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Feminism and Addiction– An Interview with Barabara Epstein

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note:  In a post last spring, I laid out my interest in trying to locate feminist responses to alcohol and drug problems within the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s-early ‘70s.  Comments of and off the blog suggested that in fact there was an obvious connection between 2nd wave feminism and drugs and alcohol, and it lay in the history of what one interlocutor called “Prohibition feminism.” The correlation seemed commonsensical to me too, until I thought “wait a minute—did people even think about the temperance movement as feminist in the 1960s and ‘70s?” To get at that question, I decided to consult UC Santa Cruz’s Barbara Epstein, whose 1981 book The Politics of Domesticity: Women, Evangelism, and Temperance in 19th-Century America, is the first extended published treatment of women’s organizing against alcohol.  (I say “published” since it should be noted that sociologist Joseph Gusfield wrote a history of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union for his 1954 dissertation at the University of Chicago.  [Why gender plays so small a role in his landmark book Symbolic Crusade, discussed below, is a question worth pondering.]) Our conversation sheds interesting light on the moment in which temperance got tagged as a feminist issue—and on the reasons why 19th-century feminism’s anti-drunkenness stance did not translate into a similarly coherent or forceful anti-drug abuse position among Second Wave feminists.

What’s the origin story of The Politics of Domesticity? How did that book come into being?

Barbara Epstein

I did my PhD in the History Department at UC Berkeley in the early 1970s.  I had taken a seminar on US Colonial history in which I wrote a research paper on the role of women in the Great Awakening; I was interested in social movements and in women’s history and this seemed to be a way of addressing both.  My graduate advisor, Lawrence Levine, always encouraged whatever his students wanted to do, and he was a feminist before the emergence of feminism.  So he suggested that I write my dissertation on this topic.  I followed his advice, more out of a sense of bewilderment at being in academia at all than out of conscious choice.  When I turned my dissertation into a book—for the usual reason, so as to keep my job (by that time I was already teaching at UCSC)— I extended it into the women’s temperance movement, which I actually found more interesting than the Great Awakening, which, by that time, I was thoroughly sick of.  But at least it turned into a study of an early women’s movement.

And that’s how I always saw this work: as a little corner of women’s history and social movement history.  I knew Harry Levine and other people who worked at the Social Research Group [ed: originally the California Study on Drinking Practices, fd. 1959; later the Alcohol Research Group]but I never had a sense that “alcohol studies” was a field, and I never thought I was doing work on the history of alcohol or public policy.

The standard work on the temperance movement in those days was Joseph Gusfield’s Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement (U. Illinois Press, 1963), which acknowledges the importance of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, but subordinates the importance of gender politics (as well as those of race and class) to the social constructionist dynamic of “status.”  Did you feel like you were discovering a hitherto overlooked link between feminism and temperance?

No, it didn’t feel like a discovery—not because anyone else had talked about it, but because I didn’t really see my research as connecting feminism and alcohol.  There was a relationship between feminism and temperance, but it seemed opportunistic: temperance activism was a very early form of feminism that happened to attach itself to alcohol.

Anti-Liquor, Anti-Immigrant

Participating in temperance was a safe expression of women’s broader political activism.  Women could do temperance work who could not or would not do other political work.  And the reasons they could do temperance work were that the movement denigrated immigrants and valorized the power of the semi-rural WASP middle class: it was perfectly respectable for women in rural Protestant churches to be bemoaning alcohol and be concerned with the presence of dirty immigrants.  No one could criticize women for being active on those fronts. Drunkenness was interesting to me insofar as it served as a sign of class and ethnic tensions, and as a catalyzing factor for feminist politics, not because it was an inherently “feminist issue.”

Now, this is not to say that temperance activism wasn’t about abusive husbands.  That was a real problem, and drunkenness was real.  But a different historical moment might’ve conceptualized abusive husbands as the problem and treated alcohol as a sub-category of that problem.

So the fact that there was no natural or inherent connection between 19th-century feminism and anti-alcohol sentiments might help explain why contemporary feminism has not developed a clear anti-inebriety stance.

The past is an issue within social movements largely insofar as it influences the present.  The movement doesn’t just adopt the categories of the past as they plan and theorize action. So Second Wave feminists didn’t sit around and think: “what did they do in the 19th century?”  I’m not even convinced that temperance, as an early expression of proto-feminism, had any impact on later feminism—except insofar as within temperance the claiming of the moral high ground became a strategy.

I think it’s important to see different feminist movements in terms of the culture and class the participants come out of.  That immediate background is more important to the shape of the movement than the history of feminism.  Nineteenth-century temperance activists came from a world in which men drank and women didn’t.  Alcohol could therefore stand for a variety of differences in male and female situations—and, as I said before, criticizing alcohol was a socially acceptable way of drawing attention to some of those differences.

Both the situation of men and women and the range of ways in which they could talk about difference had changed by the 1960s.  In the segment of the feminist movement with which I was familiar, women came out of the New Left and anti-war movements.  They were white, educated, and middle-class women for whom alcohol use and abuse had never been a huge concern.  Many of them were Jews, and so were their male counterparts in the New Left and anti-war movements, and there’s a negative correlation between Jews and drinking.  Everyone was trying marijuana, but that didn’t really seem like a problem.  Though perhaps it was a problem in the less political, more countercultural fringe of the movement.

Certain kinds of male behavior were concerns, but alcohol and drugs were not factors in that behavior.  And since we had a more fully developed language for talking about male-female power differentials, we did not need to deploy “alcohol” (or “drugs”) for strategic purposes.

Laura Schmidt and Constance Weisner have argued that the “wet” culture of Second Wave feminism helped to keep substance abuse below the radar for a lot of politically-minded women.  Do you think that is a fair conjecture?

Yes, I think the perceived liberatory dimensions of alcohol and drug use in this period might have inhibited any critique of them.  And there’s an element of political correctness, too.  Substance abuse was not an issue among movement people I associated with.

Meprospan Ad, Journal of the American Medical Association, 1967

What about the problem of prescription drug abuse? In The Feminine Mystique in 1963, Betty Friedan noted that “women were taking tranquilizers like cough drops”—the result of over-prescription by paternalistic doctors.

That was just not a salient issue for us.  Nobody was taking tranquilizers.  This was partly a reflection, I think, of the fact that we were young and healthy and activist.  If people’s mothers had these kinds of problems, well, that’s why we were trying to get away from our families and actually change society!



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