A Feminist Tells How

In my re-working of the 12-Steps as a counselor and professor of pastoral care, I believe not only that we need to encourage more pluralism and more gender (and minority culture) consciousness in these programs, but also that a feminist Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) program might make an idea implicit in A. A. — the role of a healing community — more explicit.

It’s true that the 12-Steps and Big Book (a compilation of the authoritative writings of the organization) are not simply handed out at meetings to newcomers who are then told to do the journey alone. But it’s also true that the idea of community can take a real back seat to the emphasis in A. A. on each of our solitary journeys. Most women’s sense of self leans heavily on being connected, on feeling related to others. Caring people’s cumulative support augments a woman’s personal ability to grow, change and to become, paradoxically, self-trusting. Why not work to create an addiction-recovery community that addresses women’s reality more adequately?

Another problem for many women in traditional 12-Step groups is the image of a domineering paternalistic God. The model is condescending to adult women, and it hinders the development of the mature sense of self that addicted women often lack.

For Jewish women, a more appropriate image of God might be the gentle spirit of the Shekhina moving in and through the community, igniting the spark of hope within each woman and breathing life through the group, working for each member’s well-being. This might provide a more authentic spiritual metaphor for recovery: the healing power of a community empowered by a kind of shared, internalized divinity.

More and more, we are realizing that women’s concerns and needs differ from those of male addicts. For example, alcoholic women are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem than their male counterparts. For such women, depression and self-derogation may lead to a feeling of purposelessness in life, and thus to substance abuse. More often than men, female alcoholics turn their anger on themselves rather than on others, with anxiety and guilt being the result. Jewish women in particular may feel they have betrayed their community by experiencing a loss of control over addictive substances, since the general culture expects this not to happen to a Jew, period, much less to a Jewish woman.

What follows is my revision of the 12-Steps to reflect both women’s psychological and spiritual experience. I have tried to be sensitive to Jewish women’s concerns by toning down the monolithic centrality of God as He appears in the traditional steps. I also realize that the notion of surrendering to God has a distinctly Christological flavor, relinquishing one’s free will to Jesus being a common theme for many Christians.

What’s important here is not that we substitute one set of commandments for another, but that each of us feels encouraged to write our own 12-Steps — focussing on what feels individually authentic for each of us. I hope that these revisions are helpful to Jewish feminist women who are struggling to be free from the terrible anguish of addictions.

1. The first of the original Twelve Steps is this: “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable”

Feminist revision: “We have a drinking problem that once had us”

This is taken directly from Jean Kir-patrick’s 13 Steps in “Women for Sobriety” which she designed to enhance women’s self-esteem. Powerlessness has always been women’s particular handicap. For men, admitting powerlessness indicates their readiness for God to move in and change them. Women, on the other hand, need to take an opposite tack; to stand up, affirm our will and empower ourselves.

2. “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”

Feminist revision: “We realized we needed to turn to the community for help.”

For women, to look above for power has almost always meant to look to men. While many women may not need to switch the gender of God in their imaginations, some may find it helpful to think of the spirit of God as Shekhinah or Wisdom if it helps us feel empowered rather than juvenilized.

3. “Made a decision to turn our lives and our will over to the care of God as we understand Him.”

Feminist revision: “We turn to our community of sisters and our own spiritual resources to validate ourselves as worthwhile people, capable of creativity, care and responsibility”.

4. “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”

Feminist revision: “We have taken a hard look at our patriarchal and exclusivist society and we acknowledge those ways in which we have participated in our own oppression, particularly the ways we have devalued or escaped from our own feelings and needs for community and affirmation.

Feminist psychology begins by looking at one’s behavior within familial and cultural subgroups and contexts. Women alcoholics have even more trouble than most women do in validating their feelings.

5. “Admitted to God, ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”

Feminist revision: “We realize that our high expectations for ourselves have led us either to avoid responsibility and/ or to over-invest ourselves in others’ needs. We ask our sisters to help us discern how and when this happens”

6. “Become entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character”

Feminist revision: “Life can be wondrous or ordinary, enjoyable or traumatic, danced with or fought with, and survived. In our community we seek to live in the present with its wonder and hope.”

7. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings”

Feminist revision: “The more we value ourselves, the more we can trust others and accept how that helps us. We are discerning and caring.”

8. “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all”

Feminist revision: “We affirm our gifts and strengths and acknowledge our weaknesses. We are especially aware of those who depend on us and of our influence on them”

9. “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others”

Feminist revision: “We will discuss our illness with our children, family, friends and colleagues. We will make it clear to them (particularly our children) that what our alcoholism caused in the past was not their fault”

10. “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it” Feminist revision: “As we are learning to trust our feelings and perceptions, we will continue to check them carefully with our community, which we will ask to help us discern the problems we may not yet be aware of. We celebrate our progress toward wholeness individually and in community.”

Celebration is crucial in feminist ritual. A group of women can enact rituals around turning points in each one’s lives, both the major ones and the minor ones, utilizing such sources as Miriam’s Well (New York: Biblio Press, 1986), or writing their own. These would commemorate the important transitions in individual and community life, and integrate one’s religion and spirituality into the recovery process.

11. “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out”

Feminist revision: “Drawing upon the resources of our faith, we affirm our competence and confidence as Jewish people. We seek to follow through on our positive convictions with the support of our community and the love of God”

12. “Having had a spiritual awakening as result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs”

Feminist revision: Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we are more able to draw upon the wisdom inherent in us, knowing we are competent women who have much to offer others.” 

Gail Unterberger teaches pastoral care and counselling at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, and is completing a book on a model for pastoral counselling from a feminist perspective.