“Mother’s Little Helper:” How Second-Wave Feminist Publications Warned Against Addiction

“Mother needs something today to calm her down

And though she’s not really ill, there’s a little yellow pill

She goes running for the shelter of her mother’s little helper.”

“Mother’s Little Helper” by the British rock band, The Rolling Stones, tells the story of a housewife who abuses Valium, a common benzodiazepine. While both men and women were addicted to minor tranquilizers in the 1960s and 70s – 35 million Americans were prescribed Miltown, another benzodiazepine, in 1956 alone – women were disproportionately prescribed these drugs (Metzl 241). Valium was prescribed to women at twice the rate of men (Cant 9). Hundreds of thousands of women in the 1960s and 70s were targeted by advertising and over-prescribed minor tranquilizers including barbiturates and benzodiazepines, which cause calming of the nerves, severe drowsiness, and ultimately, addiction.

This collection of texts from second-wave feminist publications – personal narratives, poetry, visual imagery, and relevant research – reveals their creators’ concerns about tranquilizer addiction and the subjugation of women through prescription medication.

The speaker of Anne Sexton’s “The Addict” becomes indefinitely numb. A Valium advertisement portraying the drug as a cure-all appears repurposed in a July edition of Everywoman as a warning. Readers of New Woman’s Times relate their personal stories of addiction, and an ex-psychiatrist explains how not to become “Princess Valium.” In a 1974 issue of Her-Self, research reveals that women are prescribed unrequested tranquilizers twice as often as men; in an issue published a year later, a poem’s narrator breaks free from Valium and rediscovers her will to fight the oppression that was prescribed, both by her doctor and the patriarchal society he represents.

– Brodie Leo

Works cited:

Cant, Gilbert. “Valiumania.” The New York Times, 1 Feb. 1976, p. 9. The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/1976/02/01/archives/article-16-no-title-americans-are-spending-almost-half-a-billion.html. Accessed 12 Dec. 2021.

“Mother’s Little Helper (Mono).” YouTube, uploaded by The Rolling Stones, Google, 10 Jan. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=OusADDs_3ps&ab_channel=TheRollingStones-Topic. Accessed 17 Nov. 2021.

Metzl, Jonathan. “‘Mother’s Little Helper:’ The Crisis of Psychoanalysis and the Miltown Resolution.” Gender and History, vol. 15, no. 2, Aug. 2003, pp. 240-67.