When I was young, there was a small section of our home library dedicated to what I now assume to be books instructing my single father how to raise two young women on his own. On a shelf in the living room that was too high for me to reach, next to a copy of Reviving Ophelia sat Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s New Age empowerment classic, Women Who Run With the Wolves, an unassuming black and gold paperback that always piqued my curiosity.
My preferred reading material at the time was a healthy diet of Sweet Valley High and whatever Stephen King novels I could get my hands on, so Women Who Run With the Wolves was not a book that appealed to me in any larger way, most likely because I had a general idea of the kind of woman I’d become once it was my time to do so — practical, impatient, and unconcerned with larger ideological questions about what it all means to be a woman in the world. Despite these vaguely self-help books on the shelves, my father didn’t raise my sister and me as explicitly “feminist,” but just as children who happened to be girls who would have to move through this world as women, eventually. Any understanding of feminism came to me much later in life, working at various women’s websites, but the ease and the candor with which my colleagues spoke about feminist history and learnings has always left me wondering if there was something I’d missed along the way — an awakening within that everyone else who was raised by a woman got that I did not receive.
Should I have been reading about finding the wild woman within at 11 years old, instead of inhaling Danielle Steele novels and writing weird Die Hard fan fiction? Perhaps, but being raised by a single father with a demanding work schedule didn’t leave much space for Feminism 101, a fact that I do not find fault with. While I wonder what I would be like now if I had picked up this book instead of reading a Baby-Sitters Club super-special, I’ve become more interested in exploring what some might consider to be seminal feminist texts now, as an adult woman. But flipping through the book recently, I realized that Women Who Run With Wolves isn’t quite the feminist text I expected, but a uniquely ’90s-era, New Age invocation for women looking to circumvent the rigors of modern life by “finding” whatever it was they were looking for in themselves. According to the copy on the cover, it enjoyed two years on the New York Times best-seller list and has sold over a million copies.
Considering whether or not there is anything “missing” from my life right now as it stands is far too onerous a task, best left to weekly therapy sessions and long rants to friends who are likely tired of hearing my shit. Leafing through my copy of Women Who Run With the Wolves, which I purchased at a nice hippie store in my neighborhood that sells both very good tie-dye and some books, the author wants me to believe that all of my generalized malaise might not be based on the conditions of modern life, but part of a much larger problem: “a disrupted relationship with the wildish force in the psyche.” The “wildish force” is what Estés, a Jungian psychologist, hopes to help women find. After reading the list of symptoms, I wonder if it is at all possible to bounce back from this disruption.
“To chronically feel, think, or act in any of the following ways is to have partially severed or lost entirely the relationship with the deep instinctual psyche,” she writes in the introduction. Using what she refers to as “women’s language,” the list of symptoms Estés describes sound like just another Tuesday in America lately:
“Feeling extraordinarily dry, fatigued, frail, depressed, confused, gagged, muzzled, unaroused, Feeling frightened, halt or weak, without inspiration without animation, without soulfulness, without meaning, shame-bearing, chronically fuming, volatile, stuck, uncreative, compressed, crazy.
Feeling powerless, chronically doubtful, shaky, blocked, unable to follow through, giving one’s creative life over to others, life-sapping choices in mates, work, or friendships, suffering to live outside one’s own cycles, overprotective fo elf, inert, uncertain, faltering, inability to pace oneself or set limits.”
Instead of addressing any of these issues head-on through a combination of non-Jungian therapy and SSRIs if needed, Estés argues that the only way to reclaim the self is by understanding and nurturing the Wild Woman, who herself is a riff on the Jungian archetype of the Wise Old Woman, repackaged to be less like a crone and more like a bare-breasted earth goddess who runs wild and free. The chapters that follow use mythology and fairy tales to further her argument, which essentially boils down to this: in order for women to truly be the women they were meant to be, they must shake off the societal requirement to be “nice” by calling upon the long-buried stores of intuition and feminine power within.
What Estés is actually describing is confidence, but packaged for the cultural moment of the 1990s, where shifting gender roles and negotiating the power dynamics between men and women were swirling in the atmosphere. In 1992, poet Robert Bly published Iron John: A Book about Men, which relied on much of the same tactics Estés would eventually use for her book. He centered a Grimm Brothers myth to create a guidebook for how to be a man, kickstarting what is referred to as the “mythopoetic men’s movement” that sought to create a softer masculinity for men interested in healing their psychic wounds while maintaining a firm grip on their vitality. Bly’s work was the response to feminism and the general “softening” of the masculine identity. Women Who Run With Wolves came a year after, encouraging women to lean into their softness in order to find strength.
The most salient criticism of the book and the phenomenon of the empowered woman’s self-help guide comes from the Times’s Michiko Kakutani, who held Estés’s work in regards with Iron John and another book, A Woman’s Worth, written by one-time presidential candidate and Oprah favorite, Marianne Williamson. Kakutani’s larger point about the three volumes is that the mythologies and the practices suggested in the book are all in service to a blinkered narcissism that states that if we just do the work of improving ourselves by exploring why we are the way we are without acknowledging the systemic forces that have led to oppression, we will thrive. Stories are massively important to Estés in particular, and so it is that the stories that we tell ourselves hold the key to change.
