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Shaman Woman, Mainline Lady
Women's Writings on the Drug Experience
by Cynthia Palmer & Michael Horowitz (Eds.)
Originally published in Shaman Woman, Mainline Lady
Citation:   Palmer C, Horowitz M. "Introduction". Shaman Woman, Mainline Lady: Women's Writings on the Drug Experience. 1982;21-2.
The relationship of women and drugs goes back before recorded history. In When God Was a Woman, Merlin Stone has suggested that in ancient matriarchies, small doses of snake venom may have been used as hallucinogens at oracular shrines by priestesses of the moon. The most important goddesses of many ancient cultures are closely associated with intoxicating plants and with gardens of delight in which grow the sacred fruits and herbs of what is variously termed knowledge, immortality, or paradise. In Taoist cosmology, women and drugs are yin, linked with nature, the earth, and the inner self: unfathomable, endlessly receptive, pleasurable. There is a Western tradition of sexualized and mystical intuitive wisdom inherent in both women and visionary states of consciousness. Much more evident, however, is the tradition that regards women as inferior to men, and drugs as dangerous substances and superficial paradises.

When the serpent (shaman) turned on Eve (feminine principle) to the apple (sacred plant/mind-changing drug), the result was nothing less than the fall of man. Since then, women have been linked with drugs and their dangerous allure, and drugs always have been associated with the mystical, intuitive dimension--the forbidden, the mystery of woman.

Eve's was not an isolated turn-on. In forests and herb gardens, in temples, palaces, and kitchen laboratories, a succession of mythological goddesses, historical queens, anonymous seers and shamans, witches, and alchemical mates exemplified or sought the psychoactive connection. In "The God in the Flowerpot," Mary Barnard wrote, "Half a dozen important mythological themes--the shaman's journey, the food of immortal life, the food of occult knowledge, the fate of the disembodied soul, the communication with the dead, plant-deities--all converge . . . on some actual food (usually a drug plant) ritually consumed, not symbolically but for the experience it confers."

In the lat Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the European church-state launched a savage persecution of women midwives and herbalists who made personal ritual use of the deadly nightshade plants--hallucinogenic plants (like henbane and belladonna) that produced, among other things, dreams of flying and sexual experiences. (Native women in colonial empires were similarly treated as witches and whores.) While the shaman pursuit of the healing knowledge of drug plants was the province of European witches, men were the official physicians, the writers of the herbals and pharmacopoeias. Women's reputations as poisoners, extending from the mythical Circe and Medea to Locusta, Agrippina, Lucretia Borgia, and Catherine de Médicis, were predicated on their knowledge of dangerous plants and their proficiency in the kitchen arts. Understandably, the preparation of love potions was the province of women familiar with nature's aphrodisiac plants.

For several centuries after their introductions in Europe, today's legal social drugs--alcohol, coffee, tobacco--were much more socially taboo for women than for men. During the early nineteenth century, the concept of drug use as either a vice or a medical requirement became entrenched in the popular mind. This democratized medical and, ultimately, social drug use. While a few avant-garde women later dared to smoke and drink in public and visit opium dens, patent medicines were used in mass quantities by their sisters for psychological as well as physiological problems. Women became addicted to the pleasurable effects of the opiates, which were medically overpresecribed and cheaply available, just as female "complaints" today are overtreated with mood-alterants and tranquilizers.

The twentieth century has witnessed an explosion of recreational drug use despite official anti-drug policies and generally severe laws, enforced by a narcotics police network. These restrictions have led to the development of underground societies of drug devotees, complete with etiquettes and specialized vocabularies. In the earlier decades of the present century, women who pursued a drug-related life-style compromised their reputations far more than did the men who indulged and experimented. Following World War II, there was a major trend toward middle-class involvement with illegal, recreational drugs which paralleled a steady acceleration of female participation in drug subcultures. The 1940s and 1950s were the period of the mainline lady, the reefer-smoking beat chick, the pioneers of psychedelics. Hippie women of the 1960s turned on with marijuana and LSD as routinely as men. During the extension and branching out of the drug scene in the 1970s, mind-changing substances were tried by women of nearly every age and social class.

The literature of women's drug experiences is roughly divided between accounts of repeated use with commitment to a drug-related life-style, and instances of isolated, private experiences, either intentional or accidental but almost always profound. The voices of this book often emanate from actual underworlds, or from the interior realms of consciousness. Shaman Woman, Mainline Lady demonstrates that for a long time women have consciously sought the experience of getting high, and that they have experimented courageously, lived dangerously, and written about it eloquently.