Women and alcohol

Have you ever heard the phrase: "Women, wine and song"? Nowadays this expression will be considered more or less a cliché, describing shallow characters' high life, full of enjoyment and free from care. On the other hand, it is interesting to notice how this cliché makes reference to women, comparing them to intoxicants, a commodity, or eventually just a pleasing way to kill time. The strange thing is that this cliché can be said to have regained some of its original meaning today.

Women now drink more wine than men, (although we do not know if they sing while they are drinking). The view of women as commodities, or something used to pass the time, should be kept in mind when one reads the following passage from Jack London's novel "John Barleycorn", published in 1913:

"The women are the true conservators of the race. The men are the wastrels, the adventure-lovers and gamblers, and in the end it is by their women that they are saved. About man's first experiment in chemistry was the making of alcohol, and down all the generations to this day man has continued to manufacture and drink it. And there has never been a day when the women have not resented man's use of alcohol, though they have never had the power to give weight to their resentment. The moment women get the vote in any community, the first thing they proceed to do, or try to do, is to close the saloons."

(Chapter XXXVII, Novels and Social Writings of Jack London, The Library of America, New York 1982.)

When women finally got their suffrage, London's prophsy seemed about to come true. Women in the U.S. instituted "The Anti-Saloon League", a herald to the following period of prohibition. Women in Norway, who got their suffrage the very year "John Barleycorn"'s publishing, were the main forces behind the temperance movement. The prohibition in Norway was a direct result of their work, and for the following decades they continued to vote alcohol down in a series of local referendums. Are these features still characteristic of today's situation? Are women still hostile to alcohol? What are women's interests in relation to alcohol? What influence does alcohol have on women's situation of today? Should we regard women's increased consumption as a step towards liberation and equality between the sexes? What are the responsiblities of the feminist movement in order to answer these questions?

Are women still hostile to alcohol?

The number of alcohol consumers divides almost equal between the sexes: 82% of Norwegian women and 89% of Norwegian men drink alcohol. However, if we compare women's drinking to men's average consumption, we will find that women drink only one third of this quantity. On the other hand, women now drink more than they did just twenty years ago. According to SIFA (the Norwegian national institute for research on alcohol and narcotics), the consumption of alcohol developes gradually on an equal basis for both sexes, until a "normal" difference is established at the age of 18-19. Boys usually drink far more beer than girls do, and the difference is even more pronounced when it comes to liquor. On the other hand, girls will match boys in their consummation of wine, and even seem to exceed them a bit in some age groups. National analyses questioning people of all ages, show that business women drink more alcohol than do housewives. Even though women no longer can be said to wholly abstain from alcohol, they still seem to be somewhat more sceptical of this intoxicant than are men.

What are women's interests in relation to alcohol?

From a biological point of view, there are strong reasons for this female scepticism. Women's bodies are smaller than men's, and because their cells contain more fat women will easily become as drunk as men, even if they drink only half as much. "Drinking like a man" women expose themselves to an even greater risk of accidents, injuries and addiction. For women, a pint of beer or 1/4 litre of wine each day is more than the body can endure, and over time serious health problems will emerge.

Most women have the ability to give birth. One should keep in mind that embryos are vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. Pregnant women can cause severe injuries to their child by drinking excessively. The effects could turn out to be a deformed face or body, hampering of natural development, or a brain damage. Figures from Norway show that every year 150-200 newborn children suffer from these damages. The increasing tendency for miscarriages, prematurity and still-born babies could also be related to alcohol consumption. The risk of such events happening, will increase at a consumption exceeding 1/3-1/2 bottle of wine a day.

Before modern contraceptives were put to use, women had to be particulary aware of certain alcohol-related risks. Children were supposed to be born into a family that was able to provide for them and educate them properly, and pregnancy had to be avoided when these conditions could not be fulfilled. In spite of the fact that both sexes were familiar with these circumstances, women usually had to take both the responsibility and the precautions. Sobriety could be crucial in avoiding unwanted pregnancy. Today the supply of contraceptives has improved, and having sex does not necessarily lead to pregnancy. Casual sex, on the other hand, is often closely related to alcohol, and can have several consequenses. The most saddening examples are young girls who become mothers before they have completed their education, or established any familiy. As we know, this may lead to abortions. The risk of venereal diseases is another incentive to be aware of the risk of casual relationships.

According to earlier Western feminine ideals, women should be very careful in respect to alcohol. As "the weaker sex", they should either avoid it completely, or at most drink very small quantities of wine. A "lady" should never expose herself to the shame of showing up in public when affected by alcohol, because drunken women ment embarrasment to everybody. Only recently scientific work has discovered the biologically determined consequences of women's drinking. Perhaps this former feminine ideal is an expression of ancient knowledge, a combination of biology and a sort of social awareness, urging every woman to secure her own future by avioding unwanted pregnancy.

