In 2018, four women—Leslie Jamison (The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath), Janelle Hanchett (I’m Just Happy to Be Here: A Memoir of Renegade Mothering), Kerry Cohen (Lush), and Kristi Coulter (Nothing Good Can Come from This)—published memoirs about their experiences with and recoveries from alcoholism. While their reasons for drinking vary, each of these authors grapple with the relationship between their alcohol consumption and the gendered pressures, narratives, and consequences that women—drinking and sober—face.
In 2016, Kristi Coulter’s essay, “Enjoli,” went viral, in part because she controversially linked her drinking problem to the patriarchal pressure of being a “24-hour woman.” The phrase came from the Enjoli perfume tagline, which promised “an eight-hour perfume for the 24-hour woman,” but the concept of the 24-hour woman is more enduring than the product. A quick internet search of the phrase returns a 1999 film starring Rosie Perez, a 2015 book written by Cheryl Liew-Chng, and a recent podcast, all of which address the notion that working women never get an hour off. As an executive for Amazon, Coulter understood that all too well: She was forced to navigate corporate mansplaining and a toxic culture that encouraged working to the point of burnout. She traveled the world, bought expensive shoes, and coped with nonstop work expectations by drinking copious amounts of wine.
While it might seem like women and wine have always been besties, women didn’t always have the right to drink, particularly in public. Prior to Prohibition, the vast majority of alcohol was consumed by men in public saloons and taverns, and sex workers were the only women allowed in those environments. But when alcohol became illegal in 1920, consumption began happening in private nightclubs, speakeasies, and at-home cocktail parties. When drinking moved into the private sphere, many women embraced it and began making alcohol from cookbook recipes, according to historian Mary Murphy.
A 2017 article in JAMA Psychiatry notes a nearly 90-percent increase in women’s high-risk drinking over the last decade (defined as five or more drinks per occasion for men or four or more for women) with women’s overall consumption jumping 58 percent (compared to 29 percent for men) over the past 10 years. The Washington Post found that alcohol-related deaths for white women between the ages of 35 and 54 has doubled since 1999. Leslie Jamison started drinking heavily while attending an MFA program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where, she wrote, “the myths of Iowa City drinking ran like subterranean rivers.” Even with her Ivy League credentials and elite writing residencies, she says she was “filling a lack” with booze.
Many of Jamison’s anxieties are directly linked to gendered expectations: She worries about whether or not she’s attractive, if she’s gaining too much weight, if she’s being a good daughter, and if she’s living up to her family of academic overachievers (both of her parents are professors). Eventually her alcoholism stops her from writing. The Recovering threads Jamison’s experiences with those of other drunk artists, including novelist Jean Rhys and blues singer Billie Holiday, and highlights how society differentiates between men’s and women’s substance abuse. In The Recovering, Jamison writes that men’s intoxication (from Raymond Carver to Denis Johnson) is interpreted as “proof of their proximity to the terror and profundity of psychic darkness” while women’s intoxication is “more like self-indulgence or melodrama, hysteria, a gratuitous affliction.”
Women, especially mothers, are supposed to be selfless not self-indulgent. Both Kerry Cohen and Janelle Hanchett’s memoirs deal explicitly with the fallout of their alcoholism on their mothering. By the time she turned 22, Hanchett was married to a man who played video games all night while she mothered her first child and drank heavily to cope with (undiagnosed) postpartum depression. Soon, both Hanchett and her husband begin using drugs and alcohol to cope with the pressure of being young parents, but only Hanchett is forced to confront the illogical idea that you can overcome addiction “if you love your children.” As Hanchett struggles through various rehabs, periods of abstinence, and relapses, she faces constant judgment from those around her who want her to stop drinking to become a better mother. Neither loving her child nor being loved by them can pull her out of her addiction, and in some ways, the perception that it makes her a “bad” mother fuels the shame spiral that keeps her drinking.
Cohen, on the other hand, begins drinking wine as she balances a therapy practice, writing career, and four children. In Lush, she sharply observes that middle-aged women like herself have a mommy-and-wine culture where it has “become a lifestyle” to chug wine from sippy cups or provide alcohol at playgroups and kids’ birthday parties. “We have it all now!” she writes. “And thanks to having it all, we’re exhausted.” The entire concept of “having it all” is a gendered narrative. Men aren’t subjected to the same domestic obligations, particularly if they’re married to women. A 2013 study of American families found men spent 18 percent of their time doing housework and took on 33 percent of household tasks, whereas women spent 22 percent of their time on housework and carried out 67 percent of household tasks. This doesn’t include time spent on “invisible” mental labor, which women also carry disproportionately.
But domestic life is only part of “having it all.” The other parts of the “all” include professional success and maintaining appearance, which often translates to looking youthful, thin, and blond (not surprisingly, like the original Enjoli model). Each author wrestles with her appearance in some way. Cohen theorizes that drinking among middle-aged women is on the rise because of the anxiety, depression, and despair of inhabiting aging bodies when our culture values youth. She observes two middle-aged women in a restaurant splitting a salad, each drinking their own glasses of wine.
(More than one author wrote about deliberately drinking on an empty stomach because the buzz was better.) Jamison writes openly about calorie restriction and dieting, both as a means to lose weight and as a method of self control. Coulter tries a series of diets; at one point she hopes that tracking her drinks will make her drink less. It didn’t work. Hanchett gets married in all black because she is so unhappy with her four-weeks postpartum body that she just wants to disappear. Each of these women are navigating the cultural expectation that women should be desirable, beautiful, and thin, and that only propels their addiction.
Women don’t escape the patriarchy by drinking, but cultural pressures about being “24-hour women” surely encourages them to pick up a bottle.
Sexual harassment and abuse are not confined to women that fit the cultural definition of desirable, but desirability also doesn’t shield women from these experiences. Jamison had more than one experience of alcohol-fueled sexual contact, some of which wasn’t consensual. She felt that her drunkenness “invited” the sexual contact she didn’t want and contributed to her inability to say no. “At a certain point we were on my bed and I didn’t want to fuck him—but I was too drunk and too tired to figure out how not to fuck him, so I just lay there, still and quiet, while he finished,” she writes.
Alcohol is a key factor in sexual assault and rape. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that approximately one-half of sexual-assault cases “involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, victim, or both,” and some assaulters purposefully frequent places, like bars and parties, to target women who’ve been drinking. When Coulter was on a business trip in Germany, the hotel bartender’s tried to hit on her. A local woman sat next to Coulter and dragged her out of the hotel because he was “not safe with women.” The next morning, Coulter realizes this woman saved her from a potential assault—and blames herself. “No one would have believed you. You’d just be some married woman who fucked a hot young bartender and tried to blame him for it,” she writes. “You can’t take care of yourself.”
Of course, women are not unique in using alcohol to manage stress, pressure, or social expectations, but the consequences are different. Alcoholic men are often praised for admitting they have a problem while alcoholic women are shamed. All four of these authors are white, successful, and feminist, and as Jamison notes, “precisely the kind of nice, upper-middle-class white girl whose relationship to substances has been treated as benign or pitiable,” but the themes of perfectionism, selfishness, and the pursuit of beauty in these stories are relatable for most women. Women don’t escape the patriarchy by drinking, but cultural pressures about being “24-hour women” surely encourages them to pick up a bottle.