Florence Rankin

Florence was the first woman to get sober in AA, even for a short time. She came to AA in New York, in March 1937. She had several slips, but was sober over a year when she wrote her story for the Big Book.  (Silkworth.net, Biographies, “A Feminine Victory”)

A Feminine Victory

“I am praying for inspiration to tell my story in a manner that may give other women who have this problem the courage to see it in its true light and seek the help that has given me a new lease on life.” (BB, 1st Edition, p. 217) This is the noble sentiment expressed in the very first paragraph of A Feminine Victory, the only story of a woman alcoholic in the 1st Edition of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Florence would not believe she was an alcoholic – “my mind simply refused to accept it. Horrors! How disgraceful! What humiliation! How preposterous! Why, I loathed the taste of liquor – drinking was simply a means of escape when my sorrows became too great for me to endure.” (BB, 1st Edition, p. 217)

Her husband was a drinker and had been “a man Bill knew on Wall Street.” (Silkworth.net) “He had always been a drinker; I had never known anything about it until I was almost thirty years old and he gave me my first drink.” (BB, 1st Edition, p. 220) Florence thought the various misbehaviors of her husband were responsible for her own drinking, but when they divorced, she was the one who ended up in the alcoholic ward of a public hospital.

Progression

Florence’s drinking had started with parties, “speakeasies,” and cocktails after matinees. “Then came the morning when I had my first case of the jitters. Someone suggested a little of the ‘hair of the dog that bit me.’ A half hour after that drink I was sitting on top of the world, thinking how simple it was to cure shaky nerves. How wonderful liquor was, in only a few minutes my head had stopped aching, my spirits were back to normal and all was well in this very fine world.” (BB, 1st Edition, pp. 218-219)

Morning drinking increased in frequency and amounts to where she was making excuses at afternoon bridge parties, or luncheons, for having liquor on her breath. At evening parties she found the drink service too slow. Later she was cancelling events, and still later, “simply forgetting that there were engagements at all; spending two or three days drinking, sleeping it off, and waking to start all over again.” (BB, 1st Edition, p. 220)

There were periods of abstinence, that “would last anywhere from two weeks to three or four months. Once, after a very severe illness of six weeks’ duration (caused by drinking), I didn’t touch anything of an alcoholic nature for almost a year.” (BB, 1st Edition, p. 220) Suddenly, things were worse than ever.

Bill Wilson surely was drawing on Florence’s story when he wrote, “To be gravely affected, one does not necessarily have to drink a long time nor take the quantities some of us have. This is particularly true of women. Potential female alcoholics often turn into the real thing and are gone beyond recall in a few years. Certain drinkers, who would be greatly insulted if called alcoholics, are astonished at their inability to stop.” (BB, 4th Edition, p. 33)

Twelfth Stepped by Lois

When she ended up in Bellevue Hospital, her husband brought Lois Wilson to visit her “hoping that she could help. She did. From the hospital I went home with her. There, her husband told me the secret of his rebirth.” (BB, 1st Edition, p. 221) Bill may have been overly aggressive in selling her the “God idea,” and she resisted. Bill backed off, and Florence was sent off to stay with another alcoholic and his wife. A gentler approach led her to turn to God in a sincere and earnest prayer.

Unfortunately, what she only describes as “‘an incident’… put me on the toboggan again. I seemed to feel that the hurt of that incident was too great to endure without some ‘release.’” (BB, p. 222) This relapse prompted an in depth examination and confession of her fears, remorse and shame. Sadly, some time later, a rainy day worked its way into her mood and she wallowed in a case of the blues.

There was liquor in the house, and Florence was alone. Feeling the temptation, she started to read from the Bible and “Victorious Living.” She prayed. “In a half an hour I got up and was absolutely free of the urge to drink.” (BB, 1st Edition, p. 223) It somewhat detracted from this “miracle,” when she was drinking again a short time later.

On that occasion she called Lois, and ended up back at the Wilson’s for three more weeks. She finally gave up the notion of doing her own “fixing,” and was sober about a year when the book came out.

Ultimately, A Short-Lived Victory

“I know that my victory is none of my human doing. I know that I must keep myself worthy of Divine help. And the glorious thing is this: I am free, I am happy, and perhaps I am going to have the blessed opportunity of ‘passing it on.’ I say in all reverence – Amen.” (BB, 1st Edition, p. 225)

Regrettably, as the Big Books were rolling off of the Cornwall Press, Florence was again drinking.

The story of the woman who had argued vociferously against “One Hundred Men,” a title being considered for the book, eventually named Alcoholics Anonymous, does not have a happy ending. Florence had moved to the Washington D.C. area, where she was to have helped Fitz M. “Our Southern Friend.” There she met, and married, an alcoholic who unfortunately, did not stay sober. She started drinking again and disappeared.

In April 1943, “Fitz M. identified her at the morgue.” (AAHistoryLovers.com)

There is a much circulated story that Florence Rankin Kalhoun had committed suicide, but that is uncertain. The death certificate “does NOT state that her death was a result of suicide.” It was possibly meningitis, in an alternative view.

Florence had been born on December 17, 1895, making her three weeks younger than Bill Wilson. At the time of her death, she was 47 years old.


Key-Players-Front-Cover1-e1422583040318About the Author, Bob K

Bob K. lives in the Metropolitan Toronto area, and has been a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 24 years, and an out-of-the-closet atheist for that entire time. He has been a regular contributor to the AAAgnostica website for almost 5 years, and in January, 2015, published “Key Players in AA History” In 2013, he cofounded the Whitby Freethinkers meeting.

