabis for menstrual relief.
  • 7th-century India: Cannabis was mixed with milk, water and spices to create a potion that enhanced sex. 
  • 11th-century Europe: Premenstrual women preferred a cannabis topical as an anti-inflammatory to reduce breast swelling.
  • 12th century: Hildegard of Bingen, a German composer, philosopher and Christian mystic, grew hemp in her garden and wrote on herbal medicine. From her medical work Physica: “…a towel prepared out of hemp laid upon sores and wounds works well since warmth is contained within it.” 
  • Mid 1800s: Social reformer, novelist and first female sociologist Harriet Martineau (the great great great grandmother of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge) wrote about her desert travels: “Ale provided the greatest possible refreshment, except the chibouque [a pipe].” She also wrote about Arab women who would blow smoke at Jewish women on the Sabbath as they were forbidden to smoke on that day.
  • European midwives: An 1840 law stipulated that for Cesarean sections, the mother should be bandaged with a plaster made of three eggs, hemp cloth and Armenian earth.
  • 1860s: Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, wrote short stories about hashish that indicate she may have tried (and liked) it. The story “Perilous Play” is about two would-be lovers getting high, lost in a boat and then engaged. She described the plant’s effects: “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.”
  • 1890: Queen Victoria’s doctor, J. R. Reynolds, reportedly prescribed a cannabis tincture to ease the pain of her menstrual cramps.
  • Early 1900s: Writer (Out of Africa) and explorer, Isak Dinesen experimented with hashish, opium and miraa (an African mild hallucinogenic herb). Dinesen refers to cannabis in her story “The Dreamers” by its other name, murungu, an herb whose dried leaves “keep you awake and in a pleasant mood.”
  • 1930s: Billie Holiday smoked marijuana, recorded “He Ain’t Got No Rhythm,” “This Year’s Kisses,” “Why I Was Born” and “I Must Have That Man.”
  • 1930s: Young Russian brides mixed cannabis and lamb fat to reduce pain of intercourse on their wedding nights. 

  • 1940s-1970s: Maya Angelou tries cannabis and reports positive results but when her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is published in 1974, it is still viewed as taboo. “Smoking grass eased the strain for me. I made a connection at a restaurant nearby. People called it Mary Jane, hash, grass, gauge, weed, pot, and I had absolutely no fear of using it.”  Angelou goes on to describe her experience: “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.”
  • 1954: The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook is published, following the death of her lifelong partner, Gertrude Stein. It includes personal musings, French recipes, and the now infamous Moroccan cannabis brownie. 
  • 1969: American anthropologist Margaret Mead was branded a “dope fiend” because of her Senate testimony: ”It is my considered opinion that at present that marihuana is not harmful unless it is taken in enormous and excessive amounts. I believe that we are damaging this country, damaging our law, our whole law enforcement situation, damaging the trust between the older people and younger people by its prohibition, and this is far more serious than any damage that might be done to a few overusers, because you can get damage from any kind of overuse.”
  • 1970s: Veteran activist Alice O’Leary Randall worked alongside her husband Robert “Bob” Randall to become the first legal pot smoker in the US since 1937. They built the medical marijuana compassionate care program.
  • 1980s: Mary Jane Rathbun (also known as Brownie Mary) developed a recipe for cannabis-laced brownies, which she called “magically delicious.” As the AIDS crisis devastated San Francisco, she would walk the hallways of San Francisco General Hospital handing out brownies to alleviate the suffering of patients.
  • 2002: Nearly 600 gather for NORML’s ( national conference to hear author Barbara Ehrenreich and Nevada State Assemblywoman Christina Giunchigliani speak. 
  • 2006: Fulla Nayak of India dies at what is believed to be age 125. She attributed her long life to her ganja cigars.
  • 2014: Jane West launches Women Grow. The organization focuses on female leadership in the cannabis industry with the stated goal of turning cannabis into the first female-led, billion dollar industry. We’ve still got a ways to go!


Check back soon for Ganja Goddesses, Part 2: Modern Day Missionaries.

About Our Editors:

Elana Frankel, chief growth officer at Medical Cannabis Mentor, is the founding editor in chief of Women and Weed magazine and author of the book Women and Weed (Simon and Schuster, 2020). Her byline has also appeared in The Cannigma and WSJ/OffDuty. Elana teaches yoga (200-hour and Lit Yoga trained) as well as meditation and breathwork. She is  a volunteer for the Oregon Cannabis Commission, health equity sub-committee and has worked in a dispensary, learning from soil to shelf. Elana has produced films with Cabin Creek Productions, was the creative director and SVP at One Kings Lane and has contributed to magazines such as Architectural Digest, Martha Stewart Living, The New York Times Magazine and New York Magazine. 

Joe Dolce is the author of Brave New Weed: Adventures into the Uncharted World of Cannabis, which was published to critical acclaim in 2017 and hosts the Brave New Weed podcast, which boasts an international audience of industry experts, rabble rousers and anyone interested in high-minded conversations about the plant and culture surrounding it. He is also is the founder and CEO of the online education platform, with courses for healthcare practitioners, dispensary personnel and patients.

Ganja Goddesses: A Brief History of Women and Weed, Part 1