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Book Review by Deirdre Sinnott
Love on the Rocks: Men, Women, and Alcohol in Post-World War II America, by Lori Rotskoff, 307 pp., University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
September 24, 2006
Alcoholism can become a blurry mess. Throw in the repeal of prohibition, stereotypical gender roles, and a mass culture that promotes the wonders of drinking and you have a recipe for oppression. Lori Rotskoff, cultural historian and teacher, provides in-depth analysis of the both the phenomena of alcohol and gender roles as they interact at the bottom of a martini glass in her book, “Love on the Rocks: Men, Women, and Alcohol in Post-World War II America.”
In examining the rise of alcohol and alcoholism in the U.S. Rotskoff taps a well of information drawing from scientific studies, the archives of Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon, popular films, advertising, and literature. She concentrates her analysis on the effects of alcohol on the traditional “family” in its most studied form, that of the white middle-class male alcoholics and women struggling to fulfill pre-defined gender roles.
From the repeal of prohibition, through the return of millions of GIs from World War II, and into the cocktail era of the 1950’s and 60’s, Rotskoff traces social attitudes to liquor as well the development in the concepts surrounding alcoholism.
By studying the interplay of alcohol as it relates to gender oppression she exposes both the problems of the wives of alcoholics as well as the burdens placed on husbands to be the embodiment of manliness. Rigid concepts of male and female — that of the breadwinner and the housekeeper — were reinforced by huge social institutions, so stepping outside of assigned roles was frustrating and difficult. At the same time, living up to those idealized roles pressured individuals who might have a predisposition toward alcoholism. As for the partners of alcoholics, usually women, admonitions to repress emotions and provide a nice home environment gave few avenues for escape or an independent life.
The feminist movement shaped attitudes both inside and outside Al-Anon, a self-help group developed out of the experiences of women married to an AA member, finally allowing women new ways to cope with the disease of alcoholism and its effects inside the home.
What Rotskoff’s book shows is that the attitude of the dominate culture — trumpeted from every newspaper, magazine, and movie screen — can trap people in oppressive situations. Only the injection of ideas from progressive social movements can help break people free from oppression that appears to be so personal and not related to the world outside the home.