Many women students do not consider their health or safety when indulging in their preferred drink, sometimes with longlasting effects. Michael Rance and Tallulah Habib speak to Dr Margot Beard about her opinions on women drinking.
Dr Margot Beard is a Senior Lecturer in Rhodes University’s English department with some outspoken views on women drinking. Dr Beard was born in Johannesburg in 1947 and attended the convent in East London that is now Hudson Park High School, then studied Latin and English at Rhodes. She has been lecturing at Rhodes for 20 years with her research interests being primarily romantic poetry, nineteenth century poetry and prose. She is also interested in the early rise of feminist writings, including those of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. Beard is married with two children, and her husband was a professor of Politics here at Rhodes.
Q: What sparked your interest in female drinking?
A: Well, I want to assure you I am not a teetotaller. I enjoy drinking. I was concerned about a number of things with women drinking. The health issues, the feminist issues, the safety issues… They go into each other of course but it struck me as if binge drinking and women’s drinking is noticeably more apparent than it was when my children were at university which was about, you know, five to ten years ago.
Q: Do you know how much the average female drinks here at Rhodes?
A: I don’t, but I have some nice little statistics here about units. I know 14 units for women is the weekly limit. Apparently 8 glasses of rosé wine is 24 units. Four large glasses of white wine is 16 units. Ten vodkas and cokes – ten units. So 14 units a week would be four small glasses of wine, three vodkas and lemonade, two rum and cokes and two Smirnoff Ices. That would be for the whole week. I think most women students who drink a lot drink up to 40 units a week. That’s what research in England suggests – if you drink three times a week right through the evening that’s what you’re probably going to absorb.
Q: What are the short and long term effects that alcohol has on the female compared to the male body?
A: Well I think obviously we all know that women can’t absorb as much alcohol without showing some side-effects as much as men can. And it doesn’t seem to strike women that they cannot glass-to-glass with a man, you know, that it’s very dangerous. So there’s that. There are all kinds of implications in terms of health because apparently brain damage is done. In research they’ve discovered that [in alcoholic] women, you know, the amount of brain damage, is reached much more quickly in women. There all kinds of things like that. Long-term there is a risk of increased osteoporosis, there’s pancreatitis – you know there’re all kinds of things which are long-term. But apparently teenagers in Britain, teenage women, are showing signs of cirrhosis of the liver already and it’s usually something which develops in your fifties and sixties if you’re a drinker.
Q: What about the safety risks?
A: Absolutely. I mean that’s what really worries me is the safety issue for women because women are vulnerable, physically they are more vulnerable, they cannot say no. Literally she cannot say no. You know and she’s lying in the gutter with her legs open. I mean, it’s a very vulnerable position. So there’s obviously that sense of date rape. Also apparently when rape is reported, which is very rare, you know, statistically, the law courts take less note of the woman’s side of it if drink is part of the context. And I mean the HIV issue is of course a big one too. Because condoms are not going to be insisted upon when you’re drunk… too drunk to even bother with what’s happening. You know, there’s that.
Q: Why do you think the girls drink so much at Rhodes?
A: You know I think it is a sort of inverted feminism. I really think so and it makes me so cross because women have struggled for decades and centuries for equality and they’re certain women who now think that it’s right to ape male behaviour, to be one of the boys and I think what they are doing is that they’re aping the worst aspects of male behaviour. And it’s such a shame, you know, that women think that it’s, kind of, liberating to act like a man. And I’m saying a man because it has been the norm that men can, you know, drink, sleep around, that sort of thing. Because that’s what makes men men, you know. And I think that’s nonsense of course. But foolish women seem to think that that makes them more liberated, makes them more absolutely vulnerable and totally mindless.
Q: Considering your interests in the subject, have you been involved in any movements at Rhodes to curb the amount of drinking?