During the centuries, women have fought alcohol for more reasons than the threat of public disgrace. More serious were drunken men's violence towards their wives and children. Fekjaer (1987) states that the temperance movement was not instituted to protect the liver, but took bound to take shape as a popular movement to protect women and children from the abuse from drunken men. The delegates at a Norwegian national women congress in 1925 (held by the Norwegian Labour Party) voted for prohibition to be upheld, although this act was about to be repealed. A majority of the arguments in the debate cited alcohol as the main cause of violence and abuse. The police stored piles of reports concerning abuse of women, despite the fact that very few had the courage to report their husband to the authorities.

Gitta Joenson from Tromsø was quoted as saying:

"Up till now, working class women have been working as cleaning staff employed by drunkenness. Physically and spiritually they have been forced to deal with the filth caused by drunkenness. When we meet tired faces and apathy within the Labour movement, and when we realize that these people have no jobs and no food, we have to take action, and shout our demand: Get the liquor out of our life! This must be the task of the workers and their wives."

The Sweedish pioneer among working class women, Kata Dahlstroem, pointed at another aspect of alcohol at a similar Sweedish congress in 1908, where as many as five legislative proposals concerning alcohol were treated. She stated:

"...a drunken worker will never be able to comprehend the ideas of this organization".

The aspect of passivity was an important argument in the debate at the time. We can conclude that women and their organizations were fully aware of the problems they had to face, both as individuals and a group. Almost every problem was alcohol-related, in one way or another. Have these problems changed their contents today?

What does alcohol mean to women's situation in today's Norway?

"Oppression" still has to be the key word. Everybody will agree that oppression of women still takes place, regardless of all acts concerning equality between the sexes. This oppression is partly determined by informal rules and traditions in our society; but will also appear as results of personal attitudes which of course mingle with tradition and common prejudices. The society oppresses women both as a sex and as a class. Obvious examples are women who are more or less forced into low-wage jobs, still retaining full responsiblity for domestic work and children. Oppression of women is thus exercised both economically, politically, idiologically and sexually. Sooner or later these conditions will provoke two types of reactions: Escape and adaption, or resistance. Women's increased consumption of alcohol will erode their ability to fight, and promote escape and adaption as the easy way out. We know that women's alcohol problems are increasing. If the social consequences of alcohol have not changed over the last decades, increased consummatiom among women will inevitably lead to increased passivity. Formerly, this phenomenon was common among men, but it has now extended to mark the attitudes of women as well. Or are feminist organizations satisfied as long as they manage to attract new members into their lines?

In other words, alcohol will have severe consequences for women, whether they choose to join or refrain from the drinking. The wide expansion of alcohol has contributed to women and the female body beeing viewed as a commodity, an item to buy and sell. Prostitution is among the more extreme results. Without the presence of alcohol, prostitution as a phenomenon would lose important factors that constitute its basis. Most of the girls in this profession have a family background sharply marked by alcohol-related problems. Prostitutes frequently feel the need to drug themselves to endure their work, and alcohol is a cheap solution. Prostitutes and customers often make their contacts in places where alcohol holds a strong position, i.e. clubs and restaurants. Pimps also frequently operate from clubs. The wish for contact with a prostitute will often be strengthened when potential customers are affected by alcohol. This is not presented as a thorough analysis of the nature of prostitution, but maybe these arguments illuminate some aspects of the problem that have been avoided so far by experts as well as politicians.

Our traditions concerning alcohol permits drunken people to deny any responsibility for their actions and statements. Silly or unacceptable actions can be performed, whith the blame being put on the alcohol, and therefore the performer maintains his self-respect. Alcohol used as an explanation will also be accepted by this person's community. Conditions like these allow i.e. the more brutal aspects of male ideals to dominate the personality of a drunken man. Alcohol can easily scratch the thin surface displaying a "modern" view of women, which are results from the last decades' education and work for equality between the sexes. Without the presence of alcohol, the chatting-up atmpsphere in clubs and discoteques would be very different. Violence against women would be less prevalent, as we know that 60% of all rapes are committed when the rapist is affected by alcohol. A Norwegian analysis questioning abused women, asked for their opinions of motives for the rape. The answers placed alcohol as a reason above problems like jealousy and quarreling over money. An American analysis concludes that compared to men, women are more likely to be troubled by other people's drunken behaviour, also when they do not drink themselves. Men can also become victims if such behaviour turns violent, but they as victims often start out by taking part in the drinking themselves. Women are thus more vulnerable to other people's drinking.

