The history of addiction and treatment has largely been the realm of men. Addictive substances have been around for thousands of years, and men have mostly been the ones to participate in their consumption. As a result, more men have been addicts throughout history, and required treatment, than women. This does not mean that women have had no experience with addiction. Even centuries ago, a few brave women took up the call and advocated for temperance and treatment. Today, women are catching up with men when it comes to drinking, using drugs and becoming addicted. Women have always played a role in addiction and treatment, but the women pioneers in these fields have not always received their due. To help women struggling with addiction today, it is important to remember those who came earlier. It is necessary to look back and learn what women have done in the past and to celebrate their accomplishments, both for inspiration and appreciation.
Women and Temperance
In the 1800s, American women began to form what are now known as temperance societies. These were groups dedicated to social reform, but more specifically to temperance, or abstinence from drinking. One such group, or rather a collection of small, local groups, was the Martha Washington Society. The group honored the legacy of the country’s original first lady and promoted temperance. Another 1800s society of women in support of temperance was the Daughters of Temperance. The organization was dedicated to raising awareness about the evils of drinking. They highlighted the negative impact of drinking on families and advocated for stronger laws against liquor. The Daughters of Temperance counted Susan B. Anthony as a member, and the activist made her first public speech at a temperance meeting. Both the Martha Washington Societies and the Daughters of Temperance helped women by supporting those in recovery in their own communities and by promoting specialized treatment for alcoholic women.
After the failure of prohibition in the 1920s, Americans continued to drink, and a few women, like Marty Mann, stood up for women. As a young woman, she developed severe alcoholism and nearly lost everything she had. She struggled to achieve sobriety and fell back several times, but she never gave up and never stopped trying to help others. Mann devoted her adult life to spreading the word about the dangers of alcoholism and the need for treatment. She founded what is now called the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. She traveled around the country, giving talks and encouraging both men and women who struggled with alcohol. Her work was extremely important in shedding light on the disease of alcoholism.
Betty Ford is famous for her own struggles with alcoholism and her dedication to helping others who struggle with the disease. It was after leaving the White House that Ford’s addiction became severe, and thanks to a family intervention, she sought help. Ford chose to go public with her struggles, helping other men and women to understand their own struggles and to feel less shame. She also created the Betty Ford Center after her own experience in rehab led her to the realization that there were no facilities or programs dedicated to helping women with alcoholism. Thanks to her openness and her centers, Betty Ford greatly advanced recovery for women.
Another advocate for treatment for alcoholism in the 1970s was Pam Wilder. She famously admitted to her friends and colleagues at an Orange County Junior League meeting that she had a problem with alcohol. In doing so, she helped to bring the disease of alcoholism out of the shadows and into the light. She wanted other struggling women to know that they were not alone. After her courageous confession, Wilder sought the support of her friends to create an organization dedicated to helping women recover from alcoholism. Addiction still carries a stigma, but pioneers over the years have helped advance the recognition and support for people, particularly women, to recover and heal. We have come leaps and bounds since the 1800s, but people still need support and treatment, and addicts still need important advocates for their care.