Editors’ Note: Today’s report on the ADHS conference comes from guest blogger Nancy Campbell. Some of you may recall Nancy’s remembrance of the late Bob Schuster, which appeared on this site back in February. We’re grateful to her for this contribution as well.
The “Gender and Intoxication” panel illustrated a familiar theme to which historians of women, drugs, and alcohol are consistently compelled to make—that drug-using women and alcoholic women are judged not only as intemperate but also as failures of femininity and maternity. The ADHS panel presented three very well-grounded and nuanced papers that remind us how often alcoholic women have come to attention only to fade away.
Based on records from 1,500 divorce cases in 3 states, Robin Sager’s paper, “ ‘The Poison That Maddens the Brain’: Intemperance and Domestic Conflict in Antebellum America” is part of her dissertation on the history of marital cruelty. Husbands seeking divorce often claimed that their wives failed to set proper examples of gendered comportment ranging from poor housekeeping to “extravagant” or “wasteful” consumption habits, including those of whiskey and rye. Husbands often adopted a policy of containment by confining wives within the home. Thus did women’s drinking habits become private, hidden from view and neighbors’ prying eyes until a husband sought to divorce his wife on grounds of marital cruelty.
Almost every decade of the 20th century, Tess Lanzarotta reminded us, “new” women’s drinking problems came to light. “Before Betty Ford: Explaining the Panic over Female Alcoholism, 1965-1980” pointed out that while Ford was far from the first woman to publicly disclose addictions to pills and alcohol, her story looms largest in collective memory. Due to the women’s movement there was a call for specialized treatment programs for women and so in the 1970s female alcoholism was more salient than it had been in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Politicized in a new way, the time was ripe for women’s drinking to become a feminist issue.
Michelle McClellan, assistant professor of history at the University of Michigan, presented “A Special Kind of Sisterhood: Disclosing Alcoholism in the Era of the Women’s Movement.” She set up two figures to explain the differences between “celebrity alcoholics” (Marty Mann), and “alcoholic celebrities,” (actress Lillian Roth). The performance of “respectable sobriety” was key to women alcoholics recovering their authenticity as “good women.” This need led them to embrace conservative gender roles that clashed with the women’s liberation movement.