Lady Liquor: Race, Femininity, and Moral Panics In History



In my last post, I wrote about (relatively) recent moral panics and the way they fixate on the foolish, experimental or wholly fabricated hedonism of teenagers or young adults. For this post, let’s take a brief look at some of the notable intoxication-related moral panics of the past:

  • The Gin Craze. In early 18th-century London, due to a surplus of supply (caused by a tax on beer that made gin cheaper to drink), the average Londoner probably drank 14 gallons of gin per year. Historians estimate that it was about the same level of strength as English and US gins sold today (Dutch gins tend to be much lighter, proofwise).

    So – had the martini been invented yet, that would be 716.8 martinis per year. (Of course, that’s 1.9 martinis per day. Whether that’s too much, too little or just right isn’t something I intend to touch here.)

    The case of Judith Defour—said to have strangled her daughter and sold the child’s clothes to buy gin—was publicized as an example of the way gin could undermine women’s natural mothering instincts. “Female gin consumption was problematized and value-loaded as an act of moral significance,” writes Elise Skinner. “This is reflected in the response of magistrates and the disproportionate convictions of women. The perception of reformers and their attempt to regulate women is a complex interplay between the lives and economic realities of women, the influence of the press and the institution of government.” 

    Gin was also blamed for leading young women into prostitution, for causing infidelity and marital discord (with female gin drinkers to blame—gin joints were among the first public spaces to serve women and men side by side).

  • The first furor over drug prohibition in the United States. In the 19th century in the United States, drugs like opium and cocaine (and, for that matter, arsenic) could be purchased over the counter in ordinary drugstores. In the early part of the 20th century, these drugs were outlawed, and the United States, along with other countries, signed international treaties proscribing their import or export.

    Medical journals of the early 20th century pointed not to the ill health effects of these and other drugs, but their purported link to crime. Not just any crimes, however. Testifying in favor of the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1909, physician and state department employee Hamilton Wright said: “The use of cocaine by the negroes of the South is one of the most elusive and troublesome questions which confront the enforcement of the law in most of the Southern states,” and, moreover, that the drug “was direct incentive to the crime of rape by the negroes of the South and other sections of the country.”

    Wright also expressed concern about “the large number of women who have become involved and were living as common-law wives or cohabitating with Chinese in the Chinatowns of our various cities” after becoming involved with opium.” 

    And this all happened around the time the Anti-Saloon League joined forces with the Ku Klux Klan. The less progressive, more successful successor to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union succeeded in pushing Prohibition through by playing on white fears of the proclivities of black men, particularly as they pertained to white women.

  • Crack babies.Handwringing over gin consumption in the 18th century centered on the idea that intoxicants could undermine traditionally feminine behavior; the hype leading up to the Harrison Narcotics Act played to white fears of interracial relationships, and the idea that intoxicants could make nonwhite races even more “other.”

    William Bennett told the press that one out of 10 births were crack babies; their medical care was estimated at 13 times that of a normal baby. In the 1990s, critics started to point out that the panic was extrapolated from precious little data, and what data there was was not carefully controlled for other factors that affect birth outcomes. For instance, crack-addicted women may have used other drugs (including alcohol), or smoked cigarettes while pregnant. The effects of a poor prenatal diet – or poverty in general – on birth outcomes weren’t taken into account, either. Which isn’t to say it’s a good idea to smoke crack while pregnant – just that the proof of its devastating effects on babies hasn’t definitively been found.

    Moreover, writer Katherine Greider notes, concern about the babies’ long-term fates turned out to be overwrought: children who were exposed to cocaine in utero do as well or as badly as everybody else, particularly when they receive the right educational supports. “Being identified as drug-exposed sometimes gets a child special state-sponsored services, but it also carries the potential for stigmatization and self-fulfilling prophecy.” Greider adds that the policy effects of the crack baby media phenomenon mostly centered around regulating the behavior of pregnant women (proposed legislation included charging pregnant women who used crack with child abuse, a terrifying slippery slope).

History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it does sound some of the same notes again and again. The newest drug – be it stronger booze, cocaine, opium or crack – is almost always hyped as both a threat to femininity and motherhood (rendering women unable to properly care for children, or unattractively aggressive, or more willing to engage in “deviant” sexual behavior) while somehow exaggerating the “other” characteristics already stereotyped and hyped in nonwhite races.

Previously: Drugs, Alcohol, Moral Panics and Children as Property

by Christen McCurdy
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Christen McCurdy is a freelance journalist who lives in Portland, Oregon with too many kitchen gadgets and craft supplies. She penned Bitch Media’s “Lady Liquor” guest-blog series on women and alcohol.

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