Editor’s Note: This post is from Contributing Editor Michelle McClellan.
I’ll begin with two anecdotes, the first of which is probably familiar to most Points readers. In 1935, a stockbroker named Bill Wilson found himself in Akron, Ohio for a business deal. When it fell through and Wilson felt the urge to drink again after a period of sobriety, he reached out through area ministers and was put in touch with a woman who arranged a conversation between him and Dr. Robert Smith, a local physician who also struggled with his drinking. Their conversation is now recognized as the genesis moment of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s post is written by Points contributing editor Michelle McClellan.
Like many others, I read the story in Rolling Stone magazine about a gang rape at the University of Virginia with a sense of mounting horror. Then, when I began to hear hints and then assertions that the victim’s story might not hold up, I felt angry and confused—for a lot of reasons. The fallout from this story and its aftermath has been extensive, and will likely change again before you read these words. The cover page of the December 5, 2014 Chronicle of Higher Education includes the headline “UVa Rocked by Account of Rape” but that is overshadowed on the page by a photo of recycling bins heaped high with Bud Light cans to illustrate a special report called “Alcohol’s Hold on Campus.” How, if at all, do these stories go together?
NOTE: Today’s post is by Points contributing editor Michelle McClellan.
A recent piece in The New York Times about the wine-drinking habits of powerful female characters on television made me recall wine coolers, sweet blends of wine and fruit flavors that were packaged like soda and beer in bottles for individual consumption. Some readers may be too young to remember them—they were most popular in the 1980s and early 1990s. Looking back now, I realize that for those of us of a certain age, they could serve as a gateway drug, and not just because of their sweet, almost Kool-Aid-like flavors. For young women who were too naïve and uncertain to know what wine or beer or cocktail to ask for, yet well beyond the era when we would expect or want a man to order for us, wine coolers were an easy and at that time at least, socially acceptable alternative—which is no doubt what the manufacturers intended. By all accounts, women’s drinking has gotten more serious since then, and in more ways than one.
Seriously: wine coolers (Seagram’s Golden Wine Cooler advertisement)
Editors Note: This post is from Contributing Editor Michelle McClellan.
In May 1976, more than fifty people—celebrities and professionals from various fields—announced at a carefully staged press conference that they had recovered from alcoholism. The event had been organized by the National Council on Alcoholism (today the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence) as part of its annual conference. In 1944, Margaret “Marty” Mann had disclosed her own drinking problem and founded the NCA to persuade Americans to regard alcoholism as a public health matter. On that May day more than thirty years later, actors, politicians, journalists, sports figures, physicians, lawyers, pilots, clergymen, even an astronaut and an “Indian chief” (Sylvester Tinker of the Osage Nation) participated in “Operation Understanding.” Arrayed in alphabetical order on risers in a hotel ballroom in Washington, D.C., each person stood, announced his or her name, and then added, “I am an alcoholic.” Consistent with the mission of the NCA, the event planners hoped to reduce the stigma associated with alcoholism, demonstrate that alcoholics come from all backgrounds, and encourage those who struggled with their drinking to seek help.
Editor’s Note: This post is from contributing editor Michelle McClellan.
In my last post I reflected on the complicated backstory of feminism, intoxication, and vulnerability, specifically in relation to campus culture today and efforts to prevent sexual assault. I speculated whether there could be such a thing as “damp feminism,” a way to allow, even encourage, women’s pleasure while still accommodating gender-specific risks. I’m not sure exactly what this would look like but I want to keep thinking about it and welcome readers’ thoughts. Here, I muse on what seem to me to be several important factors: the complicated developments of the 1970s, including the women’s health movement; feminist resistance to essentialist thinking; and the role of advocates.
(Editor: Today’s post is from Points contributing editor Michelle McClellan.)
It’s back-to-school time, and that means talking to college students about the dangers of binge drinking and the risks of sexual assault. And while parents, health care providers and social science researchers might think those topics go together, health education experts and university administrators call the combination a “third rail” of discourse, to be avoided at all costs. According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, many universities rely on Department of Justice funding for sexual-assault prevention. But that grant program considers alcohol and substance use “out of scope.” This split might seem like a straightforward bureaucratic division, perhaps to avoid duplication or redundancy. But historians know that such patterns do not come out of nowhere—this disjuncture has a history, and it is a complicated one for feminists.
