What was the general view on women drinking alcohol (and becoming intoxicated) during the 19th century in the US and did they become alcoholics in about the same extent to which men did?

  • 1
    I'd say a dim view and a lesser extent, but I've no sources. The 19th century Temperance Movement being what it was, I doubt you'd find many women of breeding admitting to alcoholism. Indeed, I find you can determine the equality of a society not by how openly we praise a quality in a previously oppressed group - but how openly we can criticise a quality in said group. I.E. Able to treat everyone as equally human with the same flaws and weaknesses. The prohibition probably failed in part because it mistook exalting woman and debasing men on the topic of alcohol for true social equality. Commented Oct 16, 2013 at 11:00

2 Answers 2


Before Prohibition, in the USA public social drinking tended to be carried out in saloons. These were places where it was not socially acceptable for women to be. Thus the only women you would generally find in a saloon were...non-socially acceptable women. Entertainers, prostitutes, etc.

As a result, alcoholism was viewed as an almost entirely male behavior. Where it impacted with women was when their men spent all of their time and/or money in saloons rather than taking care of the family, and when they came home drunk. I'm not saying this was necessarily the reality, but this was the vision of the situation pushed by the Anti-Saloon league and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union.

Because of this, women were viewed as a reliable voting block for prohibitionists, which is why the ASL and its allies pushed women's suffrage in the states, and also pushed for (and eventually got) the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote nationwide. We like to think that men suddenly became enlightened or something, but the honest truth is that crass alcohol politics played a vital part in the achievement of women's suffrage in the USA.

Ironically, with the passage of prohibition, saloons were essentially outlawed, and were replaced with speakeasies, where women were every bit as socially accepted as men. So one of the unintended consequences of prohibition was the general spread of social alcohol consumption (and thus alcoholism) to women.

All of this is covered in wonderful detail in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. If you are interested in this subject, I can't recommend that book highly enough.

  • That's a great answer. Thank you for that!
    – citizen
    Commented Oct 16, 2013 at 16:09
  • 6
    I think this is an excellent answer. I think we should recognize that female alcoholism may have played out in private/in the home. We simply would not have have any records; saloon drinking was public and would generate more records.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 16, 2013 at 16:15
  • 3
    @MarkC.Wallace - Oh yes. As always, the detailed granular view is very different from the high-level societal view I'm able to give in a reasonably-sized answer. For instance, this doesn't touch on soiree's put on by the upper classes, where alcohol was freely available to all, or on the "non-social" drinking engaged in by the lower classes, or family drinking engaged in at meals and other occasions, particularly by non-WASP Americans. It also doesn't address the basic classim and xenophobia involved in Americans' attitude toward alchol in that era. By all means, read the book!
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 16, 2013 at 16:20
  • One of the pubs I drank at in the 1970's still had a separate Ladies and Escorts entrance and associated interior facilities until at least 1978. Such signs were a frequent sight in small Ontario towns through the 1960's. Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 1:01

This is a case where the more you think about the reliability of the statistics, the less you trust them. It was socially acceptable for men to drink in public. It was not socially acceptable for women to visit saloons and it appears that female alcoholism and drunkenness were taboo. So drinking, if it did go on, would be at home while the men were out. Maybe alone or in female company. Men would not admit to their wives' drinking. Virtually everyone involved in areas that took an interest in drinking, such as doctors, politicians, journalists were male. They might not be interested in women's problems, or it might seem inappropriate to talk about it. What we know about history generally is the men's view and so I would say the statistics on this are about as good as the statistics on perfect murders.

We have seen from sex-abuse scandals all over the world that if people choose to keep quiet about something then the statistics can be virtually 100% wrong and that this is particularly likely when women are the victims.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.