When we look at women's situation today, we see that the majority of their problems are caused by structural conditions in society. Some examples are kindergartens, places of work, the wages question, and the availability of supplementary training. Men and women have common interests in most of these issues, so the problems concerning women cannot be solved unless men are involved. Alcohol is one of the factord that work to split the interests of the sexes, spurring hostlilty. Alcohol is presumably the cause of every fifth divorce in Norway today, affecting about 2000 children each year. Most of women's problems cannot be solved individually, although a woman will often try. This pattern of trying to solve problems that are shared by amny individually will inevitably lead to disunity, making it easier to oppress women. Escape and adaption to a miserable life are increasing problems in this group.

The international brewery corporations have made women their particular target group. Cookery books and recipes promoting the use of alcohol is a natural part of their marketing. In Norway, the distribution of beer through grocery stores is a drive for the capture of women as costumers. Women are often responsible for most of the shopping, and will thus be exposed to the commercials based on the strategy of unplanned and impulse-induced shopping. Light-wine as an item in Norwegian grocery stores is another example of the expanding wine-drinking culture, something that women have proved to be least able to resist. Newspaper articles and reports recommending wine can be viewed as ideological attempts to influence both the everyday life and more festive occasions in almost every family. Magazines, newspapers, television and movies will present the self-reliant woman as consuming as much alcohol as any man.

Should the increased consumption be viewed as a step towards liberation of women and equality between the sexes?

On the background of what has already been said, the answer must be "no". On the other hand, there has been no discussion of alcohol in the feminist organizations. They can even advertise their meetings by underlining alcohol as a part of the social atmosphere, to attract people's attention. A Norwegian feminist group organized a sit-in at a pub in Oslo in the 1970's, because only men were allowed as customers. Women in the social democratic movement in the 1920's and 30's worked for equality between the sexes, but this should not be achieved by conquering men's bad "rights". Will today's women see men's alcohol-traditions as a benefit worth fighting for, or should our knowledge of the consequences mean that the work for equality must be fought through a reduction of the total consummation? Should the feminist's disinterest in these problems be interpreted as ignorance of female pride and knowledge? Or could the disinterest appear to be a result of a feminist movement dominated by resourceful, educated bourgeois women, who promote a carreer and an individuality that will survive in a man's world? Should women like Margareth Tatcher and the Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland be viewed as the feminine ideal, or should we take our examples from pioneers like Kata Dahlstroem or Gitta Joensson?

What are the responsibilities of the feminist movement?

This question is not easy to answer, but as long as alcohol is the major single cause of abuse of women and increasing dependency upon social assistance, feminist organizations have to start discussing a strategy to meet this problem, which in fact concerns women in general.

What is the League Against Intoxicants?

The League Against Intoxicants

aims to solve important drug-related problems.

The League Against Intoxicants will urge people to join our work against the spreading and use of drugs. We will prove the harmful effects of alcohol, narcotics, tranquilizers and chemicals for inhalation; and show how intoxicants affect both individuals and the society.

The League Against Intoxicants point at concrete means to reduce both the use of and the injuries caused by intoxicants. We want to uncover the strong forces in our society, that work to maintain and increase the consumption, and therefore the effects, of alcohol.

The League Against Intoxicants will make an appeal for people to be concious of their responsibility to stop or reduce their drinking whilst among their friends, and to participate in work to prevent drug-related injuries. Our object is to raise a popular consensus to support an active governmental drug policy.

The League Against Intoxicants demand that the authorities will put their alcohol policy into action, not words. The World's Health Organization (WHO) recommends that the consumption of alcohol should be reduced with 25 percent towards the end of the century.

The League Against Intoxicants says "yes" to intoxicating experiences caused by a natural stimulation of the senses. We want to promote the kicks caused by high speed, excitement, creative work, nature, music, art, physical exercise, sex, love, friendship, and solidarity.

The League Against Intoxicants says "no" to people using "fake" stimulans like alcohol, narcotics and tranquilizers to produce these feelings.

The League Against Intoxicants will work to stop both the spreading and the use of intoxicants, which apathize the users and hamper individual development.

The League Against Intoxicants will urge everybody to fight the apathy and contamination represented by intoxicants. We take our standpoint seriously, and base our work on total temperance.

The League Against Intoxicants works through small groups and units in Norway. Everybody who agrees are welcome as members in the League. A membership means environmental care working against drugs, carried forth by the courage of strong opinions. A personal standpoint and attitude are effective ways to fight both drinking pressure and a drug-promoting culture.