Honoring Lois Wilson on her Birthday

Photo from aaagnostica.org on pinterest.com


This week we celebrate the life of Lois Wilson on her birthday, March 4. Lois is a 20th-century leader and co-creator of the Twelve Step movement. Without her, the path to recovery for people with alcoholism and other addictions would be very different and perhaps wouldn’t exist at all. Given this, one might wonder why so few people know much about Lois.  

We have spent the last five years actively learning about Lois and her husband Bill Wilson. Lois was married to Bills for 53 years. He was the co-founder with Dr. Bob Smith of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.).

 Lois was born in 1891, 133 years ago. She lived to be 97 years old, dying in 1988 seventeen years after Bill died in 1971. Lois was the co-founder of Al-Anon Family Groups, and among the first women in America to realize that family members’ health was drastically impacted by living with someone who misused alcohol or drugs. Her marriage to Bill, her commitment to A.A., and her work with families defined the life of Lois Wilson.

Bill Wilson had encouraged Lois to bring the wives of the early Alcoholics Anonymous members together and organize what he called a clearinghouse where they could connect and find support. A.A. was founded in 1935 in Akron, Ohio when Bill Wilson met Dr. Bob Smith. Husbands and wives attended meetings together in the early days of A.A.  

Initially, the women prepared refreshments for the men in the A.A. meeting.  Anne Smith in Akron, Dr. Bob’s wife, and Lois in New York, and women in communities as far west as San Diego, began to realize they needed to do more than brew coffee and commiserate. Even before Al-Anon was formed, groups of wives came together and spontaneously began discussing and writing literature about their experience of living with a person with a drinking problem. 

Bill and Lois met these women and visited these groups as they made trips to A.A. meetings around the United States in the 1940s. Bill had a practical problem. The A.A. office was receiving letters from groups of mostly wives of members who wanted to register as A.A. groups. While both Dr. Bob and Bill saw and supported the idea of helping both the person with the drinking problem and their spouse, they believed A.A. meetings needed to be a safe place reserved for alcoholics seeking recovery.  

Knowing the need, and wanting to support these groups forming around the country, Bill asked Lois in 1950 to consider bringing the women together. Lois had been living with a sober Bill for fifteen years. She had had her spiritual awakening and realized she needed to apply the same Twelve Steps to her life if she wanted to grow and get better. She and others had come to realize what has become a fundamental tenet of Al-Anon for family member recovery – the need to focus on herself and her behavior and not on the behavior of her spouse whether drinking or not.  

Despite this awareness, Lois at first resisted Bill’s invitation to bring the women together. She was a very talented woman with many interests. She lived through 17 years of hell when Bill was drinking. She experienced over two years of homelessness after Bill was sober until they got their first and only home in 1941. She was happy to focus on her recovery, her gardening, and enjoying life. She supported Bill Wilson and his crusade to help people with drinking problems all over the world.

After more discussion and some time, Lois agreed to convene a meeting of wives of alcoholics at her home in April 1951. She invited the attendees to discuss serving groups of spouses of A.A. members that were sprouting up all over America and Canada.

Think about the decision Lois and these founding members of Al-Anon needed to make. Each of them had to accept that their lives were a mess, “unmanageable” in Twelve Step terms.  To them, the obvious cause of their problems was their drinking spouse. But they needed to look past that fact and decide to focus on themselves. They were angry, sad and scared. Directing those feelings back towards the drinker was tempting but futile.  The drinker had to accept the need to change, and that it was his problem. The spouse had to accept the need to change herself even though it appeared the problem was someone else’s.

We have found Lois and other wives of the early A. A.members to be critical in shaping the Twelve Step movement. For that reason, we are finishing a book Bill and Lois Wilson: A Marriage that Changed the World to be published later this year. To help better introduce Lois and her contribution to the marriage and the Twelve Step movement, we will continue to periodically write about this topic.


  • Joy Jones
  • Tom Adams

    Tom Adams writes and speaks on topics vital to the intersection of our personal lives with our community and global lives. He has for decades been engaged in and written about nonprofit leadership and transitions, spirituality and spiritual growth, how we each contribute to a more just and equitable world and recovery from addictions and the Twelve Step recovery movement.

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