Editor’s Note: This article is by contributing editor Michelle McClellan.
Smashed (2012) is the story of a young woman named Kate in present-day Los Angeles who confronts her excessive drinking through the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship. She gains sobriety, although her marriage disintegrates and she is fired from her job in the process. The overall narrative trajectory is familiar: it traces Kate’s life as she moves from her out-of-control drinking to the supportive intervention of a colleague, to the challenges of early sobriety, to a relapse when she loses her job, and then her one-year sober anniversary. While previous addiction films have featured alcoholic women as protagonists at least as far back as The Smash-Up(1947), the central character in this genre is still more likely to be a man. What makes Smashed unique is that Kate’s identity as a young married woman allows pregnancy to be deployed as a plot device, revealing deeply-held ideas about drinking and maternity in the United States.
“How should he handle his alcoholic wife,” asks the lurid cover of the 1960 novel Alcoholic Wife by G.G. Revelle. “Beat her? Cater to her inflamed desires? Overlook her drunken intimacies with other men? Desert her for his seductive mistress?” With a retail price of 35 cents, the volume helpfully included a list of other Beacon Book titles that readers might enjoy, such as Footloose Fraulein and Trailer Tramp. Yet Alcoholic Wife was not just entertainment, but an examination of a growing social crisis, as the back cover promised: “This novel courageously tackles the problem of the drinking wife—today more common than ever before!”
Editor’s note: This post was written by Kate Silbert and Matthew Woodbury, Ph.D. candidates in the Department of History at the University of Michigan. They were part of a graduate student team who researched and wrote the nomination for Dr. Bob’s Home to become a National Historic Landmark, a process outlined in previous posts. Here, they describe the recent ceremony to celebrate the designation.–Michelle McClellan
Mother’s Day is an important day for Alcoholics Anonymous. It was on this day back in 1935 that Robert H. “Dr. Bob” Smith and Bill Wilson first met. On this most recent Mother’s Day, seventy-eight years after the encounter that sparked a worldwide movement for sobriety, AA supporters gathered at 855 Ardmore Avenue in Akron, Ohio, to celebrate another milestone: the designation of Dr. Bob’s Home as a National Historic Landmark (NHL). As the authors of the NHL nomination, we were also celebrating. The recognition of Dr. Bob’s Home as an NHL marked the successful conclusion of an eighteen-month collaboration between Professor Michelle McClellan’s graduate seminar in public history and the stewards of Dr. Bob’s home, now a museum.
Since our first trip to Akron in the fall of 2011, the project had come full circle. That initial whirlwind visit set the pace for an intense period of consultation, research, and writing back in Ann Arbor. Last May, our group journeyed to Washington, D.C. to present the completed nomination to the National Park Service’s (NPS) Landmarks Committee. Five months later, in October of 2012, the Secretary of the Interior formally designated both Dr. Bob’s Home and Stepping Stones, the long-time residence of Bill and Lois Wilson in Bedford, New York, as NHLs. Continue reading →
Lately I have been investigating what I call a genealogy of disclosure, asking how the tightly controlled personal narrative of Marty Mann, which she offered in service of a public health mission as she launched the organization that is now the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, morphed into our own cultural moment, wherein “Intervention” is a reality television show and the successive admissions of young celebrities to rehabilitation for addiction is considered newsworthy. Of course, a generation ago, First Lady Betty Ford served an important role bringing public awareness to women’s addictions, including alcoholism. Yet even though she stands as perhaps the most famous female alcoholic of the twentieth century, Ford was not the first or even the only one to step forward. Professional women, including physicians, who were alcoholic had worked to shape policy and treatment, while alcoholic actresses testified before Congress beginning in 1969 to support the bill that established the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. This activism has been dubbed the “women’s alcoholism movement” and it led to the official identification of women as a “special population” of alcoholics in the context of new federal funding for research and treatment. 
The March into the 1977 National Women’s Conference (l to r): Billy Jean King, Susan B. Anthony II, Bella Abzug, Sylvia Ortiz, Peggy Kokernot, Michele Cearcy, Betty Friedan (courtesy Jewish Women’s Archive).
An especially fascinating figure who played an important role during this period was Susan B. Anthony II.