When Mothers Hit the Bottle: reaching a gendered approach to alcoholism

A highly circulating AP article on the increasing number of women with DUI charges sends mixed messages about women who mix drinking and driving. In the wake of a tragic car accident that killed eight people, four of which were children, media attention has focused on women who drink and drive–especially if they’re mothers.

Diane Schuler was found to have consumed alcohol and marijuana before driving onto the the wrong lane of traffic. According to some studies, in recent years women have been drinking more and have been arrested more for DUIs. But troublesome quotes seem to direct attention off the problem at hand and more to why it’s all of a sudden women are getting caught drinking.

“Younger women feel more empowered, more equal to men, and have been beginning to exhibit the same uninhibited behaviors as men,” said Chris Cochran of the California Office of Traffic Safety.

It does seem to be coded language for “Feminism drove Diane Schuler to drink and then to drive,” an anti-feminist myth with dangerous repercussions.

I fully support an end to drunk driving and alcoholism, and my heart goes out to everyone who has ever lost someone to drunk driving. My beef is with the way the media is approaching the issue of women (and mothers) who drink. It’s as if it takes the unthinkable for attention to turn on how to address women and alcoholism (this is in addition to the fact that the statistics don’t quite tell the same story). Barbara Ehrenreich got it right when she said “Gender equality wouldn’t be worth fighting for if all it meant was the opportunity to be as stupid and self-destructive as men can be.”

Drunk driving kills alarmingly. According to recent statistics from MADD, on average one person dies every 40 minutes in a drunk-driving related incident. While the recent Schuler crash had a tragic amount of child deaths, the media seems to be transfixed on the case because a mother was behind the wheel. Instead of focusing on how women are drinking, and whether or not it’s because we feel empowered, we need to start examining the ways that alcohol affects women (and I’m afraid the answer is as easy as “Sometimes doing the right thing isn’t easy.”)

It’s only towards the end of the article that other explanations surface behind the changing gender inequity in substance abuse, casually addressing how familial roles and economic factors effect women who drink.

“There’s the impression out there that drunk driving is strictly a male issue, and it is certainly not the case,” said Rae Tyson, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “There are a number of parts of the country where, in fact, the majority of impaired drivers involved in fatal crashes are female.”

Approaching alcoholism from a feminist standpoint would have other advantages as well, such as how the legal limit for alcohol intake is .08, even though women and men absorb alcohol at different rates. Women deal with alcoholism differently than men as well–drinking at home and alone, making it more difficult for their problems to surface (Schuler’s husband claims she didn’t drink). Women are also less likely to seek treatment for their problems.

And while any barfly is familiar with the signs and bottles bearing “Women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects,” and the effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are specifically tied to a woman’s alcoholic intake during pregnancy, far fewer studies have been done on the effect of alcohol intake from both partners prior to pregnancy. Even though some research has been done determining that sperm and sperm quality are affected by alcohol, women continue to be targeted when it comes to reproduction and drinking.

The AP article also reports that the Transportation Department will be focusing on women for its upcoming annual drunk driving campaign, but at the National Highway Traffice Safety Administration’s website, I couldn’t find any materials or information specifically on women and drunk driving. Perhaps they haven’t updated their site yet but if there is indeed the campaign is focused on women let’s hope it approaches it in the right direction, contributing new research on women and alcohol rather than further demonizing mothers who drink and drive over anyone who drinks and drives with children in the vehicle.

by Kjerstin Johnson
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Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

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8 Comments Have Been Posted

Chris Cochran's statement is

Chris Cochran's statement is ignorant. I can safely say Men and Women have been abusing alcohol EQUALLY since the first sip was ever consumed!

My mother is case and point. She married a controlling, pathological liar. What she thought was his second marriage turned into his 5th. (Obviously: Please investigate IN DEPTH before you jump into something like my Mother did) However, he is a very well-respected business man in the community, and my mother turned out to be the alcoholic whore. I must say I have seen both sides very evenly and though my mother is no saint, she certainly got the shit end of the stick. Seven messy years later, he has managed to cut all of her child support (they have two growing boys 11 and 13) therefore losing her home to foreclosure, as well as completely trashed her reputation, and sadly swayed her into becoming alcoholic.

My mother is what you call a "functioning alcoholic." I know, oxymoron, but really she is such an outgoing woman, no one would ever guess her morning coffee is Bacardi and coke. When I was younger, I didn't catch on how bad it was. Then once I knew, I realized it was all she had to get her through the day after this controlling freak had derailed her life. I know this enables the behavior but at that age I truly didn't know how to help. I knew it was either a suicidal day or a great day for my mom so I would turn the other way. I am not saying my mother's ex-husband single handedly turned her into this, I am saying it is some people's escape. Male or Female.

Moving along, I know for a fact, all bias aside, single mother-hood has driven my mom to drink the way she does. Without the pump up, she would never be able to get to work with a smile on her face, drive Marcus to his friend's house, take Chase to Tae Kwon Do, make dinner, answer and return all her work phone calls after going to work, pay the water bill, electric, mortgage etc. etc. Her life is difficult and exhausting. Now that my mother has lost almost everything, we are working as a family to get her some help.

