AA’s Big Patriarchy Problem
Here’s a confession: I haven’t attended AA meetings regularly in about a decade. This is a little hard to admit, since my book is all about AA, and I’ve staked my professional reputation on this work. I haven’t felt the need to drink during that time, but the old AA saying “meeting makers make it” has been instilled in my brain, even though my experience shows me something different altogether.
I haven’t quite understood until very recently why I quit going regularly. After all, I loved AA. I found a community and a system that worked for a lot of the big problems in my life. Most of my closest friends these days are people I met at meetings. (And most of them are still sober and not regularly attending meetings either, hence I have many counterexamples to that saying. I will say though that all of us initially dedicated years to the program.)
Looking back on it now, I can see clearly what happened. At five years sober, I took a volunteer position as the coordinator of a large fellowship in Oakland. Most of the year, it involved little more than making sure we had toilet paper and running fairly benign monthly business meetings.
Towards the end of my time in that position, a couple of men began to regularly attend AA meetings at the fellowship. I don’t remember the exact details of their behavior, but many women came forward and said the men’s actions made them deeply uncomfortable. The business meetings I ran became contentious. There was a group made up entirely of middle aged white men who insisted that AA’s tradition that “the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking” meant that we must let these men stay, basically no matter what.
The other group of people said that it’s not okay for members to stay in meetings if they are being abusive or threatening, that the women in the group also have a desire to stop drinking, and if the environment is unsafe for them, then, by extension, they are being denied the recovery found at meetings.
I decided to stay as neutral as possible. I felt my work as the coordinator was just to coordinate. We founded a safety committee to look at the issue, and had many meetings, both in committee and with the fellowship at large. The loudest voices in those meetings were always the white men, the ones insisting that, essentially, the women should just deal with it.
My efforts to keep the process moving and to find ways to create a safer space for everyone were met with open hostility and obstructive actions, like shooting down all ideas and monopolizing meetings. At one point, a member even sent me an email detailing all the ways in which my personal recovery program was deficient. It was angry and inappropriate, and now I have language for that: gaslighting. It was abusive.
One month before my term was to end, I resigned. At the time, that decision was openly criticized. Why didn’t I just stick it out? It was just one month. I wondered about that myself, but looking back on it, I see resigning as an act of deep self care.
Even though I didn’t go to the same meetings as the men who were causing problems, AA became an unsafe place for me. Even before all of this, I had received countless non-consensual hugs, and it seemed at almost every meeting, some man would hijack my attention by blocking the exit and talking endlessly with no regard to my non-verbal cues that it was time to move on. I finally learned to just walk away, but I was told over and over in ways subtle and overt that my safety and the safety of women did not matter.
It was retraumatizing. No wonder I basically never went back, and when I did, I felt deeply uncomfortable. Or I went to women's meetings, which were more comfortable, but lacked the voices of men, not all of whom are untrustworthy and who often say very interesting things.
Going to women's meetings is a decent strategy to stay safe. But in my mind, that doesn’t come close to adequately solving the problem.
Let’s look at the literature. Forget inclusive pronouns for queer folks, nearly a century after the Big Book was written, Alcoholics Anonymous can’t even fix pronouns for women. All pronouns are he/him/his. All references to God or a Higher Power assume the gender of that entity to be male.
There is a chapter for wives, but no chapter for husbands. In the book, the men are the alcoholics and the women are the wives. The Chapter to Wives begins with all the ways the wives have been severely mistreated and abused by their alcoholic husbands, and follows that with a list of suggestions such as, “The first principle of success is never to be angry.”
The Chapter to Wives also puts the onus on the women to keep the men sober. We must behave perfectly in fact, “The slightest sign of fear or intolerance may lessen your husband’s chance of recovery.” Later on the same page, “Make him feel absolutely free to come and go as he likes. This is important.” So it literally says that the women are to be perfect and loving, never angry or fearful or intolerant, while the men do exactly what they want to do.
Women have been told and shown over and over and over again that their needs and words and even bodies do not matter. And then, at perhaps the most vulnerable time of their lives, when they reach out for help for a life-threatening condition, what is typically offered is an organization that continues to treat women as afterthoughts, people whose needs do not matter.
When we complain about the gendered and severely dated literature, we are told, essentially, to get over it. (I regret that in my book I may have reinforced that idea.) Women who replace male pronouns with female or gender-neutral ones when they read, or who say “goddess” instead of “god” are ridiculed and ostracized. I’ve seen it happen.
The first edition of the Big Book was printed in 1939. The fourth edition, which I hold now in my hands, was published in 2001. There hasn’t been, that I’m aware of, any changes to be more inclusive for women other than the printing of a brochure and adding more personal accounts of female alcoholics in the 82 years since the original printing, despite 3 revisions.
In the proposed agenda items for 2020 General Service Committee, there is an item to consider creating a fifth edition of the Big Book, which would include removing the Chapter to Wives as well as some of the gendered pronouns. All of the action items concerning this, save one, were moved to committee. In other words, tabled.
The exception to that is the agenda item, “Consider removing the words “He”, “His” and “Him” from Steps Three, Seven and Eleven and replace them with the word God.” Here is the result:
Took No Action: The committee discussed a proposed agenda item to “Consider removing the words ‘He His and Him’ from Steps Three, Seven and Eleven and replace them with the word God” and took no action. The committee understands that changing the Steps is a major undertaking. The committee agreed there is no widely expressed need for this change. (Bolding is my own.)
So, ladies, I’m sorry to say that the governing body of Alcoholics Anonymous is continuing to say that your needs and your voices do not matter. I think many alcoholic women will find this retraumatizing, even if, like me, we don’t notice those feelings at first. After all, it’s the water we swim in, right?
Some of us develop strategies to overcome this obstacle and get what we need from the program. As I’ve mentioned, we go to women's meetings or change pronouns. My strategy getting sober in AA was to look at the literature in its historical context. I realized that the book was written in a different time when women were severely undervalued. In fact, it was written just 19 years after women got the right to vote.
But that is no longer acceptable to me. The organization has had more than enough time to include women. And including women would just be the start. In my old Oakland meetings, people of color were vastly underrepresented in meetings, even though the East Bay is one of the most diverse areas in the country. The language is also very far from being inclusive for queer and trans folks. It doesn’t even acknowledge that sexual partners might be the same gender.
AA has a huge patriarchy problem that it openly refuses to deal with. Alcoholism is a chronic, often terminal disease. Is it possible that the words of one dead man are more important than the lives of countless women? Apparently so.
AA, it’s time to grow up.
Yoga for Recovery (I teach this class online) Sundays at 9 AM PST
Recovery Dharma is a very inclusive program that incorporates Buddhism with recovery
Yoga for Twelve Step Recovery offers recovery-themed yoga classes across the country
If you have other resources, please post them in the comments.