A highly circulating AP article on the increasing number of women with DUI charges sends mixed messages about women who mix drinking and driving. In the wake of a tragic car accident that killed eight people, four of which were children, media attention has focused on women who drink and drive--especially if they're mothers.
Diane Schuler was found to have consumed alcohol and marijuana before driving onto the the wrong lane of traffic. According to some studies, in recent years women have been drinking more and have been arrested more for DUIs. But troublesome quotes seem to direct attention off the problem at hand and more to why it's all of a sudden women are getting caught drinking.
"Younger women feel more empowered, more equal to men, and have been beginning to exhibit the same uninhibited behaviors as men," said Chris Cochran of the California Office of Traffic Safety.
It does seem to be coded language for "Feminism drove Diane Schuler to drink and then to drive," an anti-feminist myth with dangerous repercussions.
I fully support an end to drunk driving and alcoholism, and my heart goes out to everyone who has ever lost someone to drunk driving. My beef is with the way the media is approaching the issue of women (and mothers) who drink. It's as if it takes the unthinkable for attention to turn on how to address women and alcoholism (this is in addition to the fact that the statistics don't quite tell the same story). Barbara Ehrenreich got it right when she said "Gender equality wouldn't be worth fighting for if all it meant was the opportunity to be as stupid and self-destructive as men can be."
Drunk driving kills alarmingly. According to recent statistics from MADD, on average one person dies every 40 minutes in a drunk-driving related incident. While the recent Schuler crash had a tragic amount of child deaths, the media seems to be transfixed on the case because a mother was behind the wheel. Instead of focusing on how women are drinking, and whether or not it's because we feel empowered, we need to start examining the ways that alcohol affects women (and I'm afraid the answer is as easy as "Sometimes doing the right thing isn't easy.")
It's only towards the end of the article that other explanations surface behind the changing gender inequity in substance abuse, casually addressing how familial roles and economic factors effect women who drink.
"There's the impression out there that drunk driving is strictly a male issue, and it is certainly not the case," said Rae Tyson, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "There are a number of parts of the country where, in fact, the majority of impaired drivers involved in fatal crashes are female."
Approaching alcoholism from a feminist standpoint would have other advantages as well, such as how the legal limit for alcohol intake is .08, even though women and men absorb alcohol at different rates. Women deal with alcoholism differently than men as well--drinking at home and alone, making it more difficult for their problems to surface (Schuler's husband claims she didn't drink). Women are also less likely to seek treatment for their problems.
And while any barfly is familiar with the signs and bottles bearing "Women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects," and the effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are specifically tied to a woman's alcoholic intake during pregnancy, far fewer studies have been done on the effect of alcohol intake from both partners prior to pregnancy. Even though some research has been done determining that sperm and sperm quality are affected by alcohol, women continue to be targeted when it comes to reproduction and drinking.
The AP article also reports that the Transportation Department will be focusing on women for its upcoming annual drunk driving campaign, but at the National Highway Traffice Safety Administration's website, I couldn't find any materials or information specifically on women and drunk driving. Perhaps they haven't updated their site yet but if there is indeed the campaign is focused on women let's hope it approaches it in the right direction, contributing new research on women and alcohol rather than further demonizing mothers who drink and drive over anyone who drinks and drives with children in the vehicle.