I know there are women and men out there that are single moms/dads without alcoholism and I truly praise you all. It is unbelievably difficult raising a family on your own, I commend you for doing it. I really just wanted to comment that men and women BOTH have always had and will always have alcohol problems. Some people can handle a drink, others want more and more and more...


Does anyone really drink because they feel "empowered?" I can't say much for isolated bouts of drinking, but I can pretty much guarantee that anyone with a serious drinking problem, male or female, isn't feeling generally empowered in their life.

its all to true

I grew up in a very abusive household & my father was also an alcoholic. I am the youngest of three I myself have suffered with a long term alcohol addiction, I thought there was no way out, it was just one big cycle. I have now overcome my addiction and I am no longer an alcoholic, if anyone is reading this and needs help and support I seriously recommend this site Healthwise Global www.healthwise-global.com which is fantastic for helping manage stress, the site does have a special program to help overcome alcohol addiction ( which I used), the man who started the site was himself and alcoholic. I hope it helps any one who is reading this article.
Thank you for writing this article, in so odd way it has made me a peace with myself

Hey, don't want to be the

Hey, don't want to be the contrary male posting on a feminist site (although my sex shouldn't discredit my opinion, right ladies?), but I just have to say something about this particular blog. It really seems to me that you are just taking articles from the New York Times and argue against whatever they propound. This article on women and alcoholism talks about what information can be gleaned by experts from a professional study. You can't really say much to discredit it in my eyes, especially when you tell me that you Googled "Women Alcoholism" and didn't find anything pertinent. This is one of many unprofessional entries on this blog, and I hope you try another approach in the future, possibly one that explores your own reactionary politics. This kind of writing makes me wonder if well-informed feminists look askance at this blogger when her head is turned, and I can safely say that as long as she is writing for Bitch, I will not be reading it.

By the way, it was pretty inevitable that your sign would get stolen. It is probably being used as a stencil to spray paint "Bitch" on someone's SUV right now. So look at the bright side :)


If you follow through the link to the Broadsheet article, it actually shows how Experts From A Professional Study don't actually say that much about women and drunk driving, it's just that women are drinking more, and are getting arrested more. Hey, I'll save you the click:

<blockquote>Though this does represent an increase over previous years, in California, only 18.8 percent of DUI arrests are women. By my calculations, that means 81.2 percent are not women. And we have to extrapolate from California data because the nationwide number of female drunk driving arrests isn't included; we're only told that it was "28.8 percent higher in 2007 than it was in 1998, while the number of men arrested was 7.5 percent lower" -- which sounds shocking until you consider that we're also supposed to be shocked by how the number of women aged 30 to 44 who self-report alcohol abuse has more than doubled: jumping all the way up to 3.3 percent. Also, we should probably factor in "[a]nother possible reason cited for the rising arrests: Police are less likely to let women off the hook these days." There's that. As for women drivers putting their kids at risk, "Arrests of drunken mothers with children in the car remain rare, but police officers can generally list a few."

So what we have here is a trend of statistically significant increases in the number of women arrested for drunk driving and the number of women who say they abuse alcohol -- neither of which is a solid indicator of the number of drunk women on the road, given police discretion in making arrests and the notorious unreliability of self-reported data -- which is being spun into a socially significant trend: Women are turning into a bunch of alcoholic narcissists who must be stopped!</blockquote>

As far as everything else, I think you've gotten a jumpstart on not reading my blog, since I think you're missing a few things. When did I Google "women alcoholism" let alone "tell you about it"? (I like to think my search query skills are a bit more sophisticated than that anyway). And while I have critiqued the New York Times before (as well as Time, AskMen.com, Pitchfork, and really any other site that has a problematic coverage of women on a given day), my link in this post to the NYT was purely for informative purposes, I was critiquing the Associated Press article.

So while your sex won't discredit you, the fact that you don't seem to have read the piece before reacting will.

I would like some clarification

on "Approaching alcoholism from a feminist standpoint would have other advantages as well, such as how the legal limit for alcohol intake is .08, even though women and men absorb alcohol at different rates." I maybe wrong but it is my general understanding that while people have different absorption rates due to a number of factors (sex being one of them), I though that a .08 blood alcohol level generally impaired people about the same regardless of those factors. So if a legal limit of alcohol intake is based on impairment, why would different intake levels be a factor?

I am also confused about another comment that mentioned Googling. Was Googling ever mentioned in the blog?

you and me both

I was also confused about the Googling comment.

However, in response to your question, I DID just google "drunk driving impairment" to learn more about how the legal limit of alcohol is related to impairment.

I landed at the <a href="http://www.gdcada.org/statistics/alcohol.htm">Greater Dallas Council on Drug & Alcohol Abuse</a>, which has some information on impairment and blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) for both men and women, and includes <a href="http://www.gdcada.org/statistics/alcohol.htm#bac">charts </a>(for men and women separately) that break down how impairment occurs depending on various factors, such as sex, body weight, and number of drinks. It looks like women reach impairment with fewer drinks the men. Take a look and let me know what you think!

How funny


A million thanks for checking this out and commenting. That AOL article left me irate. Ridiculous that mainstream media still gets away with blaming everything on feminism, sometimes in two contradictory ways! ("'Liberation' makes things harder, so they drink!" / "They feel empowered, so they drink!")

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