Feminist Anti-Addiction Discourse: Towards a Research Agenda

Devoted Points readers may recall that over the last year contributing editor Michelle McClellan and myself have mused on the odd relationship—or lack thereof—between addiction studies and women’s studies. Given the high correlation between alcohol/drug abuse and a variety of forms of violence against women, as well as the demonstrated role that alcohol and drugs play in a hypersexualized consumer culture that enforces “hegemonic masculine and emphasized feminine” roles, we have puzzled over the relative lack of interest in alcohol and drug history and activism on the part of feminist researchers.

A Women's History Month Post

Where, we have wondered, is the feminist anti-drug-and-alcohol abuse discourse in the contemporary academy, on our campuses, and in the larger public health milieu? And, on a more traditionally scholarly note, where is it in the history of feminism—particularly in Second Wave feminism or in, as its radical offshoot is sometimes known, “women’s liberation”? In honor of Women’s History Month, it’s to this last question that this post is devoted.

Lest it be thought that only squares were concerned with the problems of alcohol and drugs back in the good ol’ days of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I direct your attention to anti-drug messages from the heart of the revolution: the Diggers’ “Uncle Tim’$ Children” and writings by the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords. Both outline the risks—personal and political—of the drug cultures that overlapped with, informed, and in some cases seemed to power the counterculture. The women’s liberation movement existed at the same time; participants in it were often also participants in other radical movements, and shared many of the same anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist frames of reference. Moreover, the women’s liberationist slogan “the personal is political” would seem to invite consideration of the motivations behind and ramifications of drug and alcohol use/abuse—more so even than the more performative and action-oriented philosophies of liberation rooted in masculinist struggles for public space, voice, and power.

Any Track Marks on that Arm?

It seems logical that the women’s liberation movement should be at least if not more concerned as its contemporaries about the toll exacted on its constituents by alcohol and drugs. Given that another similarity across these movements was a commitment to grassroots based print culture, it also seems reasonable to expect that we should be able to locate writings about the issue, which could form both an archive for historical research and, more practically, a usable past for contemporary activism.  With these logics in mind, I set out to cherchez les femmes des drogues.

Where to begin? I started modestly, reviewing the fantastic Feminist Memoir Project (1998), a collection of twenty-eight essays edited by Rachel Blau du Plessis and Ann Snitow. In it, movement women reflect on what brought them into and, in some cases, pushed them out of women’s liberation.  While gripping, these narratives seem to unfold in a space completely apart from Washington Square, Haight-Ashbury, or Laguna Beach—a space as dry, if not dryer, than a Goldwater rally, at least in the movement’s earliest years. The volume is arranged in rough chronology, and authors talking about their lives in 1967-69 speak explicitly about drugs and alcohol only when talking about men. Civil Rights and Chicana activist Betita Martinez acknowledges that she had a lover who was a heroin addict (116), and the founders of Chicago Women’s Liberation recall a performance piece about female solidarity that included the line “I am with the woman selling her body in the streets of American cities to feed the habit she acquired from her boyfriend” (44).

Chicago Women's Liberation Union: "He did it."

The exception is Roxanne Dunbar, a member of Boston’s Cell 16, who notes that her early life in rural poverty and with “a violent alcoholic mother” helped to explain her difference from the women she knew in the movement.

Early on, there are few references to women’s own drug and alcohol use, heavily veiled. Seattle peace activist Barbara Winslow notes that she “learned about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” in her alternative high school (227); Vivian Rothstein of Chicago Women’s Liberation acknowledges that life with a raised consciousness was sometimes hard, and “we all experimented with different ways to either avoid or integrate our consciousness into our daily lives” (47).

Eve Ensler: A Depressed Alcoholic-- Finally!

Finally, four hundred pages into the five hundred page book, and deep into the ‘70s, someone—poet, anti-racist, and lesbian-feminist activist Minnie Bruce Pratt—finally admits to something more than social drinking (412). Performance artist Eve Ensler, writing about the same time, characterizes herself as “a depressed alcoholic” (413), and black feminist Michelle Wallace acknowledges that her incendiary classic Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1978) appeared (and was perhaps written) while she was “drinking and smoking heavily, even doing the occasional illicit drug” (440).

Absent, however, is any systematic analysis of the role of alcohol and drugs—and of insobriety—within individual lives or, more important, the women’s movement. Unlike the Diggers, who linked the veneration of altered consciousness to both corrosive capitalism and predatory male behavior, or the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, who critiqued the political economy of ghetto drug culture as a colonialist project, radical feminism seems to have been uninterested in, or unable or unwilling to theorize alcohol and drug use, dependency, and abuse. At least, that’s what The Feminist Memoir Project suggests.

