Drinking Like a Guy? Women and Alcohol, Then and Now

I suppose it’s an occupational hazard, but I find myself surprised when I hear women today—many of whom are self-declared feminists—remark that of course female alcoholics are different.  I am brought up short by the straightforward, un-self-conscious way in which this pronouncement is made by friends and colleagues who are social scientists and clinicians.  I cannot listen to the expression of that sentiment without hearing echoes of nineteenth-century physicians and reformers and twentieth-century psychiatrists who made the same claim to quite different ends.

Throughout U.S. history, most Americans believed that female alcoholics were less common than their male counterparts, so much less common that their very existence—in any number—represented a phenomenon that needed to be explained.   Drinking, at least to excess, was not something believed to come naturally to women, and therefore women who did it were unusual in some way—more sinful, more deviant, more pathological, just more of whatever explanatory model was in vogue at the time.

Women’s drinking seemed to mean more in cultural terms, too.  Another common theme here has been the perpetual warning that women are “closing the gap” with men, both in recreational consumption and in the number and rate of problem drinkers.  Clearly, a persistent belief remains that men’s habits represent the baseline to which women’s behaviors are always compared.  And because alcohol consumption, particularly in public settings, and the recreational use of many psychoactive substances have been considered masculine prerogatives through much of American history, participation by women in these practices has been interpreted as a sign of changing gender roles, for good or ill.  Some commentators have argued that women’s drinking and smoking should be celebrated as liberation—think of the 1920s flapper or the Virginia Slims cigarette ads of the 1970s.  Agreeing that such behaviors indicate an important shift in gender roles, others have insisted with equal fervor that the pattern augurs disaster, a breakdown in the family and social order.  During World War II, for example, a purported increase in alcoholism among women was seen as the result of women on the home front taking on men’s roles in work and leisure—another sign, in short, that the world had turned upside down.  As well as reflecting contemporary gender roles, then, alcohol-related customs have structured beliefs about how men and women are supposed to act.

Defining addiction has never been easy, but the particular constellation of gendered meanings associated with alcohol has rendered boundaries between problem drinking and any drinking especially blurry in the case of women.  This lack of clarity matters because, at least since the repeal of national Prohibition in 1933, many aspects of research, treatment, and policy hinge on how those boundaries are drawn and enforced.  The example of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, in which any drinking by a woman who might be pregnant became cause for social criticism, and sometimes medical and legal sanction, shows the extent to which beliefs about women’s alcohol use continue to shape concepts of gender—even during the last decades of the twentieth century, when many other markers of traditional roles had eroded or been overturned.

Today, my friends and colleagues who study alcoholism and care for alcoholic women are not alone in emphasizing gender difference.  The booklet “Alcohol: A Women’s Health Issue,” produced by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in conjunction with the Office of Research on Women’s Health, Office of the Director, National Institutes of Health, similarly highlights disparities in many realms, including how alcohol is metabolized in the bodies of men and women, the dangers of drug interaction, and the reproductive and sexual risks associated with drinking. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochurewomen/women.htm

My point is not to question the clinical accuracy of these conclusions, but to offer a reminder that such claims circulate in a milieu that carries many echoes of the past, when assertions about gender difference fueled a double standard that depicted alcoholic women as beyond hope of redemption.  Clearly, much is at stake today as researchers, clinicians, policy makers, and drinking women themselves seek to use beliefs about gender difference strategically in order to craft humane and effective treatment and policy.  Historians can help, I believe, by illuminating how the complicated cultural mix we have inherited shapes our present-day terrain, whether we like it or not.

2 thoughts on “Drinking Like a Guy? Women and Alcohol, Then and Now”

  1. As to whether female inebriates were less common than male, here’s part of an article published just after the Civil War in a successful newspaper –

    Monthly Circular: Grand Lodge I.O.G.T. of PA., Lancaster, May, 1868. Vol. 2. No. 11. page 6. (editor – Sister L. Ellen Wright, G.W.S.)

    New York has the credit of an Inebriate Asylum. It is located at Binghamton. […] At no time, according to its reports, has it been able to accommodate the number of patients for whom application has been made.
    By the report of the State Temperance Convention, held in Harrisburg not long since, the official records of application for entry into the Inebriate Asylum of New York, were given, and they are simply fearful:
    Rich men’s daughters……1,300


    It may very possibly be that this institution does not fairly represent the cases from all classes of society, or is especially devoted to the cure of females. But all that does not materially alter the terrible story of its records. It is frightful to think of thirteen hundred young women given over to the demon drink, no matter how the cases are collected. And again, for every daughter handed over in despair to the public shame of an asylum, how many are there dying unknown and unheard of – the skeletons in the closets of gilded homes.

    I’m pretty sure the Inebriate Asylum at Binghamton, partly due to it’s very rocky and short history, never accepted female applicants as patients, although it’s sister inebriate asylum on New York City’s Ward’s Island did (30-40%) – but few if any rich men’s daughters.

    Turner, the controversial founder of the Binghamton asylum, was surely aware of the female application demand, because after leaving Binghamton he unsuccessfully tried to establish an inebriate asylum for females in Connecticut. (see last chapter of “The History of the First Inebriate Asylum in the World” J. Edward Turner, 1888)

  2. Fascinating — thanks for sharing this! It’s interesting (although not surprising) that the women are identified in relational terms — their role as “daughters,” particularly of “rich men,” serving as their occupation, as it were. This also shows that concerns about gender were intertwined with issues of socio-economic class status.

    The concept of inebriety could include, and could even be furthered by, attention to private, medicalized drinking by otherwise respectable women. Such drinking patterns could be understood in the context of “female complaints,” the discomfort and pain that seemed to many observers the inevitable outcome of women’s biology. Public, recreational drinking did not fit this paradigm so neatly, in the nineteenth century or later.

    I recall seeing ads in the Quarterly Journal of Inebriety for a home for female inebriates in Binghamton run by a Mrs. Tabor, I believe. I was never able to find it in a city directory or otherwise locate confirmation that it actually existed.

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