‘Drunkenness is bad enough in a man, but in a woman it is even more pitiable’: early twentieth-century representations of women and alcohol
This Friday (the 23rd October) our speaker is Holly Dunbar (University of Southampton) who is presenting on ‘Representations of women and alcohol in Ireland during the First World War’.
The seminar will take place at 4pm in 01/005, 22 University Square.
See Holly’s profile on academia.edu: https://soton.academia.edu/HollyDunbar
In the early twentieth century, consuming alcohol (especially in public houses) was part of a male, homosocial culture. However, in Ireland (and the United Kingdom more broadly) there was a growing concern that more women were indulging in alcohol. The Irish nationalist press often castigated drunken women. In 1917, the Lord Mayor of Dublin claimed ‘excessive drinking and happy homes are incompatible’ and that an increase in women drinking alcohol was ‘a change for the worse for it brings the evil more intimately into the homes of the people, and inevitably means the neglect of the children, on whom the future of the country depends’.
This essay gives an overview of three reasons why the Irish press derided these women: gendered spaces; medical understandings of men and women; and marriage and motherhood.
Culturally, the act of drinking alcohol was also perceived to be male. Therefore women partaking in this masculine culture was deplored. Drinking had been a vice largely associated with working class women, but in the twentieth century the Irish national dailies raised concerns that drinking behind closed doors facilitated drinking by women of multiple social classes. In January 1912, an editorial in the Irish Independent suggested that there were ‘many women who would not wish to be seen drinking in public houses, yet who, perhaps, would not scruple drinking to excess in their homes’.
Public houses were highly gendered spaces and traditionally played a key role in Irish men’s lives. Pubs in Ireland were used by men for business and pleasure, offering a place to transact business and also escape from the familial home. Therefore women entering this space were viewed as invasive. It also took them outside of traditionally acceptable female spaces, significantly the marital home and away from perceived domestic duties and childrearing.
Early twentieth-century medical understandings of the effect alcohol had on men and women suggested that for men alcoholism was a moral failing and for women it was a serious physical illness. The Family Doctor and People’s Medical Advisor was a widely distributed, popular medical journal between 1912 and 1918. It claimed that:
Drunkenness is bad enough in a man, but in a woman it is even more pitiable, and, if it be possible more far-reaching and more dreadful in its results. With women it would, we think, be safe to say that the origin of the drink habit lies in perturbed physical conditions – in fact, that it is a disease, and not a mere moral obliquity
Concerns were that female drinkers would take their disease into the family home as it was a female space, thereby spreading alcoholism and the immorality that accompanied it to their children.
Marriage and Motherhood
Women were seen primarily as wives and mothers – all judgements of them good or bad revolved around their potential or actual motherhood. Reports of women and girls drinking in public houses were sensationalist and intended to grab the attention of the middle-class readership of newspapers in Ireland, like the Irish Independent or the Freeman’s Journal. This was particularly the case during the First World War, when there were more soldiers stationed in Ireland and therefore more implicit commentary on the sexual immorality of Irish women and soldiers.
Britain joined the First World War on 4 August 1914 and six days later, Lloyd George announced that every soldiers’ wife would receive a separation allowance. Many Irish soldiers enlisted in the British Army. For more affluent soldiers’ wives separation allowances were insignificant, but for many working class women the separation allowances provided a regular income. However, the independence these finances bestowed soon led to raised eyebrows and concerns about the behaviour of soldiers’ wives.
During proceedings at Omagh Petty Sessions in 1915, a case was remarked upon in which ‘the husband had been in hourly danger of losing his life for his country while his wife at home was drinking his very blood’. It was stated in evidence that ‘since the war broke out certain lanes in Omagh had been “flowing with rum and whiskey” and that some of the inhabitants hoped the war would last a long time’.
Accusations against separation women should not be overstated, however, and defences of them and their behaviour were also published in the national press.
But why does it matter how women and alcohol were represented?
To understand the material and substantial affect the way Irish women and alcohol were represented had on their everyday lives, a case study of the State Inebriate Reformatory at Ennis, Co. Clare is enlightening.
Facilitated by the 1898 Inebriates Act, the reformatory at Ennis operated between 1900 and 1918. Many inmates at Ennis had been sentenced because their alcohol had left them unable to fulfil their maternal duties (52.3% of the Inebriate Institution’s female patients were held on charges of child neglect, compared to only 6.3% of male inmates). In many cases female inmates had been reported to the authorities by their husbands, suggesting the potential use of the reformatory as a threat or punishment to control female behaviour.
Conor Reidy suggests that moral judgements of women as worse inebriates than men, may have accounted for the larger proportion of female inmates at Ennis (there were a total of 126 male prisoners held at Ennis, compared to 204 female inmates). As alcoholism was perceived to be a disease in women, but simply a moral failing in men, women needed to be reformed as well as punished. Therefore more male alcohol-related crimes resulted in normal prison sentences.
The representation of women as primarily wives and mothers, who were believed to be suited to only occupying feminine and domestic spaces, influenced the everyday reality of female convicts who had committed alcohol-related crimes. It also resulted in a different and highly gendered approaches to treating the majority of male and female criminal addicts.
 ‘Ireland and temperance’, Irish Independent, 26 Feb. 1917.
 ‘Drunkenness in the homes’, Irish Independent, 3 Jan. 1914.
 ‘Women and drink’, The Family Doctor and People’s Medical Advisor, (Oct. 1915), p.2.
 ’Women drinkers and the War’, Irish Independent, 28 Apr. 1915.
 B. A. Smith, ‘Ireland’s Ennis Inebriates’ Reformatory: a nineteenth-century example of failed institutional reform’, Federal Probation Quarterly, liii, no. 1 (1989), p. 62.
 Conor Reidy, ‘Loose and immoral lives’: prostitution and the female criminal inebriate in Ireland, 1900-1918’, in J. Redmond, S. Tiernan, S. McAvoy and M. McAuliffe (eds), Sexual politics in modern Ireland (Sallins, 2015), p. 56.