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The state's "sharp line between the sexes": women, alcohol and the law in the United States, 1850-1980

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Beginning in the 1850s, American case and statute law established alcohol policies that applied specifically to women, which aimed broadly to promote temperance among both sexes. These measures reflected the powerful hold of a middle-class Victorian ideology that stigmatized female drinking, associated women with temperance, and kept women legally dependent in general. American laws on women and alcohol fell into two broad categories. The first was access laws, which restricted women's ability to purchase alcohol, patronize liquor outlets and work in the alcohol trade. These measures aimed to protect women from becoming drunkards, and depleted their legal power. The second group was domestic laws, including marriage, divorce and civil liability statutes. They aimed to protect women from drunken family members, especially husbands, and actually bestowed legal authority on women. Although both sets of laws promoted temperance, they did so both by expanding and contracting women's legal influence. These measures survived until the 1970s, when a series of court decisions overturned them on the basis of sex discrimination. The evolution of these laws shows how middle-class attitudes about female drinking were codified into sex-specific alcohol policy for most of the nation's history.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 1996-08-01

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