A Genealogy of Disclosure: Alcoholism, Celebrity, Feminism

Lately I have been investigating what I call a genealogy of disclosure, asking how the tightly controlled personal narrative of Marty Mann, which she offered in service of a public health mission as she launched the organization that is now the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, morphed into our own cultural moment, wherein “Intervention” is a reality television show and the successive admissions of young celebrities to rehabilitation for addiction is considered newsworthy. Of course, a generation ago, First Lady Betty Ford served an important role bringing public awareness to women’s addictions, including alcoholism. Yet even though she stands as perhaps the most famous female alcoholic of the twentieth century, Ford was not the first or even the only one to step forward. Professional women, including physicians, who were alcoholic had worked to shape policy and treatment, while alcoholic actresses testified before Congress beginning in 1969 to support the bill that established the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. This activism has been dubbed the “women’s alcoholism movement” and it led to the official identification of women as a “special population” of alcoholics in the context of new federal funding for research and treatment. [1]

The March into the 1977 National Women's Conference (l to r): Billy Jean King, Susan B. Anthony II, Bella Abzug, Sylvia Ortiz, Peggy Kokernot, Michele Cearcy, Betty Friedan (courtesy Jewish Women's Archive).
The March into the 1977 National Women’s Conference (l to r): Billy Jean King, Susan B. Anthony II, Bella Abzug, Sylvia Ortiz, Peggy Kokernot, Michele Cearcy, Betty Friedan (courtesy Jewish Women’s Archive).

An especially fascinating figure who played an important role during this period was Susan B. Anthony II.

One of the most explicitly feminist voices in the women’s alcoholism movement, and also one of the most open about her religious faith, Anthony provides an opportunity to explore the intersections of gender, medicine, spirituality, and politics in conceptualizations of disease and health in the late twentieth century.  The great-niece and namesake of the well-known suffragist, Anthony was born in 1916 and had a colorful career as a journalist and political activist, often focusing on women’s issues.  Alcoholic through her twenties, she later attributed her personal sobriety to a 1946 meeting with Marty Mann.  Still, her life remained turbulent thereafter, as she married and divorced multiple times.  Having moved overseas with her third husband, she lost her U.S. citizenship in the McCarthy era.  She returned to the U.S. following a divorce and faced additional challenges due to her leftist political views, although her citizenship was eventually reinstated.  Publishing an autobiography in 1971 called The Ghost in My Life,  Anthony emerged as spokesperson for the women’s alcoholism movement of the 1970s.  She and other advocates skillfully deployed her name and the apparent irony that the original Susan B. Anthony had been a temperance crusader.  Having converted to Roman Catholicism in 1960, Anthony II went on to earn a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Notre Dame and sought to become a nun, before opening a half-way house for chemically dependent women in Florida that still operates today, decades after her death in 1991.

With colleagues at the University of Michigan and in collaboration with Points’ own Trysh Travis, I am continuing to explore Anthony and her personal history, and with it, the connections between second-wave feminism and alcoholism advocacy. It was of course no coincidence that this flurry of attention to alcoholism among women emerged when it did.  Yet activists like Anthony found that alcoholism sat oddly alongside the women’s health movement, which often focused on matters unique to women such as reproductive health, and which tended to advocate de-medicalization—reclaiming processes deemed “natural,” such as childbirth, away from formal medical authority.  The “Valium Panic,” for example, in which activists decried an overuse of pharmaceutical drugs by women and prescribed a feminist awakening instead, could align with the agenda of the modern women’s movement in a way that alcoholism—where the drug itself had a powerful cultural valence as a symbol of liberation for women and where more medical treatment, rather than less, was the goal of activists—did not. [2]

At a time when gender roles were widely understood to be in flux, Anthony and others offered personal narratives of alcoholism and recovery that reflected a deep tension between a potential for a broader social transformation and the reassurance offered by a reversion to conventional femininity.  That is, following in the footsteps of Marty Mann, many alcoholic women who revealed their alcoholism in the 1960s and 1970s hoped that their disclosures would neutralize the stigma associated with the condition.  Yet in order for that message to be convincing, they had to continuously demonstrate personal sobriety.  This imperative, in turn, had important implications for understandings of alcoholism, and addiction more generally, as a chronic condition. They may have arrested their disease through abstinence from drink, but it remained dormant—they were still alcoholics underneath.  As a result, performing their recovery, especially through a respectable kind of femininity, became an ongoing, indeed lifelong, process.  To show that alcoholics can recover, and redeem themselves as women, addicted drinkers like Anthony had to emphasize the extent of their personal transformation and self-discipline, offering as proof their ability to overcome other, frequently gendered, forms of transgression that were linked with alcoholism among women, especially hetereosexual promiscuity.   In this way, a progressive or at least potentially progressive medical model became intertwined with conservative gender role ideology, immensely complicating the relationship of alcoholism advocacy with feminism.

[1] Trysh Travis, The Language of the Heart: A Cultural History of the Recovery Movement from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009) discusses the women’s alcoholism movement and offers a brief overview of Anthony’s life and career.  Nancy Olson provides a detailed account of these developments in her With a Lot of Help from Our Friends: The Politics of Alcoholism (iUniverse, 2003).

[2] See David Herzberg, Happy Pills in America: From Miltown to Prozac (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010) for more on the “Valium Panic.”

One thought on “A Genealogy of Disclosure: Alcoholism, Celebrity, Feminism

  1. Excellent. Especially the final paragraph. As a woman in recovery, feminist and scholar, I have been interested in what, with very few exceptions in my view, has been the neglect of addiction as a “women’s issue” by the feminist movement and the feminist health movement in particular. in my personal and professional experience the large numbers of recovering women do indeed perform “their recovery, especially through a respectable kind of femininity, became an ongoing, indeed lifelong, process. To show that alcoholics can recover, and redeem themselves as women, addicted drinkers like Anthony had to emphasize the extent of their personal transformation and self-discipline, offering as proof their ability to overcome other, frequently gendered, forms of transgression that were linked with alcoholism among women, especially hetereosexual promiscuity.” Other recovering women rejected conservative gender norms and become radicalized personally, relationally, politically and spiritually. I was one of several women in my AA community who engaged feminist spirituality when the standard patriarchal Christianity in the meetings didn’t work for us. I would love to see more of your work…

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