The Weird Relationship Between Women and Alcoholism

By Elaine Reilly When I picture an alcoholic, a variety of images spring to mind: an ill-kept man in a trailer park, a wealthy businessman who keeps expensive whiskey in his office, or an overworked programer who cracks open a beer after getting home and doesn’t stop until midnight.

Typically when we think of alcoholism, we think of how it’s embodied in men. Alcoholism is associated with character traits like a short temper, extreme belligerence, and a lack of respect for other people and their boundaries — traits which are a common part of toxic masculinity. However, alcoholism affects women in ways that aren’t always talked about, both as victims of the out-of-control drinking of others and as subjects of alcoholism in ways that don’t meet the common narrative.

The History of Women and Alcohol

Alcoholic beverages have been a part of human culture since the early days of culinary development. Archaeologists believe that the first alcoholic drinks were made in modern-day China over 9,000 years ago. Ancient culture is ripe with depictions of wine, barley beer, and other fermented liquors.

Historically, there has been a great benefit in drinking alcohol. The fermentation process behind the creation of many traditional spirits kills harmful bacteria in the water and can have helpful probiotic benefits. However, over time, drinking spirits became less of a dietary necessity and more of a recreational activity.

As drinks got boozier and alcohol developed a culture and standards of its own, women were often the unseen victims of overuse. In fact, one of the primary factors behind Prohibition in the United States was the rise of women’s suffrage. Women — now able to vote in the U.S. — took to the polls to strike back at the men who would show up at home, inebriated and violent.

How Alcoholism in Others Affects Women

Although prohibition has since ended and many agree that we’re better off without it, the problems that led to prohibition in the first place persist. Women are subject to alcohol-fueled violence in a variety of venues:

  • In the home. Abusive partners who drank in stupendous quantities were one of the factors that led to prohibition. Now that drinking has once again been legal for many years, domestic abuse related to alcohol is still a major issue.
  • On the town. I’m not going to say that people under the influence of alcohol are made to disrespect the boundaries of others since that takes personal responsibility out of the equation. However, there’s a reason why women spending a night out know to steer clear of especially boozy individuals.
  • At the workplace. When after-hours parties filled with drinking are a must for social networking and advancement in the workplace, women who have caregiving duties on top of their 9-to-5 jobs get left behind. Although this expectation has diminished since the 1960s, there are still problematic workplaces. In 2014, for example, a report was released accusing the philosophy department at the University of Colorado in Boulder of making boozy after-hours parties a necessity for students and faculty looking to boost their standing within the department.

How Alcoholism Goes Undetected in Women

Alcohol hurts women when others overuse, but the symptoms of alcoholism in women can often fly under the radar, making it harder for women who are suffering to get help. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • Alcohol use in women has a mixed history. Historically, recreational drinking has been a men’s game. Stiff drinks and bitter beers were seen as a man’s rite of passage — the more offensive a swill he could drink, the more manly he was. However, in the 20th century alcohol began to enter the home. Sweet-tasting wine — formerly of the aristocratic elite — became affordable, and bored housewifes gobbled it up. In recent history, women have laid claim to historically male drinking habits in empowering ways, such as the women leading their own microbreweries. In the face of these empowering acts, it’s difficult to determine when some healthy drinking has gone too far.
  • Alcohol use is sometimes a sign of sisterhood. Here’s a social media post you’ve probably seen before: a bottle of wine, a single glass, and a list of comments praising your girl for making it through the week. She’s earned that bottle of wine, gosh darnit! Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between support of a person and support of an alcohol habit.
  • Alcohol use sometimes follows stigmatized events. Lots of people drink in response to a traumatic event. This is nothing new or unusual. However, women who drink in response to trauma are sometimes responding to taboo events, such as dating violence. While it’s not appropriate for women to talk openly about these events, they also can’t talk openly about the alcohol abuse that follows them.

What You Can Do About It

Alcoholism is being thought of more and more as a disease. Today’s medical professionals understand that alcoholism — like any addiction — is not something that a person can simply “stop doing.” Outside help is often necessary for someone with an alcohol problem to move forward, so things like 12-Step meetings do encourage recovery.

If someone you know may be struggling with alcohol, reach out to them with compassion and work with them to find a way towards healthier habits. At the same time, we should never accept alcohol abuse as a stand-in for personal responsibility. Violent or disrespectful people must be held accountable for their actions, whether they are done sober or after 10 drinks.

Women have a weird relationship with alcoholism. They are some of the first victims of alcohol abuse in others, while unhealthy drinking habits in women themselves often fly under the radar.

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