Patricia J. Williams, James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University, published these words twenty-five years ago in her renowned essay on slavery, race, gender, and rights called "On Being the Object of Property":
There are moments in my life when I feel as though a part of me is missing. There are days when I feel so invisible that I can't remember what day of the week it is, when I feel so manipulated that I can't remember my own name, when I feel so lost and angry that I can't speak a civil word to the people who love me best. Those are the times when I catch sight of my reflection in stores windows and am surprised to see a whole person looking back.
In a symposium last week at Columbia Law School that celebrated her continued work in law, critical race theory, and intersectional feminism, she recalled the climate in which she wrote this reflection on the dispossession of black people in general and black women in particular.
200 years ago, on January 28, 1813, Jane Austen published what would become her most celebrated and widely read novel, Pride and Prejudice. The story of Elizabeth Bennet, whose fate hangs in the balance because she lacks a large dowry and whose family estate is entailed—i.e., can only be inherited by a male relation—is not only loved on its own behalf, but has also inspired countless adaptations and spin-offs. From The Lizzie Bennet Diaries to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, from the BBC miniseries that famously featured Colin Firth in a sopping-wet shirt to Kiera Knightley and Matthew Macfayden getting passionately drenched in the rain (love is so messy!) to Bride and Prejudice and its Bollywood dance-floor moves, the novel has been open to a wide array of interpretations.
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.
I've asserted several times in this series that bars were, traditionally, male spaces. It wasn't until checking Christine Sismondo's phenomenal history America Walks Into a Bar out from my local library that I found out this was not just an informal taboo: in the decades after Prohibition, many bars explicitly banned women, or banned them from visiting during certain hours.
There were a few reasons for this, depending on the region and the bar: first, during World War II, as was the case in many other fields, women went into traditionally male occupations, including bartending (in some cases forming barmaids' unions). When men came back from the war, they formed their own, all-male unions to muscle female bartenders out. But bars did employ women during the postwar era – just not to pour drinks. Instead, "B-girls" employed by the bar would show up, pretending to be nurses or secretaries on their way home from work, and charm the male clientele into buying them drink after drink. After several drinks, the woman in question – usually called a "B-girl" – would disappear, leaving her companion with an artificially inflated bar tab: he'd be charged for cocktails even as the in-the-know bartenders had been pouring one glass of juice, soda pop or iced tea after another.
The ensuing moral panic (which focused on protecting the male victims, and didn't concern itself one way or another with the women involved in the work) had the result that many bars banned women from visiting, or just from visiting during certain hours. And, of course, there were the bars that had never opened their doors to women in the first place, or just refused to serve unaccompanied women.
As for the consumption of spirits per se, it's true that cocktails became more popular in the 1920s than they had in previous years, and both men and women drank cocktails enthusiastically. In fact, historian Catherine Gilbert Murdock, in her phenomenal book Domesticating Drink, argues that Prohibition had a dual effect on the way women and men socialized. Where previously men had gone to saloons to drink beer (or whiskey) alone, during Prohibition, women – either with partners or friends – went to speakeasies without fear of social retribution.
Etiquette books for women, and women's magazines, urged "respectable" women to serve drinks and to drink themselves; one advice writer suggested courting couples each have the chance to see each other "unpleasantly drunk" before tying the knot. Department stores and catalogs pushed cocktail shakers and glassware during the 1920s, since cocktail, uh, paraphernalia was not illegal (nor, for that matter, were home winemaking kits); books of cocktail recipes were marketed to the home bartender, not the pro. Punches (eggnogs, grogs and milk punch – which I had the opportunity to try this weekend and which is far tastier than it sounds) were around in the 19th century, and so were some drinks we'd call cocktails now (like the mint julep). Cocktails – and the cocktail party – didn't really become part of the American drinking scene until the 20th century, though. The rise of the cocktail both influenced, and was influenced by, shifting gender politics in the United States – but also by liquor control laws.
In 1966, when Jean Rhys was 76 years old, her novel Wide Sargasso Sea was published. The novel, a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, is told from the perspective of the Caribbean Creole "madwoman in the attic" who was Mr. Rochester's first wife. Her editor, who worked with her on Wide Sargasso Sea,highlights the difficulty of Rhys' life, saying, "It is impossible to describe briefly the burdens inflicted on her by poverty, loneliness...It remains a mystery how someone so ill-equipped for life, upon whom life had visited such tribulations, could force herself to hang on, whatever the battering she was taking, to the artists at the centre of herself."
Once women got the right to vote, they didn't consistently vote dry – in part because an unintended consequence of Prohibition (working in tandem with the social and economic aftermath of World War I) was that for the first time in U.S. history, drinking was no longer the exclusive provenance of men. Women held or went to parties where alcohol was served, and they also went out to speakeasies. The Women's Organization for National Prohibition Repeal turned the WCTU's home-hearth-and-health arguments right back at them, saying, "Children are growing up with a total lack of respect for the Constitution and for the law."
The pairing of women's suffrage and Prohibition always seemed to me like another quirky historical coupling, an example of the same group of people simultaneously favoring a critical common-sense idea (universal suffrage) and an unbelievably naïve, moralistic solution to society's problems (Prohibition).
Early in the morning of November 8, 2000, Donna Brazile sent a text to then–presidential candidate Al Gore. The candidate lay in wait with several aides, watching as the chaotic election results unraveled. Out of either determination, or stubbornness, she texted "Never surrender. It's not over yet." Even without winning the election, Donna Brazile had already made history as the first woman of color to ever direct a major national presidential campaign.
Domitila Barrios de Chungara was a labor rights leader and political activist from Bolivia. In addition to advancing the status of the working class of Bolivia, Barrios de Chungara was also an advocate for women's rights.