But can it be true? A few movement women that I met while researching the rise of feminist recovery in the 1980s had suggested that, in their own cases, partying, drug seeking, hangovers, etc., had impaired their ability to “do politics.”  That impairment was what had prompted them to seek recovery, which, ironically, was then blamed for “depoliticizing” the movement. Recovery, as I have argued elsewhere, can certainly be feminist. But it shies away from structural analysis and is incompatible with political economic critique; as a result, recovery discourse, no matter how woman-centered or empowering, is difficult to recuperate into the notions of radicalism that were the stock in trade of women’s liberation. More important for my interests here, recovery did not become visible or influential in the feminist community until the early 1980s.

Out from Under: Sober Dykes and Our Friends (1983)

Let’s assume that the chronology of The Feminist Memoir Project is accurate, and that no one in the movement drank or used drugs problematically until Minnie Bruce Pratt and Eve Ensler did in 1973. It’s a long ten years until Jean Swallow’s lesbian feminist recovery anthology Out from Under appeared in 1983. Was there really nothing said about alcohol and drug abuse among radical women in that whole long decade?

And so, in honor of Women’s History Month, a new research agenda. Where is the radical feminist experience of substance abuse and addiction? What is its substance? How, if at all, does it align with that of contemporaneous radical movements? What is its relationship to the practical projects that grew out of and were informed by radical feminist insight—for instance, the Women’s Health Movement, Take Back the Night projects, and Domestic Violence initiatives? Is there heightened attention to the issue of alcohol and drugs as problems in feminist communities that were not centered on straight white middle-class women and their concerns? Armed with some great research tools courtesy of Phyllis Holman Weisbard, the Women’s Studies Librarian of the University of Wisconsin, I’m off. Comments, questions, suggestions, and testimonies are welcome, as always.

And Talk about all the Drinking and Drugging that Go on During It

7 thoughts on “Feminist Anti-Addiction Discourse: Towards a Research Agenda

  1. This is a great set of questions and I suspect to see alcohol/drug/recovery historians turning up answers over the next several years (your discussion 80s feminist recovery discourse was pathbreaking in that respect). I did wonder, though: have you given any thought to the body of literature on the temperance movement and first-wave feminism? Given the significant distinction between “temperance” and “recovery,” to what extent can we draw a connection between substance use/women’s rights discourses in the two waves/eras? I’d welcome preliminary hypotheses–from you or other Points readers–on that question.

    • I too thought of the temperance movement of the early 20th century. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union once had a lot of power, I understand. and they had some radical leanings as well. They advocated for women to have our own money, access to income that was not dependent on a man–they tied capitalism to patriarchy (even if they may not have used that language)–and understood that alcohol was strongly implicated in keeping women from autonomy.
      Thank you for this post, i’ve been pondering the relationship between addiction and feminism as well. looking forward to further discussions….

  2. Nice piece, Trysh. Worthy, as you suggest, of more thought and investigation. For my part, I almost immediately thought of cigarettes and the part-authentic, part-inauthentic embrace of smoking by college girls in the 60s as a liberationist (or faux liberationist) gesture. This tropism applied, by extension to the smoking of grass and even the experimentation with acid too, I think. Sex was arguably the most profound game-changer, although I always wonder how much sex actually went on in the 50s on campus. Maybe it was more the attitude and – even more importantly – the fading of sex-related feelings of guilt that changed with the female hip student of the 60s. Yet I remember chiding my girlfriend at Berkeley that while she was pretty open with her frineds about spending nights now and then over at my apartment on Ellsworth St., she didn’t also let her parents in on her sometime residence there. Even liberation had boundaries. The counter-culture’s de-gendering of euphoriant and psychedelic usage was itself a kind of radicalization and liberation for the hippest young women in the counter-culture. The whole heroin thing came later. Yet, the boundary-breaking symbolism associated with freer use of mind-altering substances in the 60s, I’m guessing, also surely muffled, at least for a time, any reformist feminist rhetoric that may have come forth later on and as alcohol and hard drugs morphed into arguably more serious problems. No?

