Feminism and Addiction– An Interview with Barabara Epstein

Editor’s Note:  In a post last spring, I laid out my interest in trying to locate feminist responses to alcohol and drug problems within the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s-early ‘70s.  Comments of and off the blog suggested that in fact there was an obvious connection between 2nd wave feminism and drugs and alcohol, and it lay in the history of what one interlocutor called “Prohibition feminism.” The correlation seemed commonsensical to me too, until I thought “wait a minute—did people even think about the temperance movement as feminist in the 1960s and ‘70s?” To get at that question, I decided to consult UC Santa Cruz’s Barbara Epstein, whose 1981 book The Politics of Domesticity: Women, Evangelism, and Temperance in 19th-Century America, is the first extended published treatment of women’s organizing against alcohol.  (I say “published” since it should be noted that sociologist Joseph Gusfield wrote a history of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union for his 1954 dissertation at the University of Chicago.  [Why gender plays so small a role in his landmark book Symbolic Crusade, discussed below, is a question worth pondering.]) Our conversation sheds interesting light on the moment in which temperance got tagged as a feminist issue—and on the reasons why 19th-century feminism’s anti-drunkenness stance did not translate into a similarly coherent or forceful anti-drug abuse position among Second Wave feminists.

What’s the origin story of The Politics of Domesticity? How did that book come into being?

Barbara Epstein

I did my PhD in the History Department at UC Berkeley in the early 1970s.  I had taken a seminar on US Colonial history in which I wrote a research paper on the role of women in the Great Awakening; I was interested in social movements and in women’s history and this seemed to be a way of addressing both.  My graduate advisor, Lawrence Levine, always encouraged whatever his students wanted to do, and he was a feminist before the emergence of feminism.  So he suggested that I write my dissertation on this topic.  I followed his advice, more out of a sense of bewilderment at being in academia at all than out of conscious choice.  When I turned my dissertation into a book—for the usual reason, so as to keep my job (by that time I was already teaching at UCSC)— I extended it into the women’s temperance movement, which I actually found more interesting than the Great Awakening, which, by that time, I was thoroughly sick of.  But at least it turned into a study of an early women’s movement.

And that’s how I always saw this work: as a little corner of women’s history and social movement history.  I knew Harry Levine and other people who worked at the Social Research Group [ed: originally the California Study on Drinking Practices, fd. 1959; later the Alcohol Research Group]but I never had a sense that “alcohol studies” was a field, and I never thought I was doing work on the history of alcohol or public policy.

Read more