Love on the Rocks: Men, Women, and Alcohol in Post-World War II America

Love on the Rocks: Men, Women, and Alcohol in Post-World War II America

Love on the Rocks: Men, Women, and Alcohol in Post-World War II America

Love on the Rocks: Men, Women, and Alcohol in Post-World War II America


In this fascinating history of alcohol in postwar American culture, Lori Rotskoff draws on short stories, advertisements, medical writings, and Hollywood films to investigate how gender norms and ideologies of marriage intersected with scientific and popular ideas about drinking and alcoholism.

After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, recreational drinking became increasingly accepted among white, suburban, middle-class men and women. But excessive or habitual drinking plagued many families. How did people view the "problem drinkers" in their midst? How did husbands and wives learn to cope within an "alcoholic marriage?" And how was drinking linked to broader social concerns during the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War era?

By the 1950s, Rotskoff explains, mental health experts, movie producers, and members of self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon helped bring about a shift in the public perception of alcoholism from "sin" to "sickness." Yet alcoholism was also viewed as a family problem that expressed gender-role failure for both women and men. On the silver screen (in movies such as "The Lost Weekend and "The Best Years of Our Lives) and on the printed page (in stories by writers such as John Cheever), in hospitals and at Twelve Step meetings, chronic drunkenness became one of the most pressing public health issues of the day.


In 1929 Ella Boole, social reformer and president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), published a book chronicling the history of American women in the temperance movement. Imploringly titled Give Prohibition Its Chance, the book offered an impassioned argument supporting the law that had banned the sale of liquor for a decade. Like her more famous predecessor Frances Willard (who presided over the WCTU from the 1870s through the 1890s), Boole claimed that women and children had been the greatest victims of drink in the past, and that they would suffer most if national Prohibition were repealed. An outspoken defender of the Eighteenth Amendment, Boole believed that Prohibition was helping to safeguard the moral sanctity, financial health, and general happiness of the American family. Boole lambasted the saloon as a "social evil" that turned respectable workingmen into drunken brutes. Before Prohibition, she wrote, "it was the home that suffered . . . the women and children who did without necessary food and clothing . . . the wife and mother who listened until midnight for the staggering footsteps of her drunken husband or son." Still rooted in an ideology of domesticity that entrusted Protestant, middle-class, white women with ensuring the moral solvency of the home, the WCTU of the 1920s viewed "King Alcohol" as an inherently addictive substance that would debilitate even the most well-intentioned imbibers. According to the WCTU, social and legal coercion was required to "protect" the family when tactics of moral suasion and public education failed. Though the WCTU was not alone in shaping the politics of temperance (indeed, the male-dominated Anti-Saloon League was ultimately more instrumental in securing national Prohibition by 1919), its gendered, moralistic vision of alcohol consumption held sway through the early decades of the twentieth century.

By the 1950s, however, religious female reformers had lost the influence they once wielded with respect to the politics of drink. By midcentury the sentimental temperance tale of the forlorn family had exhausted its cul-

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