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Feminist Anti-Addiction Discourse: Towards a Research Agenda

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

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).

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



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