How can AA possibly serve women?


Holly Whitaker, quoted in the Guardian newspaper, talks about AA and her impression that it doesn’t have much to offer women:

The programme’s guidelines, created in 1939, centre on appealing to a higher power and renouncing the ego. How, she wondered, could this possibly serve women or minorities who historically have been powerless? “These are rules written for men in the 1930s. They’re not written for women. They’re for the people who sit at the top of our society. The archetype is a man with an overdeveloped sense of owning the world. That’s not women or any other marginalised human.”

The article details how she went onto set up her own online sobriety programme ‘Tempest’ which costs £416 ($547) for eight weeks and while AA’s supposed outcomes are mentioned in the article, no outcomes for Tempest are detailed.

The article provoked considered responses from readers (by letter), challenging the idea that AA is sexist and that relapsers are made to feel ‘kind of stupid’. These acknowledged any successful route to recovery is to be celebrated, but were not impressed with the notion that AA did not serve women.

A feminist writes in response:

AA is one of the only places I go in my daily life where everyone is equal and anyone can share their feelings without fear of judgement. There is no hierarchy. Us women are not required to hand power over to men.

She goes on:

Patriarchal structures are deeply embedded in our society and must be challenged. But it’s dangerous to claim an organisation that works to dismantle an alcoholic’s feelings of worthlessness – often the consequences of patriarchy – is part of the problem. It isn’t.

It’s worth looking beyond a sample size of one to see what other research is out there (and there’s plenty). Here are some snapshots…

Kelly and Hoeppener (2013) found similar benefits for men and women attending AA though quite different mechanisms for the benefit, with men being more vulnerable to relapse through social cues and women through negative mood.

Moos, Moos and Timko (2016) in a study of 461 individuals with alcohol use disorder (half of them women) found:

Compared to men, women with alcohol use disorders were more likely to obtain help and achieve remission.Women tended to benefit more from continued participation in AA and showed greater reductions in depression and avoidance coping than men did

Last year, Jolene Sanders, published in Alcohol Treatment Quarterly, took a look at 135 stories from women in AA. Given that these overwhelmingly positive stories came from an AA publication there was clear selection bias, but the research was still able to conclude:

However, selection bias, alone, cannot dismiss the welcoming nature that is AA and the ability for women from different backgrounds to seek recovery from their alcoholism within its ranks.



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