AA's Female Troubles

By Ella Bard 09/22/11
Ella Bard finds The Big Book's male-centric focus both alienating and archaic. Apparently she's not the only woman who thinks so.
Does A.A.'s Big Book Belittle Women?

Cynicism was born into my blood; it’s comprised my mental outlook and emotional foundation since, well, forever. I don’t trust many people, and I especially don’t trust big groups of people who claim to have been “shown the light.” For these reasons, AA freaked me out when I began considering its musty-church-basement-meetings in my late twenties. Another reason it made me nervous?  Because I’m a feminist, and I didn’t see much female-centered anything represented in the 12 Steps.

I’ve been passionate about women’s issues since I was young. I attended my first pro-choice rally in fifth grade, and became a member of NARAL around the same time. In college in the mid-’90s, I devoured riot grrrl music and zines. I was passionate about writing. And drinking. And writing while drinking.  

AA was based on the experience of 100 men and one woman. The steps were designed to deflate the egos of these men who thought they had the world by the tail.

My drinking took off then, and continued into my late twenties. I didn’t have an especially low bottom—at least not from the outside. I lived in glamorous cities and held down respectable jobs writing and editing. I had friends, dates, serious relationships. The consequences of my drinking didn’t extend far beyond occasional blackouts, excruciating hangovers, and hateful, histrionic fights with people I loved. Not that those consequences weren’t nasty—they were—but I didn’t get any DUIs; I didn’t experience jails or institutions. 

As something of a self-help nut, I like the steps, and AA, in theory. I’m especially drawn to the Promises’ rosy reflections of a perfect new life. But sometimes my inner feminist starts to rebel against what the steps seem to represent: another attempt by a bunch of middle-class white guys to tell people what to do.

I’m not the only woman who’s struggled in the 12-step world. Elizabeth, a 33-year-old woman in recovery who lives in Brooklyn, also cops to sometimes feeling disenchanted with what she sees as the program’s male-skewed focus. She says that she was initially very put off by the recurrent use of “He” to describe God in meetings. She’s also noticed that in the meetings she attends, “only women do service. I have yet to see a man chair a meeting or sell literature or act as treasurer or even be the timekeeper. It can feel like the women are keeping the meetings running—like we're the dutiful housewives of the program.”

Dr. Devon Jersild, a (female) psychologist and the author of Happy Hours: Alcohol in Women’s Lives, reminds me that AA was, indeed, originally conceived by middle-class white guys for middle-class white guys. “AA was based on the experience of 100 men and one woman,” she explains. “They tended to be white, upper-middle-class men. The steps of AA were designed to deflate the egos of these men who thought they had the world by the tail.”

A-ha!  So there may be a seed of validity to my feelings of occasional exclusion from the AA boys’ club. But Jersild is far from anti-AA. She is quick to acknowledge the “deep healing” many women have received in 12-step recovery—women who “felt truly and deeply accepted as part of AA.” 

I know plenty of these women personally, so I don’t doubt Jersild’s assertion. Karina, a 30-year-old friend of Bill’s who lives in Oakland, is a die-hard feminist who has managed to make the program work for her. She’s palpably serene but admits she’s struggled with certain aspects of AA. “How do I contend with the fact that I belong to a club that was started and is still predominantly used by white men?” she asks. “I've had to continually remind myself to use what works for me, and leave the rest.” She also considers actively helping other women get and stay sober to be a “fiercely feminist act”—one that makes her feel more connected to AA.  

I wish I could embrace the program as wholeheartedly, shove my niggling doubts aside and just believe—both in the 12 steps, and in a Higher Power. But I’m creeped out by some of my fellow recoverers’ beliefs in a benevolent, omnipotent male God who takes care of them. Sandra, a 29-year-old San Franciscan who’s been sober for seven years, has also had issues with the program’s references to a seemingly male God. “It all seemed cult-y and I didn’t want anything to do with it,” she recalls. She managed to get and stay sober and happy by keeping her focus on “finding a God of my understanding,” she says. That God is “everything in and around me—it’s genderless.”

Last year, during a bout of doubt about AA, I looked into alternative programs. The one that intrigued me the most, Women For Sobriety [WFS] has been around since 1976 and, like AA, holds meetings all over the world. Also like AA, WFS is based on a series of principles—in this case called the Thirteen Statements of Acceptance. (A sample statement: “I am responsible for myself and for my actions.”) Members aren’t prompted to accept powerlessness or to turn to a Higher Power for guidance; in fact, they’re encouraged to take control of their alcoholism and to accept full responsibility for their actions. Though I read up on the organization and sent away for information about meetings near me, I haven’t yet worked up the nerve to attend a meeting. (Never say never, though!) 

Another feminist-friendly alternative, The 16 Steps for Discovery and Empowerment, was created by psychologist and author Charlotte Kasl, PhD., who outlined her program in her 1991 book, Many Roads, One Journey. Like WFS, the 16 Steps model emphasizes personal power and accountability. Though it mentions turning to a Higher Power as a guiding force, addicts are also encouraged to examine their addictions as they exist in a “hierarchal, patriarchal culture.” 

Candace Plattor, a Vancouver-based therapist and addiction specialist, recommends The 16 Steps for recovering women who don’t jibe with the 12 steps. She says, “The 16 Steps are much more current than the 12 steps, which were written in 1939 and haven’t changed.” Plattor acknowledges that AA has saved many lives (including her own, when she got sober in 1987), but notes that for some feminists, women of color, and non-religious women, the language of AA can be challenging. (For those, she recommends that they stick to women’s meetings, where “women share differently than when a man is in the room.”)

I’ve always felt most comfortable at women’s meetings, and as a feminist, both WFS’ and The 16 Steps’ emphasis on women being powerful, not powerless, appeals to me. As Jersild says, “Many women are starting off in recovery with a crushed ego and a negative sense of self, and some of the language of AA may reinforce a sense of powerlessness.”

I know that my struggles aren’t uncommon and that there must be plenty of other recovering feminists out there looking for connection and faith. Now I’ve just got to find them.

Ella Bard is a pseudonym for a sober Bay Area writer who has written for a plethora of well-known magazines, newspapers, and websites.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix