Editor’s Note: Laura Schmidt is Professor of Health Policy in the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and the Co-Director of UCSF’s Clinical and Translational Research Institute’s (CTSI) Community Engagement and Health Policy Program. A Phd in Sociology, she also holds Master’s degrees in Public Health and Social Welfare. She is the author of dozens of articles on the complicated interrelationships among gender, race, poverty, addiction, and women’s and family well-being, including (with Constance Weisner) the ground-breaking “The Emergence of Problem-Drinking Women as a Special Population in Need of Treatment,” which tracked the efforts of the Women’s Alcoholism Movement (WAM) to de-stigmatize and fund treatment for female problem drinking (Recent Developments in Alcoholism, Vol 12: Women and Alcoholism, 1995). As part of her project on feminism and addiction, Points editor Trysh Travis talked with Laura Schmidt about the legacies of WAM.
Your article charts the development of women-centered alcoholism treatment within the “special populations” paradigm that emerged with the founding of NIAAA in 1970 (311). Briefly, what’s happened to the notion of “special populations” within the policy and treatment communities?
I think the special populations paradigm is still very much alive and well. In fact, it has expanded into new areas, most notably, the debates around racial/ethnic disparities in addiction treatment, attention to which has actually outpaced that paid to women since early 2000.
The discourse around racial/ethnic disparities has many resonances with the one around women addicts. First, it derives from an equal rights frame, with all the accompanying tensions around defining a socially disadvantaged group as uniquely prone to addiction while attempting to medicalize the problem in an effort to neutralize the stigma. “The Emergence of Problem Drinking Women” argued that two assumptions define a special population: 1) it is ”underserved” in the sense that the need for treatment exceeds the supply, and 2) it has “special needs” for culturally tailored treatments that are currently unmet. Both of these assumptions fundamentally frame the current debate around ethnic disparities in treatment just as they did the Women’s Alcoholism Movement. And as with the special population of women addicts, the data on ethnic disparities in treatment don’t support many of the assumptions underpinning this debate.