Love on the Rocks: Men, Women, and Alcohol in Post-World War II Americaby Lori Rotskoff
After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, recreational drinking
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In this fascinating history of alcohol in postwar American culture, Lori Rotskoff draws on short stories, advertisements, medical writings, and Hollywood films to investigate how gender norms and ideologies of marriage intersected with scientific and popular ideas about drinking and alcoholism.
After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, recreational drinking became increasingly accepted among white, suburban, middle-class men and women. But excessive or habitual drinking plagued many families. How did people view the "problem drinkers" in their midst? How did husbands and wives learn to cope within an "alcoholic marriage"? And how was drinking linked to broader social concerns during the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War era?
By the 1950s, Rotskoff explains, mental health experts, movie producers, and members of self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon helped bring about a shift in the public perception of alcoholism from "sin" to "sickness." Yet alcoholism was also viewed as a family problem that expressed gender-role failure for both women and men. On the silver screen (in movies such as The Lost Weekend and The Best Years of Our Lives) and on the printed page (in stories by such writers as John Cheever), in hospitals and at Twelve Step meetings, chronic drunkenness became one of the most pressing public health issues of the day.
Shedding new light on the history of gender, marriage, and family life from the 1920s through the 1960s, this innovative book also opens new perspectives on the history of leisure and class affiliation, attitudes toward consumerism and addiction, and the development of a therapeutic culture.
(Elizabeth Lunbeck, author of The Psychiatric Persuasion: Knowledge, Gender, and Power in Modern America)
"Lori Rotskoff, who writes wonderfully well, has filled a blank in the (gendered) social history of American drinking and sobriety from Prohibition through the fifties: a subtle, engaging, and now indispensable study. (John W. Crowley, author of The White Logic: Alcoholism and Gender in Modernist American Fiction)"
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Love on the RocksMen, Women, and Alcohol in Post-World War II America
By Lori Rotskoff
University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2002 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
IntroductionIn 1929 Ella Boole, social reformer and president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), published a book chronicling the history of American women in the temperance movement. Imploringly titled Give Prohibition Its Chance, the book offered an impassioned argument supporting the law that had banned the sale of liquor for a decade. Like her more famous predecessor Frances Willard (who presided over the WCTU from the 1870s through the 1890s), Boole claimed that women and children had been the greatest victims of drink in the past, and that they would suffer most if national Prohibition were repealed. An outspoken defender of the Eighteenth Amendment, Boole believed that Prohibition was helping to safeguard the moral sanctity, financial health, and general happiness of the American family. Boole lambasted the saloon as a "social evil" that turned respectable workingmen into drunken brutes. Before Prohibition, she wrote, "it was the home that suffered ... the women and children who did without necessary food and clothing ... the wife and mother who listened until midnight for the staggering footsteps of her drunken husband or son." Still rootedin an ideology of domesticity that entrusted Protestant, middle-class, white women with ensuring the moral solvency of the home, the WCTU of the 1920s viewed "King Alcohol" as an inherently addictive substance that would debilitate even the most well-intentioned imbibers. According to the WCTU, social and legal coercion was required to "protect" the family when tactics of moral suasion and public education failed. Though the WCTU was not alone in shaping the politics of temperance (indeed, the male-dominated Anti-Saloon League was ultimately more instrumental in securing national Prohibition by 1919), its gendered, moralistic vision of alcohol consumption held sway through the early decades of the twentieth century.
By the 1950s, however, religious female reformers had lost the influence they once wielded with respect to the politics of drink. By midcentury the sentimental temperance tale of the forlorn family had exhausted its cultural currency, its descriptive power to stir the hearts and minds of readers. Within public debates over alcohol consumption, the voices of evangelical reformers were muffled by other social groups who engendered new ways of understanding and treating chronic inebriety. Soon after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the public discourse on excessive drinking was no longer structured as a wet-versus-dry debate over legal proscription; rather, it stemmed from the concerns of doctors, psychiatrists, social workers, and lay therapists-a diverse body of experts whose claims to authority were rooted not in a mission of moral uplift but in privileged access to scientific knowledge, spiritual insight, or therapeutic technique.
Various groups of scientific, medical, and self-credentialed authorities replaced an essentially moralistic view of overindulgence as a sin with a modern, therapeutic conception of excessive drinking as a sickness. While some physicians viewed alcohol addiction as a disease as early as the eighteenth century, before 1930 the strong cultural influence of temperance reformers prevented a thorough medicalization of habitual drunkenness in society at large. Between the 1930s and 1960s, however, a new consensus took shape as "traditional moralistic interpretations ... were abandoned in favor of a `scientific' or medical view according to which the chronic drunkard is [treated as] the victim of a physiological or psychological aberration." Certainly moral and religious judgments were not effaced entirely from new understandings of alcoholism. But during the mid-twentieth century, experts increasingly defined the overconsumption of alcohol as a medical and psychological problem that rendered certain people subjects for scientific scrutiny, diagnosis, and therapy. Out of this professional and ideological terrain emerged the modern paradigm of "alcoholism" as an illness, or pathology. Forming what historians have retrospectively called an "alcoholism movement," these authorities aimed to treat people with drinking problems and to heighten public awareness about problem drinking.
