Further Thoughts on Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ Ideology, the Wild Women Archetype and a Woman’s Place In the World

Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ opus Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, is a beautifully crafted and thoughtfully written work, which not only serves as a window into her rich, tradition inspired imagination and upbringing, but also sets up a platform for her to voice her passionate, well-learned opinion on female archetypes, our struggle with the ‘self’ and our inherent natural intuition. The stories comprising Women Who Run With the Wolves (among them my find of 2017 – La Loba) were born from years of inspiration and wonder granted by the incredible melting pot of heritages, practices and cultures she was exposed to as a child. Surrounded by ethnic immigrant and nomadic refugee families, she travelled to obscure and far away lands and became immersed in the exotic cultures and peoples who inhabited them. In the midst of her childhood and adolescent journeys, Estés encountered both the natural magic of women and their connection to nature, rebirth and life, and, in her psychoanalytic consultation room, the complete absence and subjugation of those instincts in other women who’ve never had the opportunity to fully discover the ‘wild’ aspects of their natural characters. Estés says these women all display the traits. She describes seeing: “…underlying story-lines embedded with similar trajectories time and again. That is, how the soul, the true self, sets out to find new life for the first time or once again, but comes up against an impenetrable wall, a restriction, an abuse, a land of bones, and thence, in whichever ways learns to create, devise, outwit, resist, build, prevail, propel oneself back into the wild self again, the wild self becoming again, the one and only true sovereign in a woman’s life.” Thus, Estés has a fascinatingly unique insight and perspective on the way of the wild womanthe true nature we as females are born with but are taught to repressthe nature men so often fear.

In the female representation present in most works of fiction both past and current, the true womanly self seems to consistently get buried and oppressed, forgotten to old-fashioned and patriarchal desire for purity, romantic girlishness and mild-mannered obedience, where the only objective goal is to escape from the clutches of one oppressive environment and straight into the arms of another, younger, richer and more handsome one. But this, of course, is a mirror of reality; a symptom of a global society that has forever told women that their role is to take care of and cultivate everyone minus the self, and to attempt to achieve an impossible perfection of both demeanour, social reputation and physical self. For a long time now, I’ve thought that many women lack a guide or an opportunity to understand themselves minus what society teaches them from their earliest days, to really deeply consider who they are and their connections to other’s and the physical and spiritual world buzzing around them. And this is why I believe, like Estés, that an understanding of psychology and how to apply what you learn about the mind to yourself can be so, so empowering for a woman.

Psychology, in its basest and most ancient sense, is the study of the soul and what makes us us. Through even the most basic understanding of psychological functions and applications, we can already begin to understand what influences the personalities we as women have, and why patriarchal hierarchies can be both so persuasive and dominant. In all of her most prominent works, Estés’ refers to the female psyche and soul by many phrases and iterations, but always keeps a similarly natural themed, earthy and raw tone when conjuring them: the true self, the instinctual nature, the wild self of the womanIt speaks of an identity we as women all have, but have either lost or been separated from. Estés says in her own words: “Why do women keep trying to bend and fold themselves into shapes that are not theirs? I must say, from years of clinical observation of this problem, that most of the time it is not because of deep-seated masochism or a malignant dedication to self-destruction or anything of that nature. More often it is because the woman simply doesn’t know any better. She is unmothered.”

Surely, women have always felt a very real, jarring disconnect with their true essence of self – dubbed by Estés as ‘the wild woman’ – whatever it may be, and the restrictions and expectations the world has always placed on her shoulders. Indeed, history has proven to us that those women who do try and tap into their wild, natural selves have found it to be a fought, uncertain and often dangerous path. Estés is completely right in her metaphorical sentiment that ‘Women don’t know any better. She is unmothered.’ because not only are we teaching little girls from an early age to hide their true identity and subdue the desire to be proud of their authentic human self in order to better fit in, we teach her that the path does not exist, because the path is symbolic of something more daring and instinctual, something more intuitive; to be the best, bravest and most accomplished versions of ourselves. To portray the authentic soul of a woman – ‘the wild woman’ – and her own perception of herself as dangerous and animalistic is exactly the ideology that those who fear that side of women want to propagate, therefore rendering the only socially acceptable avenue of female ambition to be conformity and suppression.

But when a woman is truly able to embrace herself and be herself, be that wild, natural and unadulterated force of nature, Estés believes that is when she is at her spiritual and physical best. Contrary to patriarchal and religious narratives, the wild woman is not a rotten seductress racked with greed and money-grabbing intent, nor is she a PMS driven, hormone riddled nightmare. She is not suicidal or melancholy or in denial over being different or not what society wants her to be: she is, in Estés‘ words, the human incarnation of the wolf, ready to bear her teeth when loved ones or her proud sense of self are threatened. She is unashamed and uniquely in tune with the world around her and its effect on her body and its own natural cycles and rhythms. This ‘wild’ natural state, with all of its rebellions and non-conformity is what is so feared about her, the reason why she has been turned into such a diabolical, ostracised figurehead by patriarchal world orders and religions.

The wild woman within each of us is, rather, powerful, enduring, and key to humanity’s continual growth. As Estés so passionately argues, it is crucial that we as a progressive, modern society rewrite her mythology and rethink her role to bring the wild woman and all of her strengths into the forefront of both the socio-psychological world and the everyday world we all inhabit. This is, Estés implies, because she stirs within all of us, and cultivates our best. It is imperative because the persistent psychological oppression of the female comes from the age-old necessity to cast her as consort rather than hero, a role that is not only inaccurate, but actually far detached from her earliest mythic portrayals, where she was cast as being free of the rib of Adam, a necessary individual, made to fulfil her own purpose and merit and not simply act as child bearer or a tool for man’s enjoyment. This is why Estés describes us as ‘unschooled’, because very few of us truly appreciate and respect this. Far too frequently, we keep our admiration for the women around us contained within their attractiveness, fame or maternal capabilities.

Estés often concludes her works by emphasizing the theme of redemption and rebirth, and I will do the same by hoping that women will one day be able to release the shackles of rejection and separation between the idea of the true, wild self and the society driven reality. Over the past month since discovering her research and stories, Estés has opened my eyes to so many different ideas and questions that had barely occurred to me throughout my feminist journey so far. To her I owe a new perspective and hope, because the wild woman in all of us, in all her magnificent diversity and strength, is waiting to be released.


  • Posted 5th March, 2018 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this article. I totally agree with your interpretation of Estes’ most famous work.

    It took me one year to read Women Who Run With the Wolves.

    Whenever I put it down for a reading hiatus I seemed to start reading it again when I was meant to – often finding the new chapter to be in sync with my life´s current circumstance or situation.

    It is uncanny. I soon discovered Estes´ took over 2 decades to write this book.

    She recommends it to be read and savoured in a similar fashion as it took her to write it. It has changed my life for the better. It is a wake up call.

    I still do not remember who recommended this book to me many moons ago and one day I just remembered its existence and ordered it online.

    Mysterious associations I have with this book and it is not surprising. It is this very nature Estes’ speaks of.

    • Posted 8th March, 2018 at 3:14 pm | Permalink
      Kyla McDowall

      Thank you for your comment, Louise! You’re very right that Estes’ work is a wake up call. Her thoughts on women, nature and life are fascinating and deeply insightful. Truly an inspiring woman.

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