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Historical Hangovers: Picturing the Drunken Woman from the Nineteenth Century to the Present.

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

April sees the return of the Grand National and the British media are always hungry to report on a particular spectacle – Ladies Day. For years, the British tabloids such as The Daily Mail have focused primarily on the behaviour of Aintree Races’ female attendees, tapping into negative stereotypes associated with the recreation of women from predominantly working-class areas. In recent years, the tireless shaming of Liverpudlian racegoers has come under scrutiny for its sexist and classist sentiment. But the ridicule of the publicly intoxicated woman is nothing new. The nineteenth century ‘drink question’ bore a wealth of material culture portraying drunk women as especially deviant, and researchers have noted that the Victorian temperance movement has had a lasting impact on the way in which we think about the relationship between drunkenness, gender, and class.

At the height of the British gin epidemic, William Hogarth produced his infamous graphic satire, Gin Lane (1751). During the eighteenth-century, a temporary rise in real wages afforded British women the indulgences they were previously denied, one of which was the consumption of gin. The hawking of the potent beverage also became a popular way for impoverished single and widowed women buoy themselves up during dips in the vacillating economy. Hogarth’s graphic placed the embodiment of ‘Mother’s Ruin’ at the forefront of anti-spirits debates.

An intoxicated mother overlooks her infant’s descent as she takes a pinch of snuff. Her exposed breasts and the tell-tale sores that mark her legs allude to the symptoms of syphilis. Conversely, Gin Lane’s companion piece, Beer Street (1751), depicted an industrious scene bolstered by the nourishment of ale, which was initially peddled as a healthy alternative to ardent spirits.

Figure 1. William Hogarth, Gin Lane, 1751. Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Figure 2. William Hogarth, Beer Street, 1751. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark.

Notably, the scene of fruitful labour is male dominated. The women are safely distanced from the sensual proximity of public life once facilitated by their financial independence. Hogarth’s graphics encapsulate the stereotyping of drunk women that would come occupy anti-drink rhetoric in the nineteenth century. Though the ideology of separate spheres was no means monolithic, the drunken woman became The Angel in the House’s ‘fallen’ sister – a poor mother and a bad wife who overlooked her ‘natural’, nurturing instinct in her selfish procurement of the bottle.

Though British temperance societies flourished from working-class roots in the late 1820s, Annemarie McAllister notes that the ‘radical belief in individual improvement’ combined with the working-class vulnerability ‘to assimilation to cultural patterns determined by the middle class’ led to an ‘increasing domination of the [temperance] movement, in some areas, by the middle classes’. The growing bourgeois emphasis on women’s domestic responsibilities meant that women were typically represented as guardians of the home and the mitigators of male excess. Anti-drink publications often drew temperance as a woman leading the charge of national sobriety. In an illustration by temperance advocate George Cruikshank for the Juvenile Temperance Society pledge, temperance is personified as a female warrior who shields a child from the hydralike representation of the ‘demon drink’.

Women were also depicted as the victims of male drunken abuse, as would be famously captured in Cruikshank’s 1847 series of etchings, The Bottle. The prevention of child neglect and violence against women and children became an honorable motivating force behind the temperance movement.

Figure 4: George Cruikshank, ‘Fearful Quarrels, and Brutal Violence, Are the Natural Consequences of the Frequent Use of the Bottle’, Plate VI from The Bottle, 1847, Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark.

However, as the nation’s abstinent angels were praised for performing their ‘god given’ duties, women who did drink were met with particular scrutiny. ‘The Drunken Mother and the Gin Shop Keeper’, published in The Band of Hope Review, No. 36, declared, ‘Any sad instances of drunken husbands, cruelly beating their poor wives, are nightly occurring in London. Still more sad to say not a few drunken MOTHERS may also be met with in the metropolis of Christian England’. Evidently, women’s alcohol consumption was considered especially problematic as it contravened accepted ideas about feminine ‘nature’ – a notion rationalised by the inception of medical temperance. In 1855, the physician Charles Wilson wrote of ‘the most pitiable change of all’ in intemperate women: ‘motherly love deadened or perverted’. Wilson marked this as the justifiable cause of the gendered double standards underpinning anti-drink debates, noting, ‘it is no wonder if society has attached to her debasement the stamp of a deeper degradation.’

Figure 4: George Cruikshank, The Gin Shop, 1829, Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark.

The contempt for the drunken mother is reflected in Cruikshank’s The Gin Shop (1829). A grotesque figure is depicted pouring spirits into the mouth of her new-born, as she overlooks the intoxicated child at her feet. As the threadbare clothing of the mother demonstrates, public discourse was largely occupied with the drinking practices of women from low socioeconomic backgrounds as opposed to the drinking of ladies, and drunkenness was often considered to be the cause of poverty as opposed to the effect of it. Never one to overlook class inequities, Charles Dickens observed, ‘If Temperance Societies would suggest an antidote against hunger, filth, and foul air, or could establish dispensaries for the gratuitous distribution of bottles of Lethe- water, gin-palaces would be numbered among the things that were’.