One such expert was Thelma Whalen, a Texas social worker who worked in an alcoholism treatment hospital in the years following World War II. In 1953-exactly twenty years after the repeal of Prohibition-Whalen published an article titled "Wives of Alcoholics: Four Types Observed in a Family Service Agency." Over the course of her professional career as a family caseworker, Whalen counseled dozens of women married to alcoholic men, and she discovered "striking similarities" among them. Countering the notion that the alcoholic's wife was a passive victim of circumstances beyond her control, Whalen claimed that women facilitated their husbands' inebriety. "The wife of an alcoholic is not simply the object of mistreatment in a situation which she had no part in creating," Whalen wrote. In the "sordid sequence of marital misery" that plagues the alcoholic family, she argued, the wife is "an active participant in the creation of the problems which ensue." For Whalen, then, alcoholism was a problem interwoven in the fabric of troubled relations between husbands and wives.
Whalen's diagnosis of the alcoholic's spouse was a far cry from the image of the "drunkard's wife" prevalent a century earlier. Shunning the rhetoric of religion and morality, post-World War II experts on the alcoholic family spoke the language of social science, psychiatry, and above all, therapy. No longer a passive victim or an "innocent bystander" in the midst of domestic upheaval, the spouse in the social worker's estimation was implicated in the "marital misery" she endured. Whereas Ella Boole portrayed the desolate wife to symbolize the threat men's drinking posed to all women, Whalen assumed that drinking was problematic only in particular households: those inhabited by individuals who could be diagnosed as "alcoholics." Rather than militating for legislation that would affect the access of an entire society to alcohol, midcentury experts targeted women whose lives were directly affected by drinking. Rather than try to stop all men from drinking, they exhorted individual women to scrutinize their personal responses to men's drinking, to focus inwardly on their own marriages and psyches.
During the post-World War II era, psychiatric social workers such as Thelma Whalen were not alone in viewing alcoholism in terms of marital relationships. Other public health advocates located alcoholism in the domestic sphere, in the private homes of women and men. Between 1940 and the early 1960s Whalen's article was one of dozens of scientific studies that focused on the wives and marriages of alcoholics. At the same time Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a not-for-profit "fellowship" dedicated to the treatment and recovery of compulsive drinkers, created an institutional context for such concerns. From its beginning in 1935 AA encouraged members' spouses to participate informally in the organization's program of ritual disclosure, spiritual rebirth, and mutual support. Like many credentialed authorities, AA members believed that families could play a major role in perpetuating-or arresting-an alcoholic's drinking. In 1951 Lois Wilson, the wife of AA cofounder Bill Wilson, officially established the Al-Anon Family Groups, which encouraged wives to follow the same Twelve Step program used by alcoholics themselves. The founders of AA and Al-Anon believed that women could improve their own and their husbands' lives by creating an emotional and spiritual climate conducive to sobriety.
Following the transition from the temperance reform literature to the publications of postwar alcoholism experts, in this book I investigate important connections among alcohol consumption, gender roles, and family life from the 1910s through the 1960s, with an emphasis on the post-World War II period. In essence I explore the engendering of alcoholism as a psychological and bodily illness in the mid-twentieth century. I use the word "engender" here in a double sense: first, to denote the formation of new institutions and forms of therapy associated with the alcoholism movement. These include communities of academic experts (especially those affiliated with the Yale Center for Studies on Alcohol, established in 1940); psychiatrists and social workers at alcoholism treatment hospitals and mental health facilities across the nation; public relations organizations; and the fellowships of AA and the Al-Anon Family Groups. These groups shaped perceptions of alcoholism through publications in scholarly journals and mass-circulation magazines, inspirational self-help or "recovery" literature; published works of fiction; and commercial films and television programs.
Second, and just as significantly, this term refers to matters of gender and the family. As suggested in the historical vignettes above, over the course of U.S. history citizens have perceived excessive drinking primarily as a masculine indulgence. One continuity from the turn of the century through the 1950s rested in the perception that most heavy drinkers, and hence most alcoholics, were men. This assumption influenced the alcoholism paradigm in the 1940s and 1950s, when the term "alcoholic" usually meant "male alcoholic." Sex-ratio statistics varied slightly, but most authorities agreed that women comprised approximately one-sixth of all alcoholics. When experts did focus on women's drinking, they noted it specifically, highlighting the unusual status of female alcoholics. These gendered presuppositions also informed the lay therapists who founded AA, a fact reflected in the predominantly white, middle-class, male membership of the organization during its early decades. At the same time nondrinking spouses in an alcoholic marriage were usually wives. When the Al-Anon Family Groups were officially organized, they welcomed members of both sexes, but the overwhelming majority of participants were women.
