When women act like men, children die

Anecdata and statistical manipulation about DUIs remind us that ladies who don't know their place are dangerous

Published August 7, 2009 4:08PM (EDT)

Let me begin by saying that the last thing on earth I want to do is minimize the seriousness of drunk driving or the devastation it can wreak. When I was seven, my family was hit head-on by a drunk driver who turned a corner into the wrong lane because he was busy trying to throw his passenger out of the car. One of my dearest friends lost her brother to a drunk driving accident -- and years later, the driver killed himself the same way. So believe me when I tell you, I am no apologist for people who get behind the wheel when there's any chance they're too impaired to handle it.

I am, however, a feminist, which makes me immediately skeptical of articles like one today from the Associated Press, identifying "disturbing trends" that happen to further extremely trendy Bad Mommy narratives and include such trenchant sociological analysis as "Women are picking up some of the dangerously bad habits of men" (from Mothers Against Drunk Driving CEO Chuck Hurley). Beginning with the tragic example of Diane Schuler, who recently drove the wrong way down a one-way street with a blood alcohol level of 0.19, causing an accident that killed eight people (including herself and four children), the article goes on to inform us that more women are reporting that they drink heavily, more women are being arrested for drunk driving and, like Schuler, some of them even drive drunk with their kids in the car -- which Hurley calls "the ultimate form of child abuse." 

The numbers, however, tell a much less alarming story. Though this does represent an increase over previous years, in California, only 18.8 percent of DUI arrests are women. By my calculations, that means 81.2 percent are not women. And we have to extrapolate from California data because the nationwide number of female drunk driving arrests isn't included; we're only told that it was "28.8 percent higher in 2007 than it was in 1998, while the number of men arrested was 7.5 percent lower" -- which sounds shocking until you consider that we're also supposed to be shocked by how the number of women aged 30 to 44 who self-report alcohol abuse has more than doubled: jumping all the way up to 3.3 percent. Also, we should probably factor in "[a]nother possible reason cited for the rising arrests: Police are less likely to let women off the hook these days." There's that. As for women drivers putting their kids at risk, "Arrests of drunken mothers with children in the car remain rare, but police officers can generally list a few." Oh well, then.

So what we have here is a trend of statistically significant increases in the number of women arrested for drunk driving and the number of women who say they abuse alcohol -- neither of which is a solid indicator of the number of drunk women on the road, given police discretion in making arrests and the notorious unreliability of self-reported data -- which is being spun into a socially significant trend: Women are turning into a bunch of alcoholic narcissists who must be stopped! Think of the children!

That image is reinforced by anecdotes about women who have driven with extremely high blood alcohol levels and children on board -- including one who'd been clubbing with her teenage daughter, the harlot! -- and a lot of hand-wringing about how male that sort of behavior is. In addition to Hurley's "dangerously bad habits" quote, we have Chris Cochran of the California Office of Traffic Safety saying: "Younger women feel more empowered, more equal to men, and have been beginning to exhibit the same uninhibited behaviors as men." Reader, you heard it hear first: Equality kills. I love how those quotes simultaneously demonize women and highlight the far more prevalent problem: men driving drunk. "Men still drink more than women and are responsible for more drunken-driving cases," says the article. "But the gap is narrowing." OK, well, maybe let me know when the gap gets a little narrower than 80/20.

Let me be clear: One drunk driver on the road, regardless of gender, is too many. And to the families of people injured or killed by female drunk drivers, statistics don't mean a damned thing. But still, whipping up alarm over a "disturbing trend" of women drinking more, driving drunk and taking their kids along for the ride, based on sketchy evidence -- that, even when taken at face value, shows that fewer than 3 percent of women overall report abusing alcohol and fewer than 20 percent of DUI arrests are of women -- serves no real purpose other than gender policing. Bad Mommies must be called out at every possible opportunity, reminding us all that they are everywhere, and the rest of us have a moral duty to save today's kids from their own selfish mothers. Women who behave "like men" must be reminded not only that this is unacceptable, but it can have deadly consequences! And we all must be reminded of what causes such reckless behavior: Women who "feel more empowered, more equal to men." Obviously, we must put a stop to that crap before anyone else dies. Thank god we can always find statistics to help.


By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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