Last Saturday I bundled up my 4-year-old daughter and headed into the Portland rain for the Women’s March. She had never seen so many people in one place; together we marveled at the tens of thousands of people surrounding us. More than a few were wearing homemade, full-body vagina costumes—hard to explain to a 4-year-old, but that’s beside the point.
At this massive event organized and led by women, where women’s rights were unapologetically demanded in both serious and absurd ways, I felt someone else accompanying the two of us, perhaps flying through the air, or whispering between our bodies. It was Lilith.
Lilith is an apocryphal Jewish character; she does not appear in the Torah. (Her origins seem to lie in a Sumerian storm-demoness named Lilitu, who was incorporated into the superstitions of ancient Israelite culture.) And yet, despite being a mysterious creature without a clear link to Torah, Lilith’s legend has been carried forward for millennia, interpreted differently in different ages.
To follow Lilith’s journey is to experience a prism of relationships to female power. The Jewish mystics imagined Lilith as a proto-Eve, the First Woman, banished from Eden for considering herself equal to Adam—in some versions, for wanting to be on top during sex. God drives Lilith from the garden and starts over with Eve, created from Adam’s body to make sure we understand that she is (we are) secondary. For centuries Lilith is a baby-killer and succubus, furious at her banishment from Eden. Medieval Jews muttered incantations against her at the most intimate moments of their lives, from sex to childbirth. Then she was reclaimed by feminists in the 1970s; a secular women’s music festival and the first American-Jewish feminist magazine both proudly took her name.
But my interest in Lilith is not academic, it is personal. For me, Lilith is a wild and unapologetic model of how to engage with an ancient patriarchal tradition—and the current political reality—as a woman. She offers an alternative to the famous and beloved matriarchs, such as Sarah and Rebecca. Although they, too, offer examples of rebellion and resistance, sometimes “mainstream” models fail us. We are in such a moment now.
To be a “nasty woman” in this moment is, by definition, to assert ourselves as fully human. If we dare to claim our power, some people will call us names. (Why did Trump call Clinton—grandmother, public servant, diplomatic leader—a “nasty woman” during a presidential debate? One could argue that it was because she dared to challenge him, to call herself his equal. I imagine that at that moment, somewhere, Lilith laughed in recognition.)
They will mock us, deride us, and seek to drive us from positions of power. And when that happens, Lilith is waiting there to carry us forward, to march with us, in all our nasty glory. And that’s a lesson for my daughter, and for everyone.
Alicia Jo Rabins is the creator and performer of Girls in Trouble, an indie-folk song cycle about Biblical women. Her book, Divinity School, won the 2015 American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize.