"Wet" Vs. "Dry" Feminists—And Why Society Can't Handle Women's Relationships With Alcohol

Oct 11 2016

“Wet” Vs. “Dry” Feminists—And Why Society Can’t Handle Women’s Relationships With Alcohol

October 11th, 2016

In February 1969, reporter Michael Lydon met Janis Joplin at a San Francisco bar for an afternoon interview. Joplin was wearing a luxurious lynx fur coat and Lydon couldn’t help but comment on her choice of attire.

“Know how I got that?” Joplin asked. “Southern Comfort! I had the chick at my manager’s office… [copy] every goddamn clipping that ever had me mentioning Southern Comfort and send them to the company, and they sent me a whole lotta money.”

Joplin had made her devotion to Southern Comfort well-known by sipping it from a Dixie cup onstage and by once smashing a bottle of it over Jim Morrison’s head.

Although Joplin’s death the following year was the result of a heroin overdose, subsequent media coverage often made much of her drinking habits and the insight they supposedly offered into her character. As Time magazine put it, “The quart bottle of Southern Comfort that she held aloft onstage was at once a symbol of her load and her way of lightening it.”

Many newspapers linked her drinking to her loneliness and desperate desire for love and acceptance, or attributed it to her status as an outcast from her “square” hometown of Port Arthur, Texas. Still others focused on Joplin’s personal insecurities, noting that she had a “lifelong obsession with personal ugliness, [because she felt she was] unequal to the conventional standards of Southern femininity.” Activists in the women’s movement pointed out that the world of rock music, where Joplin had sought solace, was still profoundly sexist and had only exacerbated her isolation and her reliance on alcohol to cope.

Joplin was certainly an exceptional woman. And as a hard-drinking, fiercely talented woman, who visibly rebuked every standard of well-behaved femininity, she embodied a certain kind of allure. But the debates about the meaning of her drinking habits were hardly unique; they mirrored widespread ideas about women, alcohol and alcoholism that were circulating in medical literature and in American popular culture.

Gendered norms surrounding alcohol consumption were in flux, and access to traditionally male public spaces, like pubs and bars, and the right to drink just as publicly and as excessively as men did had emerged as minor feminist issues.

In 1964, for instance, female students at Duke University fought for the right to drink in their dorm rooms—a privilege that had been extended to male students for years. By the 1970s, women’s magazines like Glamour and Cosmopolitan were packed with advertisements for alcoholic beverages that targeted women directly and made reference to the connection between alcohol consumption and feminism. One such tagline read: “I never even thought of burning my bra until I discovered Smirnoff.”

Of course, not everyone reacted to these changes with enthusiasm or welcomed the erosion of conventional norms of femininity.

Journalist Marian Sandmaier, who would later write extensively about the lives of alcoholic women, recalled a formative day at school in the mid-1960s when her teacher explained: “Girls… It is important for you to realize that the way you handle alcohol can either enhance your reputation as a lady or ruin it. Let me be very clear about this. There is nothing quite as disgusting as a woman who is drunk.”


“Wet” and “Dry” Feminism

As historian Michelle McClellan points out, deciding upon the meaning of women’s drinking wasn’t just an argument between those who embraced feminism and those who opposed it. The potential role of alcohol as an agent of liberation was also a hotly contested topic within feminist circles.

“Wet” feminists, to borrow McClellan’s term, felt that drinking alcohol could be harmless and relaxing or even, in the right context, empowering.

“Dry” feminists, on the other hand, had more in common with their suffragist predecessors in the Temperance Movement. These women, who had campaigned for Prohibition, felt that banning the sale of alcohol would encourage men to behave more like women (virtuously); creating opportunities for women to behave more like men (irresponsibly) was never part of their mandate.

This dichotomy hasn’t disappeared from feminist thought. In 2002, author, activist, and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich summed up her perspective on young women’s penchant for binge-drinking: “Whatever is behind female bingeing—conformity, crypto-feminism, ennui—it’s hardly a feminist act. Gender equality wouldn’t be worth fighting for if all it meant was the opportunity to be as stupid and self-destructive as men can be.”

In the 1970s, feminists who leaned “dry” emphasized the risks of heavy drinking among women. Alcohol, they argued, was bad for women’s physical health and intoxication left them vulnerable to sexual assault. “Such a double standard might not be fair,” McClellan remarks, “but according to this view, women cannot afford to let their guard down.”

Given contemporary concerns around binge-drinking on college campuses, particularly among women, these earlier debates might not seem novel. But in the 1970s, this was all fairly new territory. The upsurge in popular interest in women’s drinking as a social issue, further boosted by the discovery of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in 1973, helped drive a parallel rise in medical, psychological and sociological research on female alcoholics.

In 1975, psychologist Linda Beckman noted that “despite the strong efforts of the women’s liberation movement, most women with strong power concerns may not be completely free of doubts about their own femininity.” Women were achieving more in their professional lives, but those gains came with a psychological cost.

When such findings were explained to the public, the connection between women’s alcoholism and shifting gender roles was made explicit. American newspapers reported the work of Ira Cisin, one of America’s leading alcoholism researchers, who claimed that “as a woman’s status rises, and she invades the ‘male power structure,’ she takes up both smoking and drinking, which in the past were characteristically male behavior.” Cisin went on to credit the rise in female alcoholism to a “general revolution in society.”

In 1972, a review of the literature on female alcoholics appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol: “Studies of women alcoholics… have revealed some evidence of defective or incongruent femininity…these studies report frequent indications of deviant role taking…expressed commonly as role rejection, masculine identification…and ambiguity of feminine self-image.”

For decades, alcoholism researchers had claimed that women developed alcoholism because they couldn’t accept traditional gender roles or because changes in gender-role expectations were too much for some women to psychologically bear. Beginning in the 1930s, research consensus held that alcoholism among women could be attributed to the increasing numbers of women who worked in factories or offices. Such women, according to these studies, displayed loose sexual behavior, higher-than-average rates of gynecological problems and serious mental disturbances.


“Hidden Alcoholic” Housewives

By the mid-1950s, however, attention had turned away from working women and onto alcoholic housewives. These “hidden alcoholics” drank at home during the day, hid their problem from their families and from doctors, and rarely received the treatment they needed. Psychiatrists who studied this population of drinkers insisted that they were more emotionally disturbed than their male counterparts and posed more of a danger to society, because they were likely to neglect their child-rearing responsibilities.

Women, according to mid-century psychiatrists, were more likely to develop alcohol problems after major biological or emotional events, such as childbirth, abortion, marriage or menopause. These explanations were grounded in the notion that it would take a precipitating crisis for women to begin drinking problematically.

In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, a now-classic feminist text widely credited with sparking the second-wave feminist movement. Friedan wrote of housewives who were bored and depressed because they’d bought into the lie that if they focused on raising their children and keeping their husbands happy, their lives would be fulfilling.

These women, Friedan insisted, responded to the sorry state of their existence by self-medicating with tranquilizers and alcohol. According to Friedan, and to the legions of women who were inspired by her writing, women needed more options and more freedom if they were to live satisfying lives and break free of their dependency on pacifying chemical comforts. It wasn’t women that needed to be fixed, it was American society.

By the 1970s, it still wasn’t clear why women drank or why some of them became alcoholics; nor was it clear whether the problem was located in society or in the individual women who couldn’t cope with society. But it seemed like everyone agreed that women’s drinking, whether it was casual or alcoholic, was a symptom of something to do with gender roles. Historian Janet Golden has remarked that the explosion of interest in women’s drinking habits “led to the conclusion that staying home made women drink and going to work made women drink, pressure made women drink and boredom made women drink.”

What were women supposed to do? Should they be drinking in the ways and in the places they were drinking? Should they be drinking at all?


Read more from The Influence:

Why Disappointment Is Crushing: Dopamine, Addiction and the “Hedonic Treadmill”

Imagine Applying for 1,000 Jobs and Not Getting a Fair Chance Because You’re a “Felon”—We Need Reform

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Contemporary Contradictions

American society has a long history of harshly judging women who drink, particularly those who develop addictions to alcohol, and a persistent obsession with figuring out what their behavior says about the status of women generally. Because of this, I was immediately skeptical when I came across Kristi Coulter’s recent, widely-circulated piece: “Giving up alcohol opened my eyes to the infuriating truth about why women drink.”

According to Coulter, women (including Coulter herself, before she quit) are drinking too much because of the pressure to be a “24-hour woman” who strives to “have it all” in a society that isn’t very kind to women. The catch, however, is that we don’t even realize that this is real reason we’re drinking.

Women can’t possibly be drinking because we like the way alcohol tastes or because we like the way it makes us feel or even—to hearken back to 1970s “wet” feminism—because the freedom to be imperfect and messy in public is, for some of us, a kind of liberation. If we’re drinking at all, Coulter seems to think, it’s because something is wrong with us all. And unlike Friedan, who encouraged women to rise up and push for revolutionary social change, Coulter instead gets “angry at women” for not seeing the world the way she does, for not realizing that the path to happiness is a sober one.

Given the impossible and incommensurable expectations heaped upon women, isn’t being told that if we enjoy a few drinks we’re “easily mollified by a bottle” just a further indignity? A further judgement? Even more evidence for Coulter’s claim that “there’s no easy way to be a woman, because, as you may have noticed, there’s no acceptable way to be a woman?”

Maybe there’s no acceptable way for women to have a drink either.

Tess Lanzarotta is a PhD Candidate in the History of Science and Medicine at Yale University. She has a longstanding interest in writing, reading and teaching about the history of alcohol and drugs in American society.

  • Misha

    This right here is the opinion of someone with a quality Liberal Arts education.

  • April Smith

    Excellent article in many ways, but what is up with The Influence using the term “alcoholic” as though it is anything other than a social construction? Some women develop various levels of problems with alcohol, but even the DSM doesn’t use “alcoholic”. It would have been easy to include a short paragraph about the social construction that is alcoholism to frame the historical information. Let’s not perpetuate the idea that there is some strange breed of human that is “alcoholic” when we know that most people naturally recover.

    • Tess Lanzarotta

      Great point! The construction of the disease model of alcoholism (which relied solely on male research subjects!) is topic that deserves serious attention and criticism in its own right. I think some people find the notion of being “an alcoholic” liberating, because it’s a move away from moral versions of inebriety and in theory, takes blame away from the individual. Others find medicalization stifling, especially because it’s lead to treatment models that almost exclusively emphasize complete abstinence.

      You’re right to point out that the conflation of alcohol abuse with something called alcoholism is a problem both in my piece and in some of the other pieces I’ve cited. I was trying, throughout most of the piece, to use the terms that would’ve been used at that historical period, but it’s possible that I didn’t make enough of a distinction between my voice and the voices of those I’m writing about.

      • April Smith

        Thank you for your reply! We should chat. I’m doing my PhD at Thomas Jefferson University in Population Health, with a focus on Harm Reduction.

        • Tess Lanzarotta

          Sure! That’d be great!

  • when i first read that article, i had some serious misgivings about it. a friend shared it on facebook, saying “preach girl”, but i and several others found it a bit…patronizing, to say that women only drink because of the unfairness of being a woman. it ranged from serious fans of drunkenness like myself to women who only drink once or twice a year, but we all felt the same kind of questioning toward the point in the article. i don’t drink because i have a job where i’m surrounded by men who don’t listen to me, so my drinking doesn’t come from a place of female subjugation. my friends who drink rarely are also not attempting to silence themselves to uphold the status quo and dampen their feelings of discrimination based upon sex. my very first instinct, upon reading that original article, was that this is a person who’s new in sobriety, and as many people who are newly sober do, Coulter was finding a way to convince herself that her sobriety was the right choice. she’s a feminist, so why not filter her former habit through that topic-women drink because they feel they must silence their feelings about men silencing them? it was necessary for her to demonize her former habit, and all who engage in it, to strengthen her resolve but instead of the traditional accusations leveled at drinkers, she chose to project it through a feminist lens. she had to justify her sobriety to herself in a way that’s meaningful to her. unfortunately, she was wrong in her claims, and that wrongness just serves to further vilify women who drink. that’s not a very feminist stance to take if you ask me.

    • Tess Lanzarotta

      If women feel, as Coulter does, that their drinking is a consequence of the pressures placed on them, I’m not going to tell them it’s otherwise! I don’t have a problem with calling upon women – or men for that matter – to examine the reasons why they’re drinking as much as they are. But, I do take issue with the assumption (as you’re point out) that we all have the same reasons!

      In the 1970s, Dr. Jean Kirkpatrick started Women for Sobriety, which was a feminist version of Alcoholics Anonymous that tried to incorporate recognizing and reckoning with the pressures placed on women into their therapeutic process. So, I think such reflective processes can be really valuable and help galvanize women to support one another!

      But not, as you say, if identifying these possible motives for heavy drinking just leads to further vilification!