A lot of people have been requesting to read my research paper that I worked on this semester for my critical writing class. If anyone talked to me this semester they probably knew that I was quite involved in this research project because it was so interesting of a topic to me. The only guidelines on this project was that it needed to relate to alcohol consumption and be scholarly. After reading countless books on the Temperance Movement, Suffrage Movement, and researching the history of gender roles and feminism, I came up with this research paper (plus a brain over flowing with even more questions). Not sure if this is an appropriate platform to use for sharing this, but it will do the job.
Drink Like a Lady: The Results of the Temperance Movement on Gender-Shaped Drinking Habits
The Temperance Movement, the most popular and longest social cause of the nineteenth century, promoted moderation of consumption of alcoholic beverages and eventually urged for complete abstinence. Beginning in the early 1700’s and coinciding with the American Revolution, the Temperance Movement gained popularity among East Coast states and spread through the United States. The Temperance and Women’s Suffrage Movement (arguably the start of the feminist movement) of the nineteenth century has had an overwhelming impact historically. The Temperance Movement provided women a relatively safe means to enter the public political life and was important in shaping the middle class. Organizations including the Martha Washington Society and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) were dominant in historical development of the Temperance Movement. In order to understand the shift that has taken place in American attitudes toward alcohol consumption it is necessary to analyze the changes in the composition of American drinking.
This presentation examines how gender identification and gender role has shaped the drinking habits of men and women historically and currently in the context of the relationship between feminism and the Temperance Movement of the nineteenth century. Traditionally defined gender roles such as natural self control on the part of women have shaped women’s drinking habits by establishing definitions of excessive drinking narrower than those imposed on men. Binge drinking, in this historical context, could be the result of unreasonable gender-based drinking norms. Alternatively, it could be an expression of liberation, which raises questions about how values and perceptions of morality in turn shape perceptions of drinking. Is drinking an expression of women’s freedom and subjugation? How has women’s exercise of power changed and how have past norms and events affected women’s contemporary drinking behaviors?
Sobriety is a feminine quality that fulfills a women’s natural role of self-control. A women’s role in the Temperance Movement was to rehabilitate, nurture and protect her family and children from the effects of alcoholism. Alcoholic men were viewed as unfit to support or properly care for their families and therefore it was a woman’s duty to establish order and stability in a domestic setting. The Martha Washington Women, arguably the first women of low rank in America to play an important role in reform, had seen that “the use of all intoxicating drinking has caused, and is causing, incalculable evils to individuals and families, and has a tendency to prostrate all means adapted to the moral, social, and eternal happiness of the whole human family” (Alexander, p. 770). The Washingtonian women took drastic measures to rehabilitate and reform alcoholic men and women and claimed large numbers of formerly alcoholic women as members of their society.
The common belief that women should be contained and dignified has given women’s drinking a negative stigma. Historically, alcoholic women were viewed as promiscuous and abandoning their responsibilities as a wife or mother. Heavy drinking is not condoned as acceptable feminine behavior as it is linked to unwomanly behavior such as sexual disinhibition and impairment of nurturing and maternal behavior. Drinking and drunkenness is viewed as more socially acceptable for males than females because females are more vulnerable to negative interpersonal consequences of alcohol and to stronger disapproval of intoxication. This could be explained by the concerns of female sexual virtue and nurturing role obligations pervaded throughout history and that still pertain today.
The lack of control caused by drunkenness in men results in women fulfilling their traditional roles of establishing control. Epstein states in The Politics of Domesticity: Women, Evangelism and Temperance in Nineteenth-Century America (1981) that a women’s main interest in temperance arose from the fact that they were “obliged to suffer so much from intemperance of those with whom they are connected in life” (p. 92). Temperance literature points out that women were often victims of men’s drinking. Women and children depended on husbands and fathers for sustenance and protection because men controlled engagement in business, politics and social interaction. A husband’s failure to fulfill their masculine roles within the family consequently forced their wives to move in. This inversion of gender roles, as Parsons (2003) describes it, in the drunkard’s household in the 19th century was a “female invasion” or “womanhood as a moral force powerful enough to sway choice” (Parsons, p. 173). Women temperance advocates relied on ideas of feminine virtue and domestic responsibilities to create a public role for themselves. Parsons states that, women, although lacking apparent forms of political and social power, had the power to shape their own environments through guiding their husbands and children. By proscribing general alcohol, women participated in traditionally masculine roles of power. This poses the paradox that seizing political power coincidentally reinforces a gender stereotype.
Gender plays an important role in the engagement in public and private social spheres. Historically, women were naturally private and therefore were more drawn to domestic spaces where sobriety, seclusion and comfort were important. Paradoxically, women involved in the WCTU would voluntarily enter male spaces like saloons and rescue “manhood” while temporarily immersing themselves in “sinful and unwholesome” environments. The Midwestern saloon, with its culture of rough male competition and camaraderie as well as an escape from women’s influence, played an important role in the construction of masculinity.
