Updated: Aug 30
It might sound like the beginning of a bad joke: one historian, two social workers, and a psychologist walk into a conference room…. but there we were, at the Michigan Women’s Studies Association conference last weekend, ready to launch an interdisciplinary discussion of issues related to addiction and gender. (The conference, “Leading the Way: Feminism, Education, and Social Change,” was hosted by Grand Valley State University http://www.gvsu.edu/wgs/ ).
Which brings us to the second joke: If you deliver a conference presentation in an empty room, does it make a sound? At first, my colleagues and I, all from the University of Michigan, were the only ones there. Granted, this was the last session of the day, after a rousing keynote event that felt like the climax of the conference, so I hadn’t expected a packed room, but still! After an awkward pause, we determined that we might as well offer our prepared remarks to one another. A few minutes in, one brave soul arrived to serve as audience. Even though she was outnumbered by the panelists at 4:1, the audience member asked several questions after each presentation. Many of her queries sought information and clarification, while others challenged our basic assumptions. I have no doubt that the necessity to articulate our ideas for her forced us to achieve greater clarity, in ways we might not have talking only to one another. Among ourselves, we risked falling into a kind of academic shorthand that actually obscured more than it revealed, especially given our disciplinary differences.
Thinking back on the session now, I am struck by how hard it can be to expand my perspective beyond my usual historically-minded framework. As the organizer of the panel, and as a committed advocate of chronological order, I went first to “set the stage” with historical context, briefly discussing views of women and alcohol during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the very structure of the panel, then, I privileged my own disciplinary point of view. While I believe that historical perspectives can illuminate both past and present, I realized as I listened to my colleagues that I risked misunderstanding elements of the present by looking too hard for links with the past.
Amy Krentzman, a post-doctoral scholar in social work at the University of Michigan Addiction Research Center, provided an overview of recent studies that have addressed the relative effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous for women and men. She noted that research on gender difference often fails to analyze factors that might explain variation by gender, as though the finding of difference simply demonstrates a self-evident truth that does not require explication. As Amy walked us through various studies, I also confronted my own discomfort with the vocabulary and practices of quantitative analysis, a limitation on my part which potentially inhibits interdisciplinary collaboration.
Kyla Day, a post-doctoral scholar in psychology at the University of Michigan Substance Abuse Research Center, outlined a research agenda that focuses on the intersecting roles of relationship status, race, and gender in substance use. Kyla conceives of “relationships” broadly, suggesting models that move beyond a binary of “single” versus “with a partner” and that incorporate multiple networks of relationships—with romantic partners, friends, and so forth—at once. In substance use as well as sexual behavior, women have historically been charged with setting an example that will temper or otherwise rein in the conduct of men. As Kyla pointed out, the challenge of new research in this area will be to evaluate the consumption habits of men and women seriously while still being attuned to power imbalances that continue to constrain women’s actions.
Finally, Beth Reed, a professor of Social Work and Women’s Studies, discussed the complicated connections between feminism, in various forms, and addiction research, policy, and treatment. This is a complex, important, and fascinating topic, one explored by Points Managing Editor Trysh Travis in The Language of the Heart: A Cultural History of the Recovery Movement from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey (UNC Press, 2009) as well as by Contributing Editor David Herzberg in Happy Pills in America: From Miltown to Prozac (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008). Beth, who has been involved in feminist activism, research, and policy-making in this domain for decades, concludes that the continuing stigma attached to drug and alcohol use among women has made it very difficult for any branch of the organized women’s movement to commit itself consistently to this cause, although she notes that feminist theory and activism have been used to transform practices in addiction research and treatment away from male-centered approaches.
I was particularly fascinated with Beth’s account of how much of the initial research that focused on addiction among women in the 1970s was forgotten or overlooked during the very next decade. I am often struck by how different my time horizon is from that of many social scientists, since I frequently think more about the nineteenth century than the twenty-first. Beth’s analysis of this historical amnesia, which occurred in what seems to me to be a very compressed time frame, showed me the value of using a variety of chronological lenses. It also demonstrated the importance of history, in the living memory of someone like Beth and in archival collections and scholarship, so that the hard-won contributions of one era are not lost to the next.
Given the interdisciplinary origins of women’s studies and its commitments to integrating theory and activism, we had assumed that our panel would attract more interest among conference attendees. We couldn’t help but wonder whether the lack of attendance reflected, at least in part, the continuing stigma attached to the topic. In the end, though, we panelists (and we hope our lone audience member) found this session to be a rich and productive one, inspiring us to continue to reach across disciplinary boundaries even when we need to learn a new language in order to do so.