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  1. Eugene Lane May 20, 2019 at 2:56 pm - Reply

    Bob do you have access to verify if the statemnt on Silkworth about Marie Brae is True? It says “there is indication in Akron archives that Marie may have written the first draft of To Wives which Bill then edited.  If its in the archive and its true then why cant we get it brought out, Verified, and made public record. I have no access to do that but maybe you do….

     

  2. bob k May 19, 2019 at 4:00 pm - Reply

    Jane Sturdevant of Cleveland is indeed on the Amos List of February, 1938, as sober 12 months. Jane was the first woman to “have attained any length of sobriety – meaning a few months.” (Dr. Bob & the GO, p. 122) So, she DOES get credited at least SOMEWHERE as the first to get some sort of sobriety more than weeks. That she is unmentioned in the BB is no surprise. Bill and Co. were selling success, not failure.

    Marty Mann was Bill’s buddy. He spoke of her, unfairly, as AA’s first LONG term success. Sylvia deserved that status.

  3. Eugene Lane May 19, 2019 at 11:10 am - Reply

    In your book Key Players it quotes Dr Bobs list of successes written in early 1938 that Jane had 12 months sober and Florence not getting sober until early 1938.  Why isnt Jane considered to be the first woman with any time sober. Also From what I read online Sylvia clearly got sober long before Marty Mann and she stayed sober her whole life. Yet in many places Marty is stated as the first woman with ling term sobriety. Since Marty and Florence are from New York and Jane and Slyvis were from out west was New York trying to out shadow Akron?

  4. John S March 19, 2019 at 7:21 am - Reply

    That was really a nicely written story. I’m glad that Florence can be remembered as the pioneer that she was.

  5. John the Drunkard March 18, 2019 at 7:24 pm - Reply

    I thought I recalled an account of her relapsing after settling in Washington D.C. That would seem to be a while after the 1st edition Big Book came out.

    In the Pass it On biography, there is mention of a woman in New York killing herself. The novel September Remember, which came out in ’45, also talks about the New York fellowship being in shock over a suicide. The New York AA in the novel already has a substantial female presence, though there are description of ‘wives’ being obnoxious to alcoholic women.

    If Florence’s death certificate and/or autopsy doesn’t mention suicide, I wonder if her death hasn’t been conflated with the suicide in New York. I don’t have Pass it On at hand right now, but it may have mentioned her name. It wasn’t Florence.

    • bob k March 18, 2019 at 8:16 pm Reply

      Fitz M., New York AA # 3 was from the Washington area. He returned there in 1936, and was managing to stay sober on his own by making some efforts to recruit others, and by taking the train up to New York from time to time. My understanding is that Florence moved to the DC area in early 1939, BEFORE the book’s publication in April, not AFTER.

      I think it’s probable that Florence’s death was suicide. Relatives of the deceased often pleaded with sympathetic coroners to NOT list suicide as the cause of death. There was TREMENDOUS shame in that for people of a certain generation. Seventy-five and eighty years ago, the people getting sober had no idea that the events that were their current lives at the time, would one day be of great historical significance. We know little about those who stayed sober. Naturally enough, we know even less about those who drifted off track.

      • John the Drunkard March 20, 2019 at 8:36 pm Reply

        Checking in Pass it On today, on page 219 there’s a mention of the suicide of ‘Helen W.’, apparently in ’39. Florence died in 1943. Obviously, from what little we can access online, she may have killed herself, died of some direct alcoholic symptom (seizure, pancreatitis, hemorrhage etc.) or some other illness aggravated by alcohol damaged health.

  6. bob k March 17, 2019 at 1:42 pm - Reply

    Your kind words are appreciated. My digging didn’t produce much source information on Florence. AA’s failures get swept away, understandably. The average reader probably has not read A FEMININE VICTORY, so my short account will bring somewhat fresh information to most. You raise an interesting point about those who get it, and those who don’t. Clearly it was all harder for women, especially 80 years ago. Florence seems to have been more than a little neurotic. It’s particularly difficult for those folks to find peace of mind. I’ve experienced being in a relationship with a relapsing AA partner. That one almost got me drunk, and at the time that happened, I had a lot more days than Florence.

  7. Tomas L March 17, 2019 at 12:10 pm - Reply

    Thanks for a very interesting piece of AA history. I like learning about the diversity of experiences in the early days, as a counterweight to the myths of ”clear cut directions” and the trouble-free good old days. Maybe her story, especially the beginning where she reaches out to other women, is a clue why women’s meetings are an important part of AA. A woman would of course be a better judge than this man whether I’m right, but I think it is quite valuable to connect to people who are ”like me” in more ways than being an alcoholic.

    • bob k March 17, 2019 at 1:20 pm Reply

      It’s pretty clear that poor Florence returned to drinking right around the time the book was published. She may have been drunk when she flipped through the book the first time to find her personal story. Bill’s book-publishing partner, Hank P. seems to have been drinking again by Labor Day weekend. About half of those with stories in the book returned to drinking, and half of them, like Florence, were not re-redeemed.

      Alcoholics Anonymous has helped many people to overcome a problem that is remarkably resistant to treatment, BUT, it’s all been somewhat oversold. “Rarely have we seen a person fail, etc?” They need only have waited longer to see a bunch.

  8. Galen T. March 17, 2019 at 11:04 am - Reply

    Bob,

    Thank-you for your excellent articles on AA history and the colorful personages that have helped make it. Your compassionate survey of Florence’s life reminds us that not everybody not everybody who takes hold of AA stays sober. It is often so hard for me to know why some people stay sober and others don’t. This helps remind me that my own temporary “success” is both a product of deliberate action and a gift.

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