Nineteenth century culture promoted alcohol consumption as a primarily masculine trait with only 20% of the drinking population being female (Murdock, 1998). Drinking for men meant expressing traditionally defined masculine traits, such as stamina, taking risks and power. Beer drinking, binge drinking, public drunkenness and being able to hold one’s drink tend to be perceived as masculine traits. Males who identify with traditionally masculine attributes would be expected to drink more heavily than women. Nineteenth century culture promoted alcohol consumption as masculine yet “masculinity demanded financial success, emotional stability and restraint,” (Murdock, p. 15) traits that drinking would impair.
In the late nineteenth century, conflict between the sexes as well as class conflict helped to shaped the perspective of middle-class women. The Temperance Movement raised issues of individual morality and self-control that seemed to be the avenue towards upward mobility (Epstein). Frances Willard, second president of the WCTU and leading Temperance advocate of the 19th century, fought for a linkage between temperance and woman suffrage, arguing that only the vote could give women the power necessary to eradicate alcohol. The Temperance and suffrage movement provided women a way to enter the political life while still fulfilling traditional responsibilities as wives and mothers. The middle class was inevitably more vulnerable to the destructive power of drinking. The WCTU believed that women who drank where either “working class degeneracy or upper-class snobbery.” Those who abstained from drinking defined themselves as respectable members of the middle class, where values define standing. Contradictory, affluent women who participated in drinking were not held to the same standards as class trumps gender.
The erosion of strict gender roles in recent decades has lead to relaxed gender stereotypes and gender convergence and thus more acceptance of female alcohol consumption. Recently, there has been an increase in frequent binge drinking among female graduate students (Plant, 2008). According to reports published in the popular press, the most current generation of college women (enrolled the beginning of the 21st century) fully endorse equality in gender roles and believes that they should have full access to any opportunity offered to men, including the opportunity to engage in the “alcohol rite of passage” on college campuses (Morse and Bower qtd in Young, 2005).
Plant, in his article on alcohol in women’s lives, states that changing social roles, feminism, gender stereotypes, occupation and advertising relate to the shift in women’s drinking patterns and suggests that women’s drinking will be “most similar to men’s in societies in which women’s social, political and economic empowerment is most developed” (Plant, p. 155). The fact that women reported that they feel pressure to drink “heavily” to make a favorable impression on their male peers might not support this theory. “Drinking like a guy” has more to do with emphasizing women’s sexuality than gender equality. Heavy alcohol consumption gives college women positive attention from their male peers, but likely increases their vulnerability to sexual assault and alcohol use related health problems.
Drinking has always been a way to identify members of a subculture. The Temperance Movement was the attempt of moral people (abstainers of alcohol) to correct the behavior of the immoral people (users of alcohol). The radical changes from the attitudes of 19th century towards alcoholism shows that today it is viewed as a disease rather than a moral failing. In his book, Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement, Gusfield (1986) implies that the same behavior that once brought rewards and self-assurance to the abstainer today brings contempt and rejection. “Drinking has become so prevalent that one who would cry out against it is regarded as a fanatic” (Gusfield, p. 134). In today’s society, abstinent behavior is not a respected position and is no longer a symbol of prestige. Americans are less work-minded, more urban, and less theological and put more importance on teamwork, interpersonal relations and the ability to relax, qualities that alcohol is likely to magnify. These new sets of values on self-control, discipline and sobriety have caused a shift in attitude on alcohol consumption.
Contemporary drinking behaviors of men and women have been influenced by the gender norms and events that took place during the Temperance Movement of the nineteenth century. Sobriety is viewed as a feminine quality that fulfills a women’s natural role of self-control, morality and dignity. By proscribing general alcohol during the Temperance Movement, women participated in traditionally masculine roles of power, posing the paradox that seizing political power reinforces a gender stereotype. In a culture where masculine traits such as power, strength, competition and aggressive behavior hold more value and results in more power, the question of drinking as an expression of women’s freedom is raised. The feminine connotations attached to sobriety parallel the negative connotations attached to abstainers of alcohol today. Because of the recent convergence of gender roles and the shift of attitudes on alcoholism, alcohol is less of a moral women’s issue and is more of a cultural convention.
Alexander, R. M., (1988). We Are Engaged as a Band of Sisters: Class and Domesticity in the Washingtonian Temperance Movement, 1840-1850. The Journal of American History, Vol. 75(3), 763-785.
Epstein, B.L. (1981). The Politics of Domesticity: Women, Evangelism and Temperance in Nineteenth-Century America. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
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Parsons, E. F. (2003). Manhood Lost: Fallen Drunkards and Redeeming Women in the Nineteenth-Century United States. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press.
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