The Real Boozewives

The relationship between women and drinking has always been a fraught subject in America, from colonial times to the recent rise of the "cocktail mom." Sarah Baird explores the long-held gender double standards regarding housewives and alcohol and how they've manifested in pop culture.

drinking moms illustration jen kruch

The depth of my knowledge about reality television is profoundly shallow, but I am familiar with enough of the archetypes to get me through at least 15 minutes of conversation with a Bravo devotee. I know that if you want to be on television with your family, your names should all start with the same consonant. I know that people love to watch a grab bag of strangers duke it out after being dumped in some sort of confined space—a house, an island—together. I know that shows about fixer-uppers and house-hunting are actually voyeuristic glimpses into the lives of seriously dysfunctional couples. Most importantly, I know that if you want to be on a show called the Real Housewives, you have to drink—a lot.

I’ve tried many times over to enjoy an episode of Real Housewives in the way I’ve been instructed is most natural: I pour myself a glass of Franzia, slide into a pair of yoga pants and watch while absent-mindedly online shopping. While the show’s actual events have failed to excite me, the tectonic shift that it represents in our attitude towards housewives and booze—including the rise of the “cocktail mom”—is fascinating. For perhaps the first time in our society’s recent history, stay-at-home mothers are being encouraged to drink.

Of course, it might just be that we’ve come full circle. Our colonial ancestors—both female and male—carried over from England a deep appreciation for hard ciders and ales. While the production of grog became a male-dominated industry in England in the mid-1600s, it continued to be the job of housewives in colonial America. “They will be adjudged by their drink, what kind of housewives they are,” wrote Chesapeake Bay colonial leader John Hammond in 1656, after asserting that the women of the town weren’t making beer that was up to his standard.

In the colonial understanding of fertility and motherhood, alcohol was not only considered healthy, but possessive of potent powers. According to Sarah Hand Meacham, an expert on alcohol and gender in the colonies, “Breastfeeding women drank beer to help encourage their milk flow [and] 43 of the recipes in the first English gynecological handbook contained alcohol.” Women were often given shots while in labor or during difficult pregnancies to dull the pain. (Colonial women also drank during female-only gatherings, like knitting groups, which might be the oldest instance of the “girl’s night out” on record.)

What happened, then, between the brewmaster founding mothers and the temperance-fevered women in the early 20th century? Primarily, religion.

By the 1820s, Americans were consuming seven gallons of alcohol per capita annually, the majority of them men. This was seen by a number of Protestant churches as not only leading to an increase in public sloth and rowdiness, but the slow dissolution of the family fiber. Housewives were discouraged from partaking of drink on moral grounds, and catalyzed to stamp out “sinful liquor” in order to preserve their families. While drinking was seen as a masculine birthright, women were simply expected to abstain, remaining responsible for the children, household and caring for the needs of their husbands.

But as the march of time beat forward, a world full of Betty Drapers faded to the background as their liberated sisters and daughters trooped forth, a copy of The Feminine Mystique in hand. Women began to reevaluate the blatant gender inequality around social norms for women consuming alcohol, asking for the first time, “Why are we held to a different standard than men?”

When the 18th Amendment was ratified in 1919, it was the collective effort of housewives—supported by groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union—that brought about the social change. (It’s no surprise that the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was ratified almost simultaneously.) While female teetotalism during the era is often blamed for the alcohol-themed, gender-based double standards we continue to experience today, the movement is a testament to how housewives—perhaps more than any other group—are the pulse of society’s ever-shifting attitude towards drinking.

While the women who fought for temperance held true to their beliefs throughout the length of prohibition, female empowerment efforts—most notably, working to give women the right to vote—manifested differently in more cosmopolitan circles. Ironic as it may be, the temperance movement helped sow the seeds for the kind of secular, independent women who, during the 1920s, looked towards the silver screen for inspiration on how to chop their hair, shorten their skirts and even (gasp) drink in public. In many ways, though, these films only worked to reinforce deeply engrained social norms over the next decades.

