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.
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.
As one of the very earliest members in AA, male or female, Florence R. went from New York to Washington, D.C. to try to establish a group there, perhaps as early as 1936. Unfortunately, according to a history compiled by the Washington group, Florence became involved with a “hellion,” substantially younger than she, with whom she drank. Little is known about the last years of Florence’s life. Apparently she never regained consistent sobriety, although she continued to have some contact with the Washington group. In fact, when Florence died of pneumonia in 1943, two members of AA were called to identify her body. Yet Florence’s story was cut from subsequent printings and editions of the “Big Book.” (1)
Ethel M. from Ohio received the designation of “first woman in AA” in her obituary, which praised her “selfless help to others.” Odd as it may sound, Ethel, like many other early women, was actually “sponsored” by non-alcoholic women—in this case, by Anne, the wife of co-founder Dr. Bob, and Sister Ignatia, a Catholic nurse who worked closely with Dr. Bob to provide hospital care for alcoholics in Akron. Ethel probably benefited as well from participating in the fellowship with her alcoholic husband. Even though Ethel was not the first woman to join the fellowship, she was reported to have had the earliest, continuous sobriety of any woman. Her exemplary recovery thus brought her the designation of “first woman” above Marty Mann in New York, whose slip along the way, some thought, disqualified her. (2) Naming Ethel the first woman in AA also may have allowed the Midwestern groups to assert their importance relative to New York.
Marty Mann, who went on to found the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, is the most well known of these early women, and she has been dubbed the “first lady” of Alcoholics Anonymous in a recently published biography.
A brilliant strategist, Mann transformed herself into a living embodiment of her public health message that alcoholism should be considered a disease and that alcoholics can recover and are worth helping. For her, and presumably for some of the other early women as well, acknowledgement of one’s status as an alcoholic in recovery brought both individual therapeutic benefit and a general social value, the potential to neutralize the particularly harsh stigma that many alcoholic women faced. That Marty Mann and other women, or their advocates, jockeyed retrospectively for the title of “first woman” tells us something important was going on with that designation.
I am also intrigued with this marking of the “first woman” as a kind of commemorative practice and the cultural work it does in the present. We should pay attention to both elements of the question, the woman as well as the first.
Why does this question continue to resonate? Do we use different criteria in evaluating these early women than we would in understanding the experiences of early men in the fellowship? We have been primed by decades of temperance activism and its cultural legacies to see gender as a salient variable in alcohol consumption. Commemorating the “first woman” in effect perpetuates gender as a central category, shaping drinking customs and concepts of alcoholism and recovery in the present and into the future. Pursuing historical detective work that might resolve this query is, for many of us, absorbing. It can be even more challenging, and rewarding, to reflect on why we want to know, since asking why we care so much promises to illuminate even more.
(1) Charles E. Schamel, “The Washington Group: Foundations, 1936-1941” (Washington: Washington Area Intergroup Association, Intergroup Archives Project, Revised and Expanded Edition, 1995).
(2) Ethel’s obituary: “Monument to AA,” photocopied clipping, no newspaper title or date. In folder “Women in AA: General,” AA Archives-NYC. See also Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1980), 244 and Mary C. Darrah, Sister Ignatia: Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1992), 124-25 for more on Ethel.