The road to gender equality should not be littered with empty wine bottles

Somewhere between the temperance movement and now, the solution to men's alcoholism became women's alcoholism.

Somewhere between the temperance movement and now, the solution to men's alcoholism became women's alcoholism

Somewhere between the temperance movement and now, the solution to men's alcoholism became women's alcoholism. (Getty Images/Imagebroker RF)

The struggle for gender equality is far from over, but women are catching up to men in at least one way: alcoholism.

Canada's chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam recently warned that excessive alcohol use — particularly among women — is a serious public health issue, and one that we are by-and-large ignoring. Alcohol-related deaths among women increased by 26 per cent from 2001 to 2017, while men experienced a five per cent increase in that same time period.

Yes, more men are still dying from alcohol and becoming alcoholics, but there is evidence that women might soon overtake men. The Canadian Institute for Health Information reported in May that more girls aged 10-19 are hospitalized for alcohol-related ailments than boys.

Temperance movement

Early feminists were involved in the temperance movement of 19th century America, when crowds of hatchet-bearing women stormed and demolished saloons. The movement gave women their first chance to participate in politics, and gave feminists like Susan B. Anthony their start. Temperance was a woman's issue because women often suffered from abuse and poverty at the hands of their drunken husbands.

But these days, the celebration of women's drinking is more likely to be seen as an affirmation of women's equality. Comedian Amy Schumer has famously embraced this brand of feminism: the promotional poster for her 2015 film Trainwreck shows Schumer drinking from a bottle in paper bag, and the movie features a scene of Schumer chugging wine that was widely shared on social media.

These images were meant to be funny, but they also affirm a convoluted "right" for women: the right to behave stupidly. Drunken irresponsibility has long been celebrated among men — think the National Lampoon movies — but women are rarely portrayed as flawed human beings who make mistakes and, well, are bumbling jerks.

Around 2014, a string of sexual assaults involving drunk and incapacitated women, particularly on campuses, made the news. Some commentators blamed women's drinking for these assaults, and feminists responded by coming out in support of women's right to act "drunk and stupid."

Women deserve to be safe from sexual assault, no matter what their blood alcohol content. But somewhere between the temperance movement and today, the solution to men's alcoholism became women's alcoholism. This is not equality that we should strive for: physiologically, alcohol harms women more than men, and women often devolve into alcoholism much faster than men. 

Leaning in… to the bottle

Women who work in the corporate world and industries where drinking is integral to company culture may find themselves at a professional disadvantage if they abstain. Networking events, drinks with clients, and even team meetings involving alcohol are too often crucial to professional success, and women, who already face more barriers in their careers than men, feel intense pressure to drink.

But women are disproportionately harmed by participating in an alcohol-soaked professional world. Where drinking is uncontrolled, women are more likely to experience sexual harassment, and where drinking is encouraged, women who eagerly attempt to match their male colleagues drink for drink to fit in can more easily develop alcohol problems or suffer adverse health effects.

Participating in boozy company culture might help women in the short-term, but in the professional world, equal drinking is not the path to gender equality. Companies need to seriously reconsider the role alcohol plays in their culture, for the good of their female employees.

We all must continue to work toward gender equality so fewer women turn to the bottle to cope. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Then, there's recreational use. In recent years, the rise of the term "mommy juice" has been hard to ignore. Alcohol is humorously marketed to women as offering a break from their hectic schedules, and frazzled mothers everywhere have embraced wine as a vehicle to alleviate the strain of the childcare burden that still falls squarely on their shoulders.

Liquor is often marketed to men as a means of having adventures and getting the girl. Yet when it's marketed to women, packaged as "mommy juice," it calls to mind the image of a mom surrounded by crying children and seeking respite in a glass of wine. It's supposed to be funny, but it's mostly just incredibly bleak.

Pop culture, employers, and alcohol marketers must consider women's inequality when it comes to how alcohol is presented and sold. Health providers, too, must take a proactive role to address burnout and addiction among women, and we all must continue to work toward gender equality so fewer women turn to the bottle to cope, or as a misguided route to empowerment.

The road to gender equality should not be littered with empty wine bottles. And while I'm making suggestions, I'd really like to never hear the phrase "mommy juice" again.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

About the Author

Kristen Pyszczyk is a writer and IT communications professional living in Toronto. Her areas of focus include feminism, mental health, addiction, pop culture and digital media. Her work has appeared on the Globe and Mail and Quiet Revolution websites.


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