While the glamorous, flirtatious single women of New York and Los Angeles sipped Martinis and watered their plants with cocktail shakers à la Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, less urbane women and housewives were seen as those who should still refuse to drink—or face dire consequences. Films exaggerated the effects of a single drink on these more “virtuous” drinkers, with women quickly tumbling towards despair (like Lee Remick’s naïve character in Days of Wine and Roses) or even death. In 1928’s Our Dancing Daughters, mousey Anita Page goes from a sip of champagne to plunging to her drunken death alarmingly fast.

Not wanting the city girls to have all the fun, housewives in the decades post World War II found a workaround for the drinking stereotypes that had held them back for so long: the at-home cocktail hour.

Between child care and dinner duty, cocktail hour allowed housewives to carve out bars’ same kind of “third placeness” in the comfort of their living rooms. Eventually the cocktail party rose to prominence, and—not unlike in colonial times—households could be judged by the woman’s ability to not only make drinks, but entertain booze-fueled crowds from top to bottom.

But as the march of time beat forward, a world full of Betty Drapers faded to the background as their liberated sisters and daughters trooped forth, a copy of The Feminine Mystique in hand. (My own Betty-Friedan-loving-cocktail-enjoying mother gave me a “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle” bumper sticker when I was in 3rd grade.)

Women began to reevaluate the blatant gender inequality around social norms for women consuming alcohol, asking for the first time, “Why are we held to a different standard than men?”

The early 1980s shifted this discussion even more significantly, due, in large part, to the rise of single parenting and new medical discoveries. In 1981, the Surgeon General issued the first-ever warning that women shouldn’t drink alcohol while pregnant, making millennials the inaugural generation with mothers who—more than likely—refrained from drinking with them in utero. Today, when examining the relationship between housewives and booze, we focus more on the intersection of motherhood and alcohol.

“When I had my first daughter in 1992, no one would’ve dreamed of giving me alcohol as a gift after the baby was born,” said Gabrielle Glaser, author of Her Best Kept Secret: Why Women Drink, in reference to lingering medical concerns over mothers drinking held over from the ’80s. “By the time I had my third daughter after 9/11, people were handling me bottles of wine as baby gifts.”

The early 2000s saw the ushering in of the “cocktail mom” era across the United States. Fueled in large part by the rise in popularity of shows like Desperate Housewives and Real Housewives—which depict attractive, well-to-do stay-at-home mothers regularly drinking—this new generation of women found themselves longing for a way to recapture what it means to be a woman and not just a mom.

With the internet’s way of catalyzing conversations between wine and cocktail-loving mothers across the country, the movement quickly gained traction. From websites like Moms Who Need Wine and Drunken Housewife to Facebook groups (“OMG I so need a glass of wine or I’m gonna sell my kids!” has almost 140,000 likes at the time of writing) women began logging on in droves. The cocktail mom crusade sought to bring a touch of snarky humor and levity to the pressures of motherhood—giving birth to everything from the SkinnyGirl cocktails and wines to bedazzled wine glasses and T-shirts with slogans like “Mommy’s Sippy Cup.”

While the movement still seems to be chugging along, a healthy backlash has also developed. Several of the most prominent first-wave cocktail moms have given up drinking all together, recognizing that they had come to rely too heavily on alcohol. News outlets have declared the end of the cocktail mom, as statistics show an increasing number of middle-aged women entering rehab facilities.

The cocktail mom rose to prominence with the notion that it’s okay to be an imperfect parent. But many now believe that moms mixing cocktails while their toddlers waddle around is a recipe for disaster.

So where are the fathers in all this? The centuries-old unwritten code about gender and alcohol continues to hold true, especially as it pertains to raising children. “There’s a kind of double standard between men and women drinking,” said Jowita Bydlowska, author of Drunk Mom, which outlines her relapse into alcoholism after the birth of her first child. “I mean, the picture of the American Dream is a dad flipping hamburgers and drinking a beer while his children run around in the yard. It’s not the same for women.”

After decades of ebb and flow, how will millennial women who choose to be mothers decide to drink? This largely remains to be seen, but it’s safe to say that most will certainly factor drinking into the equation. Millennials have the unique opportunity to be the first generation to flip the script on the stereotypical double standard between mothers and fathers drinking, placing the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of both genders to drink responsibly.

When the time comes, I’ll be out in front leading the change—a lager in hand as I put sear marks on hot dogs and toss around a football with my kid.