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Education: Higher Education

Seeking Pleasure, Managing Moods: User’ Experiences with Psychoactive Drugs

Class 3. Anxious Women


The 1950s were the beginning of widespread prescription of tranquilizers and antidepressants to medicate feelings of anxiety and depression at a time when white middle class Americans, though living in a time of unprecedented rates of prosperity, were pressured to conform to narrow gender and occupational roles and to fear the end of the American way of life through a Communist takeover or the dropping of a nuclear bomb.

Like white middle class women in the late nineteenth century, women in the 1950s and 1960s took drugs framed as medicines to manage such feelings as anxiety or depression. In both periods, some women who found prevailing gender norms constraining sought relief for their frustrations in medicines that calmed the mind. In contrast, people using illicit drugs to manage similar feelings are often described as self-medicating. This juxtaposition reflects the similarity of the effects of drugs classified as medically useful or socially dangerous and highlights the pattern of legitimate medical drugs being used in unauthorized ways.

By the 1970s, the antianxiety drug Valium had become the most widely prescribed drug in the U.S. Herzberg shows how second-wave feminists challenged the pharmaceutical advertisers’ message that women’s anxieties should be medicated rather than analyzed and addressed through social change. He charts another chapter in the division between street junkies and medically addicted patients.

Barbara Gordon was an Emmy-winning producer of documentary films for television in the mid-1970s when she confronted her growing dependence on Valium prescribed for her by a psychiatrist. In the selections from her memoir about her struggle with addiction, we see her gradual acknowledgement that she was dependent on pills prescribed for her by her physician—who responded to her increasing anxiety with more prescriptions for stronger drugs. In the chapter following the selections suggested here, Gordon recounts her attempt to stop using pills abruptly and on her own. After this failed attempt, long periods of treatment, including as an inpatient, followed before Gordon was able to resume a successful career, this time as a best-selling author of novels and nonfiction works.

Class Resources
  • Herzberg, David. “‘The Pill You Love Can Turn on You’: Feminism, Tranquilizers, and the Valium Panic of the 1970s.” American Quarterly 58 (Mar. 2006): 79-103.
  • Gordon, Barbara. I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can. New York: Moyer Bell, 1979, Chapters 1-3, pp. 1-46.

Discussion Questions
  1. Barbara Gordon’s childhood and early adulthood spanned the period from when middle class women were largely expected to devote their adult lives to domestic roles, to when they increasingly assumed independent occupational and professional roles. By the early 1970s, she was in the middle of a highly successful career in the male-dominated world of television production. What does the book’s title, I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can, suggest about her interior experience of her career and personal life? What specific language in the first three chapters helps us understand the contrast between her outer success and her inner anxieties?
  2. What expectations about the roles of middle class women are suggested by the images and language in the medical advertisements reproduced in Herzberg’s article? How would you compare or contrast these images with the life that Gordon built for herself?
  3. What dilemmas did physicians face when patients came to them for relief from troubled (and troubling) feelings?
  4. Pharmaceutical marketers seek to persuade physicians of the efficacy of specific medicines for treating specific conditions. What kinds of conditions do the advertisements Herzberg discusses describe? To what extent do you think it is or is not appropriate to consider these conditions that should be treated with medicine?
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