In the book, Estés uses her background as both a cantadora — a storyteller and a keeper of myths — and a Jungian analyst to plumb mythology that supports her narrative, intending to answer the question of what, precisely, was wrong with women and how to fix it. The answer, from what I can tell after reading the book 30 years later, is that the best move for women in the ’90s was to reclaim their wildish nature in order to truly thrive. Part self-help manual without being an actual self-help manual, it’s clear that Women Who Run With the Wolves was a lodestar for women looking to reclaim some essential part of their femininity that was missing.
Reading the book made me feel like I had been lectured by someone who really believed in the transformative power of sound baths and the weekly practice of looking at my vagina in a hand mirror.
The book was a runaway hit, spawning workshops across the country led by acolytes of Estés’s teachings. A 1993 article in the San Francisco Examiner details a weekend workshop in Malibu led by psychologist Pamela Hogan, based on Estés’s work. Using “rituals, dance, music, drumming, masks, art and even howling in ways designed for women,” Hogan leads a group of women in search of enlightenment on a journey of self-discovery, using Women Who Run With Wolves as the blueprint. “Howling is just fabulous for woman to do,” Loolwa Shazzom, a 28-year old West Los Angeles resident told the Examiner. “Women are always taught to be quiet, to shut up. It’s like releasing an inner-charged animal spirit. It feels great.” Other workshops of the sort popped up in the years that followed, taking the teachings and using them as a road map to help women locate the inner wildish yearning to break free, providing a guidebook of sorts for the empowerment shamanist feminism that proliferates now, from GOOP and beyond.
Self-help as a genre has always done a brisk business, but when that same sort of advice is wrapped in woo-woo verbiage and packaged as a necessity for women looking to be better or just slightly different, well, it sells like hotcakes. Women Who Run With the Wolves enjoyed a long stay on the New York Times bestseller list, inspiring women across the country to really tap into their interior lies in a way that they previously were not. Coverage of the phenomenon surrounding the book at its time of publication centers the text firmly in conversation with the larger New Age movement. A 1993 feature in the New York Daily News calls the book the “spiritual answer to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique” and lobs another, more pointed critique on the burgeoning New Age movement in the same package, wryly noting that “empowerment” used to be called “confidence.”
What Estés doesn’t quite grapple with, however, is the fact that systemic forces outside of ourselves are part of the reason women feel oppressed in the first place. Because Women Who Run With the Wolves sits in the profitable space between self-help and New Age mysticism, she’s unwilling to really reckon with things as basic as the patriarchy and other societal ills that might have contributed to women in the’90s feeling like they needed to sit down and do work on their fragile, wounded psyches. The bulk of the work is sourced from indigenous myths and fairy tales and she extracts lessons from their teachings that fit her general thesis, which is that the issue with women feeling like their wildish ways are being suppressed is because women need to fix it themselves. Overcoming self-confidence deficits or the aforementioned list of ailments that plague modern women is not about acknowledging racism or misogyny in any real or practical sense, as she posits; rather it is a matter of pulling oneself up by their bootstraps and acknowledging that the issues they might be facing are solvable if they just put their mind to it.
I attempted to find some sort of silver lining in what Estés was saying, in an attempt to see if my wild woman was in need of care, but reading the book made me feel like I had been lectured by someone who really believed in the transformative power of sound baths and the weekly practice of looking at my vagina in a hand mirror. These practices are great for those who desire that kind of self-connection, but the practices that Estes espouses seem designed for a leisure class whose circumstances leave them genuinely unsure why their energy reserves are so low. No doubt there are many women out there who would love to really sit with their interior lives enough to parse what went wrong along the way, but paying rent takes precedence. Fairy tales are useful tools for communicating general life lessons and morality plays, but to spend the time to apply these to your life in a practical fashion is time that not all women have. But Estes argues that this work is necessary to harness the full power of your feminine intuition and wiles — a nice fantasy for someone with the time to do so but less realistic for everyone else.
What feels most current about Women Who Run With Wolves today is that this book and its larger, vaguely feminist message feels like a precursor to the pink pussy-hat feminists of the 2010s, who marched on the Capitol reframing the former President Trump’s crude comment about grabbing women by the pussy, stating explicitly that this pussy grabs back. Though I can’t imagine Estes would use the pejorative to describe the vagina and its powers, something about the message feels similar. Women are “wolves” because wolves are pack animals, fiercely protective of their young and their families. In a 1993 interview with the New York Times, Estes talks about the protests in Washington during the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, citing the image of US Representative Pat Schroeder and other women marching in protest. “I saw their backs arched, and their legs climbing the steps,” she told the Times. “And I thought, ‘Ah, the pack is going after them.’ “
Really, Estés laid the groundwork for the empowerment feminism that proliferates today, creating a fertile muck for girl bosses and SHE-E-Os to thrive. Though much of Estes’s book felt like it was old hat, I realized that I had heard some version of this recently. In 2017, I attended In Goop Health, a one-day wellness summit that featured a variety of holistic and vaguely New Age beauty treatments, panels about inflammation, and, very memorably, a star-studded seminar featuring famous people like Drew Barrymore and Laura Linney talking mostly about reclaiming women’s anger and harnessing “feminine energy” as a way of finding not enlightenment, but empowerment. Estes’s work was revolutionary when she wrote this book then, but hearing the same theories she espoused over 20 years later, presented as if they were new, proves to me just how far we have to go.
Megan Reynolds is a writer and editor based in New York who writes about consumerism, culture, and her cat, Daisy.