A: I have in the past given the SRC president some sort of data I’ve collected, you know, I’ve always spoken out. I’ve been on student senate, at committee meetings – I’ve always spoken on this issue. I’ve talked about the New Street problem, you know, the noise, the after-pub kind of behaviour, gives the university a very bad name. I’ve always spoken up on this sort of issue but it’s not seemed to have had much effect.
Q: What would you suggest, if it was a perfect world and you could control everything?
A: What I haven’t mentioned yet and what worries me increasingly is that it’s not just a feminist and health issue, it’s a social issue. I think in this country and in this town the expenditure on drink is quite immoral and shocking. And what I often think when I walk past the pubs and I see the car-guard ladies and scraping together a pittance to feed their families is that these bloody white, primarily white, students are just spending the enormous amount of money getting pissed. Now that is absolutely unforgivable in this country where there are people who don’t have food, don’t have shelter. And I think this is shocking for these matrons, these women watching these young, supposedly cream of society, getting blotto and wasting money like that. There’s nothing against having a drink but to really just to go out to get drunk, it’s stupid and wicked. I really do think so. And I just think it’s very awful where these women who are full of integrity and are struggling to watch these students vomiting on the streets, breaking glasses and you know whatever, screaming women, screaming, thinking it’s making them look attractive for some reason. I just think it’s so awful.
Q: What is your opinion on the stance that Rhodes takes against drinking?
A: Well, I think that… it’s difficult. I do think the university should take more cognisance of the effect on townspeople of the hooligan behaviour following drink. I think that there should be more pressure on the police, and the traffic police, to target drunken behaviour at night because I think that the students have been gone in the past away with it seems just warnings. I think the university should really publicly state more and more the fact that it disapproves strongly of students that bring the university into disrepute.
Q: You said that in the past five years you have seen an increase in the amount of female drinking. Do you think there is a particular reason for that?
A: I don’t know what it is because it’s happening elsewhere. Maybe if people wanted to read more and, you know, be more sort of intellectual it might prevent them from wanting to do things like that, maybe… you know I have also noticed fewer and fewer dedicated students around. I really do. I mean the sort of attention span and interest of students in intellectual things is a minority and I think the fashion not to be nerdish or intellectual is growing. I don’t know and it’s very sad for me. And I hate having zombies in my class on a Thursday morning! I just cannot stand it! You know people who have been out on Wednesday and I think now it’s not only Wednesday but Thursday, Friday, Saturday. And I mean I just find that totally insulting when people come with sort of dazed and glazed eyes and sit in their tuts. I just think “why are they are here, wasting the taxpayers money if not only their parents money and my time?” As a university person who values what I do I just find that totally obnoxious.
Q: Do you think that students who drink constantly at Rhodes leave Rhodes having a drinking problem, or gain a drinking problem later on in life?
A: I think some of them do. There is certainly damage done, and a lot of people can stop and say, “Enough is enough, I am sick of waking up in someone else’s bed not knowing who I am!” You know, I’ve read accounts like that where people do stop and the pressures of a nine-to-five job begin to tell, you know, where you cannot go in with glazy eyes into your job whereas you can in your tutorial. It makes me so angry… but I think that some damage is irreversible. And I think some people do become alcoholics. I think alcoholism has much more complex reasons, you know, but I think this is a problem.
Off The Point
Q: What do you drink with your dinner?
A: I love red wine. I try and get familiar with it because the flavours are just so different. I try and educate myself.
Q: Who’s your favourite author? Why?
A: Ian McEwan and Margaret Atwood. They write about issues that interest me, contemporary issues and they write very well.
Q: Favourite board game?
Q: Spots or stripes?
Q: 3 people for dinner – who would you invite?
A: Lord Byron, Margaret Atwood and Emma Thompson.
Q: If you could go back to one time period, which would it be and why?
A: Definitely the 1920s, I just love the fashion from that era.
Q: Favourite childhood game?
A: Hide and seek.
Q: Have you ever changed a tyre?
A: Yes, I have. It was the two of us, me and another woman.
Q: Favourite novel to lecture?
A: Midnight’s Children.