On Friday evenings when many people leave their offices and head for happy hour, six women gather to encourage and support one another -- and to abstain, not drink.
As the meeting begins, a matronly woman with salt-and-pepper hair says, "Hello, I'm Margaret, and I'm a competent woman. Today, I didn't allow things I can't control to upset me."
As the introductions go around the table, each woman makes a positive statement about herself. Some speak clearly, with confidence, others with shyness. But each one also repeats the phrase: "I am a competent woman."
Competence, positive thinking, self-esteem are qualities these women -- all alcoholics who have stopped drinking -- are striving to incorporate into their lives. They are members of Women for Sobriety, a 15-year-old program founded by Jean Kirkpatrick, a Quakertown, Pa., woman who couldn't find the answer to her drinking problem in Alcoholics Anonymous.
"AA simply did not work for me," Ms. Kirkpatrick explains. "A woman needs greater empowerment. AA wants to stress humility. Show me a woman alcoholic, and I'll show you a woman who doesn't need any more humility."
That philosophy grew out of Ms. Kirkpatrick's own 29-year battle with alcoholism, which included a yearlong stay in a psychiatric hospital. None of the self-help or counseling programs she tried worked, she says. But by reading metaphysical writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, she came to believe that by changing her thoughts, she could change herself.
Operating on that belief, the University of Pennsylvania graduate quit drinking and founded WFS -- a non-profit, self-help program, which now comprises about 350 loosely knit groups nationwide, and about six in the Baltimore area. She has written three books on the subject, including "Turnabout: Help for a New Life," which was published in 1978.
Alcoholics Anonymous, however, also offers women-only groups, says an AA spokesman. "AA is for everybody. It caters to everyone. If you're suffering from the disease of alcoholism, we're for you," he says. Of the approximately 800 AA groups in the Baltimore area, about 30 are all female.
Public attention increasingly has been focused on the issue of women and alcoholism in the wake of revelations about personal struggles with alcoholism by women from Betty Ford to Kitty Dukakis. In addition, there is growing awareness of fetal alcohol syndrome -- or birth defects caused in newborns by pregnant women who drink.
Nonetheless, although an estimated one-third of the nation's 15 million alcoholics are female, only about 21 percent of those who attend recovery programs are women, according to the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism.
And some health care experts say more programs tailored for women are needed. "I think there has been a feeling for many years now, from the point of view of women, that they have special needs that frequently aren't served by the more general male models [of recovery programs], that the system was set up to serve middle-age alcoholic men," says Christine Lubinski, director for public policy of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
In addition, society places a much greater stigma on women who drink. In fact, "the stigma is on the rise. With the stigma placed on drug use, with the awareness of birth defects and pregnant women drinking, I do think there is a greater stigma to being alcoholic and female," says Ms. Lubinski.
"There is a mythology of being female, alcoholic and promiscuous . . . mothers aren't supposed to do that," she says. "Clearly, [the attitude is that] men are allowed to do whatever they want because women are soberly sitting at home making sure the children are getting their needs met."
Consequently, women alcoholics often suffer from deep guilt feelings and self-esteem problems; many have suffered physical sexual abuse. These are extremely sensitive issues that may be difficult to discuss in co-ed meetings, says Patricia Gaffney, clinical director for recovery programs at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital.
And women alcoholics rarely fit the stereotypical image society has of drunks: a loud, boisterous or angry person, she says. Women are more likely to drink alone, to be depressed, to think of suicide.
"When I was drinking, nobody thought I was an alcoholic," says Marilyn Allen, a Harford County mother of two, who moderates WFS groups in Baltimore and is on the WFS national board of directors.
On her own, Ms. Allen tried AA, but it didn't work for her. Then in 1979, "I found Women for Sobriety when I was watching 'Donahue.' In three months, I was sober. I couldn't believe it," she says.
Like AA, WFS is a self-help program that focuses on steps (12 for AA and 13 for WFS). In both programs, anyone who needs help is invited to attend meetings that are free (although a small donation of $1 or $2 is suggested).