Lois Wilson: A Leader to Learn From
by Tom Adams
Wednesday, we explored the contribution of Anne Smith to the Twelve Step programs. Her marriage to Dr. Bob Smith, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, gave her a front-row seat in America’s struggle to find help for people dying from alcohol addiction. (We have subsequently learned that Anne’s birthday is incorrectly reported in some of the A.A. literature. Her correct birthday, validated by her birth certificate, is March 21, 1881. Apologies for the mistake.)
Today, we recognize Lois Wilson and her role supporting the birth and growth of A.A and Al-Anon.
Lois was married to Bill Wilson, the co-founder with Dr. Bob Smith of Alcoholics Anonymous. Just as Bill and Dr. Bob played different roles in the forming and early development of A.A., Lois Wilson and Anne Smith also led in different ways and had separate roles.
Lois was born March 4, 1891 into a well-healed New York family from Brooklyn. Anne was born in Oak Park, Illinois of middle-class parents and attended Wellesley College on a scholarship.
While Anne was quiet and known for her welcome and quiet service to hundreds of wives of alcoholics, Lois was more outgoing. She was the social glue that kept the couples who became the early A.A. members and spouses together. Lois studied occupational therapy, had a number of jobs to support herself and Bill, and enjoyed creative activities – gardening, interior decorating and writing among them. Once she and Bill finally had a home of their own in Westchester County, New York (in the town of Katonah), Lois looked forward to some “Lois-time”.
Prior to that, Lois had spent the first seventeen or so years of her marriage adjusting to and later trying to stop Bill’s out-of-control drinking. From his sobriety in 1935 up until 1939, she first ran what was in effect a half-way house for men that Bill was trying to help get sober in what had been her childhood home. When they lost that home because they were unable to keep up with the mortgage, they moved from home to home for two years until they purchased their own home in 1941.
Anyone who knows the story of Bill and Lois, or for that matter the story of any couple or family torn apart by the destruction of too much drinking by a loved one, can relate to Lois’ exhaustion and desire for a time out.
But Lois Wilson did not rest. After supporting Bill through the tumultuous first 16 years of A.A development, she devoted herself until her death in 1988, at the age of 97, to nurturing and growing Al-Anon as a resource and refuge for alcoholics and their families. Lois’s legacy, Al-Anon, celebrates its 70th anniversary this May.
There are many lessons for America and our world from Lois’ leadership and contribution to a better world for women, spouses and families of people with addiction problems.
What follows is an Opinion Essay depicting those lessons I wrote and which was published by the Baltimore Sun in celebration of Lois birthday. Follow the link to learn more about Lois Wilson and her amazing legacy and the lessons that we might apply to America’s current crisis of trust.
Lois Wilson: Lessons for today from an early woman activist
If we were paying attention, we learned a lot in February about little known Black leaders who are part of the long chain in the fight for freedom and equity. In the women’s movement, there is a similar chain of little-known leaders who have and are building the bridge to women’s equality. One of them is Lois Wilson, whose birthday we celebrate on March 4th.
Lois Wilson empowered millions of women and offered each a path out of the of a toxic, life-threatening relationship. She and her husband Bill, along with many others built a movement which is the largest and most successful self-help movement in the world.
Given such an amazing contribution, why don’t we know much about Lois Wilson? While that is an interesting question, an even more important one is what might we learn from Lois and the movement she helped lead about our way out of our current national leadership and trust crisis.
To continue reading, follow the link to the Baltimore Sun op ed.
Tom Adams writes on topics of recovery, spirituality, racial equity and leadership and their connections at thadams.com. He and a colleague Joy Jones are completing work on a book about the marriage of Bill and Lois Wilson. Sign up to receive Tom’s weekly posts at thadams.com.