Who was the First Woman in Alcoholics Anonymous, and Why Do We Care?

Historians are often asked factual questions to which we don’t know the answer, questions which, moreover, we are often predisposed against answering in the way the interlocutor expects and desires.

Anonymous Woman, John R. Walker http://www.chromaonline.com

In my case, I have been asked with some frequency, who was the first woman in Alcoholics Anonymous?  I have spent a fair bit of time investigating that question myself, and I have come to the conclusion that in some ways the best answer is to ask another question: Why should we care?

Let me be clear – the initial query is fascinating and important, and I am not dismissing it.  When Alcoholics Anonymous was established in the late 1930s, the position of alcoholic women within the fellowship was complicated by many factors, including fears about the alleged sexual behavior of drinking women, and a gendered structure that assumed the alcoholic to be a man, with any women who participated expected to be the non-alcoholic wives of male members.  Given this context, alcoholic women who joined the fellowship demonstrated considerable courage, and their actions deserve attention for their own sake.  But trying to identify the “first woman,” in some ways a natural question, raises issues both practical and conceptual.

As a research question, how do we even tell who was first?  Various criteria could be invoked.  One could emphasize the date of a woman’s initial participation in the fellowship, but that raises the question of whether a “slip” or relapse requires the clock to be reset.  We might also note the roles that early women played in the fellowship, with leadership functions or exemplary commitment to the program—especially those that seemed consistent with conventional gender roles—buttressing the position of some women.  Given these complex variables, as well as the simultaneous growth of the fellowship in different geographic locations and a lack of membership records, we will likely never know with certainty who was “the first woman” in Alcoholics Anonymous.

We can, however, identify several early women whose varied experiences helped to structure the founding narratives of the fellowship:  Florence R., the author of the only woman’s story in the first edition of the “Big Book” (its very title, “A Feminine Victory,” underscored the difference of its subject); Ethel M., who joined AA with her alcoholic husband in Ohio; and Marty M., who became a celebrity alcoholic and well-known public health advocate.

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