  3. Alcoholism was very much a “live” topic in 1960s-80s feminist research and in mid nineteenth century to the passage of Prohibition feminism. It is certainly a living subject in the creative literature in many genres by women writers. In my collection of short stories “WOMEN IN THE TREES:” U.S. WOMEN’S SHORT STORIES ABOUT BATTERING AND RESISTANCE, 1839-2000 (edited by Susan Koppelman, The Feminist Press, 2004) I wrote:

    “By 1887 the story of a drunken husband’s brutality was so well known that in order to tell it yet again as the story “Jack the Fisherman,” Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ narrator affects boredom, saying in a 19th century way, “You know how it is,” over and over. Her story-telling rhythms and cadences remind the reader of an ancient story of mythic dimensions, a story immediately familiar.

    Other stories of this period also seem to be written out of a sense that this is tried and true literary territory that needs to be reimagined by the writer, because the representations might have become clichéd. Indeed, how could they not? Phelps seems to ask, when the subject itself is so clichéd, as common as love stories. These stories are only some of the many literary expressions of shock, horror, and outrage aroused by what the English activist Frances Power Cobb named in her 1878 essay “Wife-Torture in England.” Wife battery and murder were deplored in any number of sociological tracts in the 19th century and a strong and organized anti-wife-abuse faction was found in the women’s suffrage movement. Perhaps the strongest voice condemning wife torture, however, came from the temperance movement. Entire literary careers were founded on the writing of temperance novels, which emphasized a link between drunkenness and wife abuse. (p. xxvi, Introduction).

    And I introduce the story “Jack the Fisherman” with the following quotation used as an epigraph:
    “Perhaps the most common way that batterers attempt to excuse their violent behavior is by an appeal to loss of control. . . . To what extent does alcohol cause loss of control over one’s behavior? [A 1974] study of family violence. . . establishes drunken behavior as learned (rather than purely chemically induced) behavior [which] varies widely from culture to culture. . . . Because it is believed to lead to loss of control, people behave as though it actually has the property and use this “loss of control” to disavow or neutralize deviant behavior such as wife beating.” – James Ptacek, “Why Do Men Batter their Wives?” in Feminist Perspectives on Wife Abuse, edited by Kersti Yllo and Michele Bograd. Newbury Park, California: Sage Publications, 1988, pp. 142-43.

    “Jack the Fisherman” by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps. First published in Century Magazine, June 1887. Reprinted in her collection Fourteen To One, 1891.

  4. A great blog – I’ve had the same thought myself. The Temperance Movement just doesn’t connect with young women today – the idea of prohibition just isn’t catchy. But connecting men’s addiction issues to violence against women, and women’s addictions as ways of coping with inequality, seems like an area that should be addressed in today’s feminism. I often find students have trouble reconciling the “drunken hook-up” culture of college with issue of consent and sexual agency – this would be an interesting area of research!

    One work I’ve found very helpful in looking at addiction recovery and the structural factors of sexism, racism, heterosexism, poverty, etc is Charlotte Kasl’s Many Roads, One Journey (also Women, Sex, and Addiction). Although it’s written for those in recovery (or discovery, as she calls it) so it’s not a purely theoretical work, there are quite a few insights from feminism, especially radical feminism, on the roots of addiction in women’s lives, and how coping with inequality can lead to addiction.

  5. Thanks for the comments here, all of which contain useful food for thought. It’s interesting to think about whether– or to what extent– women’s liberationists thought about their connection to feminism’s temperance past. The notion that 19th century activists used drink as a means to get at issues of interpersonal violence and economic dependence seems like a no-brainer– but that’s easy for me to say, coming after two generations of the women’s historians who recovered what now just seems to be common sense. My original thought was that women’s temperance activism would’ve–or at least could’ve– been rejected as too reformist and insufficiently “radical,” in part because of its connection to evangelicalism and a male-dominated religious culture, in part because its focus on female victimization. Certainly that’s the narrative that my students construct when we compare the 1860s to the 1960s! But while that rejection seems quite visible in hindsight, I’m not sure whether it’s happening on the ground, simply because I’m not sure there’s knowledge of temperance as a model of activism to be rejected. More on that issue soon, I hope.

    I think the issue that Ron calls “faux liberationism” is a key one here– related to Julie Hartman’s dead-on assertion that “prohibition isn’t catchy.” The politics of disinhibition are assumed to be liberatory– a link forged first by advertisers and then skillfully repackaged by Leary et al, as the Diggers noted (I’d argue that Foucaultians within the academy continue to shill that line)– and those of self-denial, self-regulation, and self-discipline are assumed to be conservative. Or in this period, “square”– unless,as in the case of the Nation of Islam, they are connected to an anti-western religious ideology, in which case they just kind of blast out of the hip-square continuum into some alternate universe. But I’ve not yet come across this dynamic in the feminist community. But I hope to!

Comments are closed.