Of course, the wealthier classes did drink and get drunk, but they actively distanced themselves from the public consumption of the urban poor by drinking alcohol within the home. Conversely, the gin palaces and pubs of industrial cities were a welcome comfort to the labouring poor, with many working-class women drinking publicly alongside men. As such, tales of poor and working-class women’s public drinking typically focussed on transgressions of ‘respectable’ femininity. During the 1834 Select Committee of Intoxication amongst the Labouring Classes, Mr. George Wilson testified to the rising indecency amongst the drunken women of Westminster:

Last Sunday, I arose about seven o’clock, and looked from my bed-room at the gin palace opposite to me. I saw it surrounded with customers; amongst them I saw two coal-porters, apparently, with women who appeared to be their wives, and a little child, about six or seven years old. These forced their way through the crowd after much struggling; they got to the bar, and came out again in a short time, one of the women so intoxicated, as to be unable to walk; she went against the door-post, and then fell flat on the pavement, with her legs partly in the shop, and her person exposed”.

Much like the tabloid coverage of Ladies Day targets racegoers who cannot afford to conceal their drinking through the purchase of expensive hospitality packages, nineteenth-century drink discourse framed poor and working-class female drinkers as especially deviant in their visibility. Satirical artists weighed in by depicting women as underdressed and undignified. In Thomas Rowlandson’s The Dram Shop (1816) (see the feature image), the familiarity of the buxom patrons who hang from the necks of the male customers links women’s alcohol consumption to promiscuity, heightening anxieties about women’s potential loss of decorum through the purchase of disinhibiting spirits.

The gendered focus wouldn’t remain solely on poor and working-class women, however. By the 1870s, the increased traction in medical approaches to the treatment of the ‘drink question’ challenged the notion that a simple failing of the moral faculties was responsible for habitual drunkenness. The physician and temperance reformer, Dr. Norman Kerr, advocated medical approaches to the treatment of the drink question, marking habitual drunkenness as, ‘a true disease’. However, the stigma of women’s drinking prevailed, as a peak in per capita consumption was linked to the ‘secret drinking’ of ladies in connection with the passage of the 1860 Grocer’s Licensing Act. Consequently, the wealth of drink legislation that emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century was distinctly gendered and concerned with the alcohol consumption of wealthier women, with witnesses testifying that women were particularly susceptible to the demon drink. At the annual conference for the British Women’s Temperance Association in 1888, the physician Dr. E. C, Bousfield lamented,

“Since there is nothing which interferes with women’s work to anything like the same effect as the great evil of intemperance, nothing which so tends to degrade her from her true position, and to prevent her from filling her true place in the human economy, the problem which we have before us is one which demands out earnest consideration […] The taste for drink, once formed is far more difficult to eradicate in women than in men”.

However, classist responses to women’s drinking remained, and the medicalisation of addiction often subjected addicts to greater punishments. The introduction of the Habitual Drunkards Act in 1879 meant that ladies who drank “excessively” could be voluntarily confined to private Inebriate Homes that charged patients because of lack of state funding, ironically prohibiting the poor who had long been framed as primary offenders of drink induced disorder. However, unlicensed homes such as St. James’ Home for Female Inebriates admitted female patients of all classes. Inequitable punitive measures were enacted, with methods of punishment and reform used to treat non-fee-paying patients, whilst treatments for wealthier patients privileged comfort and leisure. This included better sleeping conditions, quality food, and less strenuous tasks than those assigned to poorer residents. The therapeutic measures afforded to elite patients carried over with the passage of the 1898 Inebriates Act, which, to quote Mariana Valverde, ‘worked largely to institutionalise working-class women who were failing to perform as mothers or who were guilty of sexual infractions’. As this shows, poor and working-class women faced harsher treatment regimens not simply because of their drinking, but because of their perceived transgression of ‘appropriate’ feminine conduct, notions of which were increasingly dictated by bourgeois ideals.

Fast forward to today, and women’s drinking has essentially been normalised. This is in no small part due to greater gender parity, the rise in feminised alcohol marketing and the physical availability of intoxicating drinks. Yet, the spectacle of drunk women remains a magnet for moral judgement, especially when the subjects are from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Past material culture shows us that the gendered and classist responses to women’s drinking are embedded in our social fabric. Indeed, research conducted by Lin Bailey et al (2015) found that ‘middle class young women drew on the figure of the drunken immoral chav to distance them-selves from working class young women’ when discussing their drinking practices. Similarly, research by Patterson et al (2015) found that female drunkenness is still associated with ‘unfeminine and undignified behaviours, such as a loss of consciousness or partial nudity’. Gender and class prejudices are clearly acknowledged by the British media when they publish unsolicited images of wardrobe malfunctions and headlines about female racegoers who ‘kick off their heels and swig champagne’.

Such purposeful shaming is especially worrisome when we consider the relationship between intoxication and victim blaming in cases of sexual violence. Research has shown that sexual assault survivors from low socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to have their experiences minimised or dismissed because they are seen to be more promiscuous and therefore more blameworthy for the assault. Further, contemporary studies have shown that gendered stigmas inhibit women from seeking help for alcohol-related issues and creates unique barriers to treatment. As high risk alcohol consumption increased during the coronavirus pandemic, the need to reframe these shaming discourses around women’s drinking is especially salient.


Feature image: Thomas Rowlandson, The Dram Shop, 1816, Wellcome CollectionPublic Domain Mark


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