The way we view people with substance use and mental health disorders has undergone tremendous change over the past few generations. We’re still learning, but honoring the progress is essential. Women’s History Month in March is a great time to celebrate the courageous women who have represented behavioral health recovery in America.
Remember, at one time the world used to believe that “nice women” didn’t drink to excess or use illegal drugs –that was for beggars and other “fallen women”. It was a widespread concept that made it difficult for women to admit the problem and seek help. Not that there was much help around. Even the early efforts of A.A. (Alcoholics Anonymous) did not go so well – the Good Oldtimers just didn’t know how to approach recovery for women. At first, A.A.’s co-founder Robert Holbrook Smith (Dr. Bob) threw up his hands and said, “We have NEVER had a woman and will NOT work on a woman.”
Marty Mann was the first woman to step forward and prove him wrong. Mann is the founding female member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and author of the “Women Suffer Too” chapter in early editions of the Big Book of AA. Marty also founded The National Council on Alcoholism to reduce social stigma surrounding alcoholism and to encourage women and their family members to get treatment. Marty Mann did groundbreaking work to raise social awareness of alcoholism as a deadly disease and not a moral weakness.
Other recovery pioneers include Lois Wilson, wife of A.A. founder Bill Wilson, and Anne Smith, wife of co-founder Dr. Bob. Although these women were not alcoholics, both served as early A.A. staff and the lifeblood of the fledgling organization. In 1951, Lois Wilson founded Al-Anon to provide a source of support for the family members of alcoholics.
An early advocate for mental health recovery was Nellie Bly, a young investigative journalist. In 1887, after hearing of the horrible conditions in a New York State asylum, she posed as a patient to get herself admitted. After 10 days, Bly wrote about her experiences in an exposé for New York World. Her bombshell report was a catalyst for early mental healthcare reform.
America’s First Lady Betty Ford was another important leader. She frankly admitted her drug and alcohol problems, and it won her widespread acclaim. Mrs. Ford helped found The Betty Ford Center, a treatment program for drug and alcohol abuse – one of the best-known facilities of its kind in the country.
Another pioneer was actress Carrie Fisher of Star Wars fame. Her courage in openly tackling the stigma of her mental illness was groundbreaking. Carrie said, “The only lesson for me, or for anybody, is that you have to get help. It’s not a neat illness. It doesn’t go away.”
And there have been many, many more brave women who are role models for behavioral health recovery. Some of them are our mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, cousins, and friends. Los Angeles Centers for Alcohol and Drug Abuse, our Board, and staff stand on their shoulders and salute all women in recovery and those working for treatment progress.
Learn how Carrie Fisher became our hero.