AA’s Male Culture

Does the dominance of men and male thinking in AA hurt women?

Posted May 21, 2014

This post is based on the experiences of Juliet Abram, a person who recovered from alcoholism with help other than from Alcoholics Anonymous, which she found hurt her.

Juliet writes:

"Our Father" was recited at my very first AA meeting. My ears started bleeding. I'd quit going to Catholic church to get away from the male-only God, male-only child (Jesus), and male-only priests. As Mary Daly said, "If God is male, then male is God." I decided that male dominance goes hand in glove with identifying the Almighty Creator as Male.

I believe both sexes absorb biased spiritual language, consciously or subconsciously. I figured since AA was non-religious that it could drop God's gender as a male but, no, AA refuses to castrate their God. Thus we read Step 3 as the Founding Fathers intended: "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understand Him."

As much fun as it is to engage in theological debates with strangers, I thought AA was prescribed to alcoholics as a support group. It's unethical and illegal for courts or government-funded treatment centers to make even the consideration of prayer mandatory. Even if they can't force you to pray, studying the 12 Steps makes mentioning prayer unavoidable.

Let's move on to AA's Big Book, which explains how to work the AA program. Surely, both men and women can find all the answers they will ever need about alcoholism and how to recover there.


There is not one mention of pregnancy in The Big Book, of fetal alcohol syndrome, or of how women metabolize alcohol at a slower rate than men, which makes women get drunker quicker on the same quantity of alcohol. In fact, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism now focuses on women's drinking: "Drinking over the long term is more likely to damage a woman's health than a man's, even if the woman has been drinking less alcohol or for a shorter length of time than the man." Don't you think that women's drinking/alcoholism is worth separate, special attention by now?

Of course, these issues were not very present at the time of the original Big Book. Thus, the bedrock of the Big Book virtually never mentions women other than as appendages to men. Open to any random page: "When working with a man and his family, you should take care not to participate in their quarrels." And so forth:

  • "... give your man a chance."
  • "...they made an effort to bring the man's family into a spiritual way of living..."
  • "...urge upon a man's family that he has been a very sick person..."
  • "This man has a charming wife and family."

The cases in the first 164 pages of The Big Book, the part that describes how AA works and how to work AA, refer only to men.

But Chapter 8 is addressed "To Wives." It starts promisingly: "With few exceptions, our book thus far has spoken of men. But what we have said applies quite as much to women." But this equality quickly dissipates: "We want the wives of Alcoholics Anonymous to address the wives of men who drink too much," and "As wives of Alcoholics Anonymous, we would like you to feel we understand as few can." Chapter 9 is titled, "The Family Afterward." Its first sentence is: "Our women folk have suggested certain attitudes a woman may take with the husband who is recovering."

Get the picture? Perhaps you think the 1939 AA Big Book was just a product of its time. Well, the 1952 AA 12×12 (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions) also focuses on men: "Many a man like you has begun to solve the problem by the method of substitution."

Alas, little has changed since 1939 or 1952 in AA. When I tried to bring up the incredibly biased language in the texts, they told me it was just the use of the generic "he" that was bothering me (even though all the original stories were about men, so these weren't generic male pronouns). In any case, they viewed it as no cause for concern. I think a man who was referred to by a generic "she" would be insulted. And a woman from AA's central office in New York e-mailed me about my concerns that she used to be a feminist, but she had learned through AA to suppress that thinking.

My treatment center (all-female) knew that women usually had special needs, such as child care. But they did not care to address or fix the sexist literature of AA and the male God in the 12 Steps. Because resentment is a crime in rehab, they felt no woman who was serious about her recovery would argue with The Big Book.

There is one piece of literature from AA expressly written for women, a thin brochure titled "A.A. for the Woman." It contains is a list of reasons why women drink heavily. It asks women: "Do you plan in advance to reward yourself with a little drinking after you've worked very hard in the house?" Here's a hidden indicator of alcoholism for women: "When others are present, do you avoid reading articles or seeing movies or TV shows about about women alcoholics, but read or watch when no one is around?"

Needless to say, there is no pamphlet "AA for the Man." Why would that be needed when The Big Book is already all about men? So let me get this straight. Women are supposed to read the AA Big Book because it's also about them -- they're not unique. But there's one tiny pamphlet just for women because women are different, albeit it only in trivial, superficial ways.

Here's my theory: Women won't gain traction in changing AA's outdated sexist literature if they keep defending it. And if men are bowing down to a Male Supreme Being, then women are bowing down to men. Focusing only on male power denies women any amount of power.

Finally, AA's misogynistic language and culture permit sexual misconduct and sexual crimes to occur. These nearly always go unreported, as though they are almost expected, which is why concern over 13th stepping is rising to the fore, pushed by my friend Monica Richardson. It has to be halted.

It may turn out that we could write a book about sexual misconduct, male dominance, and sexism in AA and its 12 steps. This is just the start.

Juliet Abram is a clerk at a tool shop in Ohio who also writes. Juliet is seeking to expand addiction treatment and support group options in Ohio. If you share her concerns, please contact her through her A.A.R.M.E.D. website.

Stanton Peele has been empowering people around addiction since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program. His new book (written with Ilse Thompson) is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict with The PERFECT Program.  You can follow Stanton on Twitter and Facebook.