Gendered Bodies and Nervous Minds: Creating Addiction inAmerica, 1770-1910

by Elizabeth Ann Salem

Institution: Case Western Reserve University
Year: 2016
Keywords: American History; Gender; History; Medicine; history; addiction; alcoholism; medical history; United States; physicians; opiates; narcotics; alcohol; nineteenth-century; gender; popular culture; nineteenth-century literature
Posted: 02/05/2017
Record ID: 2063867
Full text PDF: http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=case1465292474


American concerns about addiction have a long and remarkably consistent history. During the colonial period, Puritan ministers denounced drunkenness as a sin that destroyed the body, stripped individuals of willpower, harmed families and society, plagued racial minorities and the lower classes, and required legal intervention. Despite this, by the early national period, drinking had become an integral part of social and political culture. In response, the temperance movement argued, in similar terms as the Puritans, that alcohol was a social evil that must be eradicated for the moral and political good of the nation.The temperance movement’s critique emerged within the context of changing nineteenth-century medical and literary representations of addictive substances. Physicians saw addiction, as they did other diseases, as the result of a physical crisis. Doctors situated substances like alcohol and opium within a framework that saw bodies as nervous, sensitive, and easily overstimulated or drained. Alongside medical writings, literary depictions of addiction stressed sobriety over the sin and shame of intoxication. Throughout the mid-to-late nineteenth century, cultural criticisms of drunkenness became widespread, sensational, and alarmist. Both medical and popular print writings drew upon ideologies such as domesticity and separate spheres to condemn addiction as disrupting the social order by subverting not only male and female social roles, but corresponding racial and class hierarchies. By the early twentieth century, alcohol and opiate consumption continued to come under attack, with physicians, legislators, and opinion makers arguing that these substances harmed physical health, overcame willpower, disrupted all levels of society, led to moral failures, and should be legally prohibited. Their arguments echoed those of the Puritans, suggesting that despite the social, cultural, and medical changes of the nineteenth century, the dynamics of addiction remained stable. To this day, addiction remains an issue that Americans continually “discover,” and it is this cycle of defining addiction as a new problem that impedes the search for effective solutions. Advisors/Committee Members: Sentilles, Renee M. (Advisor).