Gender and Critical Drug Studies: Capsule summary of “The Intersectional Origins of Women’s Substance Abuse: Lessons from Detroit’s WOMAN Center, 1970-1985”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Trysh Travis, associate professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Florida and co-founder of Points. In it, she explains the reasons why she chose to write about WOMAN, a Detroit-based treatment center, and the lessons it taught her. Her post is part of a series featured over the next few weeks that provides further explanations on articles that appear in the special co-produced edition of SHAD and CDP, Special Issue: Gender and Critical Drug Studies.

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Trysh Travis

Long-time readers of Points will be familiar by now with my ongoing (if slightly sporadic) quest for a feminist history of substance abuse treatment. I laid out a research agenda on this topic a few years back, and began to nibble around the edges of the history after that, publishing a few interviews as well as a found example of “gray literature”—a pamphlet produced in the mid-‘70s by a Detroit treatment program called WOMAN in the Cass Corridor in Detroit, Michigan. Then a bunch of other work stuff slid onto my desk, and my feminist detective work/scholarship/Points writing went into stealth mode for a bit.

My interest in this topic never flagged, however, thanks in part to the encouragement of fellow Points writers Michelle McClellan, David Herzberg, and Nancy Campbell, to name just a few. I presented some work on the Cass Corridor program at the Baldy Center Conference on Gender and the Drug War in 2016. That audience was receptive, and I decided the time was right: I dove into the history of WOMAN—an acronym for Woman Organized to Mash Alcohol and Narcotics—and last year rolled it up into an article suitable for inclusion in the special issue of Contemporary Drug Problems that came out of the Baldy Center conference.

(Why all this backstory? Because, grad students, junior colleagues, and all y’all young whippersnappers out there, that’s the stop-start pace at which historical research and writing often happens. Learn it. Live it!)

This article was hard to write because much of the time I felt like the argument driving it was nothing more complex than, “How fucking cool is that??” But, at the same time, and for the same reasons, it often felt like I was watching a train wreck. Another way of saying it, I guess, is that I was engaged in retrospective writing about “the ‘60s,” with all the political and emotional baggage that such a thing entails.

Put simply, WOMAN in the Cass Corridor was a group of activist women who saw clearly the ways that social policies—ghettoization, urban renewal, the criminalization of poverty—pushed women into exploitative relationships and drug use. They believed that raising the class, gender, and racial consciousness of heroin-addicted women would enable them to get off drugs, cease their work in the sex trades, and become community activists. When this happened to enough women, the resulting energies would allow a blighted neighborhood to turn itself around, end the dual predations of crime and urban renewal, and become a genuine community.

Like I said: “How fucking cool is that?”  And, in the first flush of National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) money in the early ‘70s, it was also actually fundable.

The train wreck part you can probably infer from the cool part. Some of WOMAN’s founders had personal experience with alcohol and drug abuse, and a few of them were themselves working class or poor.  But in the aggregate, they had no expertise on either the pharmacology or the psychology of narcotics addiction; their knowledge of the issues facing the population they planned to work with was similarly arms-length. Like many feminist organizations at the time, WOMAN misread the racial politics around it and got bogged down in debates over how to operationalize the anti-hierarchical community they believed essential to ending women’s oppression. As Terry Hluchyj’s thoughtful study of the group (upon which my article relies heavily) argued, WOMAN’s founders’ social justice orientation clashed in significant ways with the mindset of many of its frontline workers, who saw their job as the respectful and professional delivery of health care, not social change.

The program was, in many ways, a radical round peg in the adamantly square hole of a Great Society bureaucracy.  As such, it was unsurprisingly deemed a failure by NIDA after its initial three-year grant expired, and faded away after a few more years.

It was painful to research and write about WOMAN because I kept wanting to yell at the founders—“Don’t fire the Program Director because you think she’s ‘elitist’! She’s keeping accurate records that the feds will want later!” and “Sure, methadone is ‘chemical slavery,’ but you need to preserve legitimacy through the next grant cycle and experimenting with polarity therapy just won’t do it!”  The baseline naivete that lay back of WOMAN’s founding was in many ways maddening.

And yet at the same time, as the national emergency that is the opioid crisis grew unabated while I worked, and the Department of Health and Human Services started to loosen the regulations around prescribing Buprenorphine, and the AMA began to talk about safe injection public bathrooms, and the City of Cambridge pondered installing emergency Narcan stations in Harvard Square, and not one milliliter of ink was spilled on addressing the socio-political context in which opioids-then-heroin-then-fentanyl starts to sound like a good idea—as all that happened and/or didn’t happen, the premises behind WOMAN’s founding started to sound more and more compelling.

Maybe despite, or maybe because of their naiveté, WOMAN’s founders took seriously the material conditions in which women use drugs—the economic, racialized, and gender-structured surroundings that allow drugs to flow to them, make sense to them, and become necessary parts of their lives. They didn’t know exactly how to leverage an awareness of those conditions into a path to recovery, but they grasped that doing so was essential.  Forty years’ worth of “evidence-based” and largely fruitless substance abuse treatment later, I hope policy makers and the treatment community will read the story of WOMAN in the Cass Corridor and take up where its founders left off.

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