Amid tabloid reports that the World Health Organization (WHO) is calling for all ‘women of childbearing age’ to be ‘banned’ from drinking alcohol, the relationship between alcohol and gender equality returned to the media spotlight in June 2021. While the tabloid press is notorious for ignoring crucial details in its quest for a good story – in this case, that it was a draft plan containing no further mentions of, or action points directed at, this broad demographic by an organisation with no regulatory powers – outrage at the WHO draft plan risks turning our attention away from wider concerns, principally the alcohol industry’s enthusiastic targeting of women, including mothers, as a consumer market.

The Portman Group, a trade group made up of alcoholic drink producers and brewers in the UK, wasted no time in releasing a statement on social media and sending a representative to speak on LBC Radio. The statement describes the WHO as calling for countries to ‘prevent drinking among women of childbearing age’, criticising the organisation for ‘sexist and paternalistic’ scaremongering. In addition to providing an industry body with an opportunity to showcase its feminist credentials, the mention of women of reproductive age has been used to settle old scores. Christopher Snowdon from The Institute of Economic Affairs, a right-wing think tank and vocal critic of the WHO with links to the tobacco industry, described the sentence as ‘classic World Health Organisation idiocy’ in  The Telegraph.

Meanwhile, self-styled ‘women of child-bearing age’ took to social media, tweeting images of defiant glass-raising and, understandably, venting frustration at feeling they were being reduced to mere potential child-bearing ‘vessels’ in this debate.

To be clear, the relevant  sentence in the draft plan is problematic. Nested in a section on raising awareness of alcohol-related harms internationally, the line reads:

Appropriate attention should be given to prevention of the initiation of drinking among children and adolescents, prevention of drinking among pregnant women and women of childbearing age, and protection of people form pressures to drink, especially in societies with high levels of alcohol consumption where heavy drinkers are encouraged to drink even more.

The phrase ‘women of child-bearing age’ arguably reduces a section of the population to their reproductive capabilities. Not everyone that the WHO or others might place in this category has the desire or ability to conceive. However, as mentioned above, nowhere else in the plan is the prevention of drinking among the wide demographic of ‘women of reproductive age’ mentioned, and the draft plan contains no action points targeting  all such women. Advising pregnant women, including those who are trying to become or who might already be pregnant, to avoid alcohol is neither new nor especially controversial. Of course, we acknowledge the valid debates around the control and medicalisation of pregnant bodies, and the problematic extension of this to the ‘pre-conception’ period. With a whole industry emerging around fertility that predominantly targets female bodies, the frustration of those who are tired of anything that smacks of others (predominantly men) controlling women’s bodies and undermining their simple desire for freedom and fun is understandable.

However, characterising  the WHO as an outdated, misogynistic organisation on the basis of one sentence in a draft plan is misguided, and crucially misses a wider opportunity to open up discussion and debate around the ways in which alcohol consumption continues to be tied up with representations of women’s freedom and liberation. The Portman Group’s response highlights a longer-term trend: the positioning of drinking alcohol as synonymous with gender equality and women’s emancipation from domestic and childcare responsibilities. While the idea of marketing substances as a ‘little helper’ for harried housewives or multi-tasking mothers is not new, it is noteworthy that such entanglements continue to be promoted through an emerging ‘mummy wine culture’ on social media and within popular culture. This notion of drinking wine to ‘cope’ with the demands of modern motherhood is hardly an empowering or liberating one and raises questions around the endurance of stubborn and entrenched power structures and the domestic division of labour, particularly with the global pandemic arguably placing an increasing burden on primary caregivers.

Alongside this, the increasing feminisation or – to borrow a phrase from Glasgow Caledonian University’s fascinating #DontPinkMyDrink social media campaign –  ‘pinking’ of alcohol marketing continues to draw associations between alcohol, femininity, freedom, fun and friendship. Among two of the less subtle examples of the industry using feminism to market alcohol,  Diageo created a Jane Walker Edition of its Johnnie Walker whisky label to celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, and Sparkke, an Australian company, launched a ‘Time’s Up’ themed sparkling wine in partnership with the International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA).  Read against this backdrop, the Portman Group’s quick response to the plan emerges as a tactical move that forms part of a wider strategy, that, as Professor Carol Emslie has noted, is ‘straight out of the tobacco industry playbook’. While our own previous research highlights the importance and value of alcohol in the lives of many women (from its role in their life histories to its joyful consumption on a ‘girls’ night out’) depicting alcohol unproblematically as a route to female empowerment is a troubling move.

In sum, while the choice of phrasing from the WHO in this case is problematic, and some degree of backlash and frustration is to be expected, the alcohol industry has attempted to tap into this moment to continue to push a narrative that entangles gender equality and women’s empowerment with alcohol consumption. The WHO cannot ‘unsay’ what has been said (although they might revise it in further iterations of the draft) but perhaps ‘women-of-child-bearing-age-gate’ can open the door for a wider discussion about gender, alcohol and the increasing trends towards the ‘pinking’ of alcohol and the promotion of ‘mummy wine culture’. In particular, the positioning of alcohol as something women need to ‘cope’ with the demands of modern motherhood or to ensure they have fun with their friends – and the role of the alcohol industry in this – deserves further scrutiny.

Laura Fenton is Research Associate in the Social of Sciences at the University of Manchester. Twitter: @soc_researcher.  Emily Nicholls is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York. Twiter: @DrEmilyNicholls