Because assumptions of sexual difference were so thoroughly embedded in the alcoholism paradigm, ideas about excessive alcohol intake provide a revealing window through which to observe the construction of gender identities for both men and women. Discourses of alcoholism reflected and reshaped ideologies of gender, helping to define norms of proper and "healthy" masculinity and femininity. Historian Elizabeth Lunbeck's analysis of psychiatrists in the 1910s and 1920s applies to later decades as well: "Gender conflict, real and rhetorical, shaped day-to-day practice and colored psychiatrists' and social workers' reflections upon it. It was encoded in the categories that ordered their observations, sometimes overtly ... and sometimes silently." Lunbeck's study focuses on how psychiatrists developed concepts of "normal" manhood and womanhood while mining the prosaic realm of their subjects' day-to-day lives. In their efforts "to aid the common man and woman to deeper, practical insights into everyday life," early-twentieth-century psychiatrists created a discourse of "normalizing judgments" about gender. Later alcohol specialists, concerned as they were with pathological deviations from the "normal," nonetheless incorporated normative ideas about gender in their conceptions of alcoholic men and their nonalcoholic spouses.
The gendered trajectory from temperance reform to alcoholism moves from a richly documented and well-traveled domain to a territory that historians are just beginning to visit. Though several studies have illuminated the domestic politics of nineteenth-century and Progressive Era temperance reform, we know little about the history of the "alcoholic marriage" in the decades following repeal. And while historians and sociologists have examined the organizational structures, therapies, and public relations efforts of alcohol experts in the mid-twentieth century, few have paid attention to the crucial role of gender and family ideology in the construction of alcoholic identities. In order fully to understand public debates over Prohibition, cultural depictions of normative or excessive drinking, and therapeutic ideas about alcoholism, we need to view this history through the lens of gender and investigate the most intimate social arenas affected by cultures of drink and sobriety.
The overlapping topics of drinking and alcoholism offer fresh insights for students of American cultural history. Recent studies have addressed the theme of alcoholism in American cinema, fiction, and vernacular narrative. These studies are often nuanced and compelling, and they begin to highlight the significance of drink in U.S. society. But the cultural history of alcohol consumption in the twentieth century-one that situates rituals of drink and sobriety within a broad context of historical change-is only beginning to be written. By focusing on relationships among drinking, gender, and family life, we can gain a new perspective on crucial developments in U.S. history, including the Great Depression of the 1930s, the social reconstruction of the home front after World War II, and the impact of the Cold War on domestic culture in the 1950s and 1960s. The history of alcoholism sheds new light on how gender roles, especially those associated with breadwinning and homemaking, marriage and parenthood, intersected with larger transformations on a national and even global scale.
* * *
The topics of drinking and alcoholism provide a unique opportunity to investigate the family as a mutable social institution and ideological creation. Historian Stephanie Coontz defines the family as a sphere that offers access to the production and consumption of society's resources. As she writes, the family "provides people with an explanation of their rights and obligations that helps link personal identity to social role. At the same time, [it] constitutes an arena where people can affect their rights and obligations, ... a place where people can resist assignment to their social roles or attempt to re-negotiate those roles." Drawing on work by anthropologists and feminist theorists, Coontz cautions that we cannot construct a precise definition of "the family" because what a given culture defines as a family varies across time and space. But conceptualizing the family as an arena in which members define and contest their roles as providers, managers, and consumers of emotional and material resources permits us to explore the complex relationships between family and society as they have changed over time.
Excerpted from Love on the Rocks by Lori Rotskoff Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
What People are saying about this
Original and perceptive. . . . Rotskoff has given us a wonderful book showing that it is possible to study family and gender relations dynamically and interactively while also illuminating other fields, in this case the cultural history of consumption practices.Women's Review of Books
Rotskoff has written much more than a treatise on postwar American alcoholism and gender. Her brilliant analysis of the culture of alcohol is firmly set in its 19th-century roots. She is a master of the records of Alcoholics Anonymous and all the related literature on alcoholism. As a cultural historian, nothing escapes her eye. . . . Highly recommended. A brilliant read for all.Choice
[A] well-researched, well-written book. . . . Rotskoff uses stories, advertising, scientific studies, and movies to show how the relationship between men and women in the marital state is infused, informed, and interwoven with scientific, moral, and social beliefs about the use of alcohol.New England Journal of Medicine
A lively account of the culture of drinkand the gendered tensions it encodedacross the twentieth century. Rotskoff shows that even as excessive drinking was defined as a disease, social drinking'cocktail culture'by both men and women became an integral part of the middle-class experience. Wide-ranging, engaging, and informative.Elizabeth Lunbeck, Princeton University
This book fills an important but neglected niche in the literature on American drink culture and temperance reform. . . . Rotskoff brings the analysis forward to the mid-twentieth century, showing how post-World War II drink culture retained some traditional aspects but also changed dramatically with the maturation of the middle-class suburban lifestyle. Well researched, well written, and packed with original insights, Rotskoff's book is a must for those interested in the social history of alcohol in America.American Historical Review
Rotskoff offers a provocative analysis of the alcoholism movement, which illuminates the gender and family dynamics surrounding alcoholism and the larger historical context in which these issues took shape.H-Women
Meet the Author
Lori Rotskoff teaches history at Sarah Lawrence College and has previously taught American studies at Yale University. She lives in Larchmont, New York.
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