There’s a famous photo from the pre-Prohibition era you’ve likely seen. It shows 10 dour-looking women scowling at the camera before a sign that reads, “Lips That Touch Liquor Shall Not Touch Ours.” The photograph has been the butt of many jokes, but the story behind it is no laughing matter. Alcoholism was rampant at the turn of the 20th century, and some of the epidemic’s biggest victims were women.
Women were far less likely to drink than men back then, but they suffered in other ways. Husbands drank away the week’s wages, leaving families destitute. Some men were violent. The temperance movement, which promoted the prohibition of alcohol, appealed to many women trapped in relationships with alcoholic men. But it did more than give women hope that they could rid their homes of “demon alcohol.” It helped give them a political voice.
Seeing the power of their own influence in the national banning of alcohol galvanized the women’s movement. It’s no coincidence that the 18th Amendment to the Constitution enacted Prohibition, and the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. But to assume women were alcohol’s natural enemy is wrong.
The Prohibition era ended up being a time of women’s liberation. Legal bars and saloons had barred women, but illicit speakeasies had no such rules. Women were finally free to join the party and drink to their hearts’ content.
The Glass Ceiling
A century later, women are drinking more than ever—nearly just as much as men, according to research by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). While the consumption gender gap is closing, the effects of alcohol on women versus men are far from equal. Women metabolize alcohol differently than men, and it’s not just a discrepancy in size that explains it. A number of physiological characteristics are at play.
For one, women’s bodies contain less water, which dissolves alcohol, so they tend to achieve higher concentrations of alcohol in the blood than men. Women also have more body fat, which retains alcohol. And they produce less of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, or ADH, that helps break down alcohol in the body.
Long-term effects are also intensified. Research shows women tend to develop alcohol-induced liver disease over a shorter period of time than men. Brain imaging suggests that women may be more susceptible to brain damage from alcohol abuse than men. And while studies citing a link between alcohol use and greater vulnerability to sexual assault seem colored by victim blaming, those pointing to an increased risk for heart disease and cancer among women are alarming. Much of this research is recent or ongoing because, until the last decade or so, no one thought to study alcohol’s effects on women. Most studies involved men.
“Women weren’t studied because they tended to be abstainers or drank less than men,” says Cheryl Cherpitel, a senior scientist at the National Alcohol Research Center. “We’ve studied many countries. In countries with lower gender equality, drinking patterns vary much more between men and women than in countries where the genders are more equal.”
History Repeating Itself
Alcohol isn’t the only vice women were free to indulge in publicly during Prohibition. Speakeasies were also a place where women could smoke, which had previously been taboo. It didn’t take long for tobacco companies to take notice and begin advertising directly to women. Ads emerged encouraging them to smoke to keep slim or even as a way to feel empowered and equal to men. Today, marketers of alcoholic beverages are following suit.
“Gender equality is a dimension of changing drinking patterns,” says Sharon Wilsnack, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of North Dakota, who along with her husband, Richard, has led a 20-year study of drinking among women. “Years ago, it was the same with cigarettes—you know, the ‘you’ve come a long way, baby’ ads.”
Wilsnack is referring to the infamous Virginia Slims campaign that aimed to cash in on the women’s lib movement by suggesting that smoking was not only a symbol of independence and sophistication but a woman’s right. Women, perhaps unwittingly, internalized and perpetuated the message. A similar feedback loop exists now between women and alcohol companies, with brands targeting women specifically and women embracing their role as avid alcohol consumers.
“If you’re a young woman and want to demonstrate you’re just as good as the guys, matching them drink for drink is one way,” says Wilsnack, adding that many women are unaware of the damage they could be doing to themselves. “It’s hard to talk about the damage without sounding puritanical, but it’s important for women to understand the effects.”
The New Normal
Perhaps the biggest factor that influences shifting drinking patterns is the normalization of excessive drinking. According to a 2016 report that looked at data across 36 countries, millennial women drink about as much as their male counterparts. In particular, they binge-drink at similar rates as men. A century ago, men drank two to three times as much as women. Scary stats on binge drinking often focus on college campuses, but as any mother who travels in #WineMom circles can attest, nowhere is excessive drinking more normalized than in mom culture.
“Mommy Juice” is emblazoned across wine glasses and gear, and several brands play on the theme. It’s meant to convey a winking permission for women with children to let loose with a drink at the end of the day. But the message may be more insidious, suggesting that moms who drink are edgy and fun. Like the moms in the Mila Kunis movie “Bad Moms,” they’re imperfect but empowered. Yet are women truly empowered if their drinking is a joke, addressed in such a self-effacing manner?
Luckily, as Wilsnack points out, women who drink excessively—no more than three drinks on a given day and seven in a week to be considered a “low-risk” drinker, according to the NIAAA—have certain advantages over men. Women are more health-conscious, self-aware and willing to seek help. Educating them on the risks of alcohol can make a difference in their drinking patterns. Only then will women truly have come a long way, baby.