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  • Writer's pictureAlanna Grayce

#69: The Crossroads of Prohibition and Feminism

I’m coming to y’all this week feeling renewed in some ways, inspired in some ways, feeling more hopeful than I have in a while… and hopefully that will be represented in how awesome of a topic i think this is.

Today we are discussing the complex intersection of the Women’s Suffrage Movement with Prohibition in the United States.

In January of 1919, with Nebraska becoming the 36th state to ratify the 18th Amendment, the era of prohibition began. Congress would spend the next year working on the technicalities of guidelines and enforcement, but Prohibition would go on to last for 13 years and become some of the most infamous in American history.

Prohibition is where we got moonshiners like my great grandpa, who made the best shine in all the nearby counties, and original gangsters like Al Capone. It created the stuff of legends, of F Scott Fitzgerald books and modern movies. The roaring 20s were as such because of prohibition, and that’s why speakeasies were a thing- they’re super trendy right now too. The effects that Prohibition had on American culture and morality still stand- whether its the fact that the Dukes of Hazzard were running shine, that stock car racing and speedboats came from outrunning the cops while transporting illegal alcohol, or that cocktails were basically invented and popularized during this time.

HOWEVER, one of its most lasting but also surprising is that Prohibition was a part of women’s rights.

So since the mid-19th century (Allison, that’s the mid 1800s) women had been outspoken about alcohol and alcoholism. Men would go out to the tavern or the pub and drink away the rent or mortgage, drink away the grocery money, come home and beat their wives and children, maybe not even come home at all and then miss work the next day. That’s right y’all, you heard it here- men couldn’t handle their liquor and that’s why their wives got pissed and said if you can’t get your shit together, we’re taking it away from you. And they did.

A big part of the problem truly was that at the time, drinkers were more likely to turn to stronger products to become inebriated-

The media was absolutely used to further this- an 1847 set of illustrations by British caricaturist George Cruikshank shows the “brutal violence” that is the “natural consequences of the frequent use of the bottle,” wherein a husband is shown preparing to punch his wife, and in the next illustration, the wife’s body is shown, captioned that the husband “kills his wife with the instrument of all their misery.” The thing is- it’s true! The point is more than sound, it’s more than valid, it is absolutely one million percent accurate. And it was more than frustrating, and it was affecting more than a handful of women- i mean hell, it was bad enough that it got ratified INTO A CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT. One woman, Carry Nation, was a temperance activist and somewhere around 1900 or 1901 became so damn fed up with the whole situation that she went out back of bars in Wichita Kansas and destroyed their inventory with a hatchet. People laughed her off as insane, but she started writing op-eds saying I’m not insane, I’m pissed and I’m fed up.

And now, this is super interesting- Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton- like, the SUFFRAGETTES- founded the Women’s State Temperance Society in upstate NY in 1853. This is where the Women’s Rights Movement began for them in a lot of ways, because they realized that the only way to get alcohol banned was to allow women to vote. Men would never get rid of this thing that was helping them literally ruin their own lives and murder their wives and children; but women were sick and tired of being the victims. I don’t blame them one bit.

Ok and then- they get Prohibition passed first actually, then Women’s Right to vote next- AND THEN a woman was put in charge of enforcing it. What a girl power moment. 32 year old assistant US Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt was the highest-ranking woman in the government at the time and one of the first women appointed to a sub-Cabinet position- and then she oversaw prohibition through three presidential administrations. D.C. recognized that women had been the primary source of getting Prohibition enacted, and thus felt that a woman should be in charge of it. Which, if left there, is kind of nice? But they also wanted to be able to blame it on a woman if Prohibition should fail.

Even worse- they put this job on her to keep Mabel from being appointed the first female federal judge. And she was very keenly aware that this was put on her so that she could take the blame, but also to prevent her from achieving her dream.

To kind of add salt to the wound, the media def poked some fun at her, which is shitty, but Miss Walker was known as a Firebrand. She is quoted as saying “women must use the scrubbing brush and soap”- meaning it has been left to women to put a stop to these kinds of problems. It’s especially fitting, as alcohol was often referred to as “unclean”- so it had been left to women to clean up men’s messes.

Prohibition, and Mabel, also led to the building of the first federal prison for women, as well. She argued that women were running speakeasies and bootlegging to make extra money after their husbands left or this or that, and so these women deserved to be treated better when they were arrested.

In the late 20s early 30s, after 13 years of Prohibition, it had become obvious that it was impossible to fully enforce, plus crime rates were actually rising as it led to the creation of crime syndicates. It had been impossible for Mabel to even have a ton of influence on enforcement anyway, because the agents who were sent to enforce it worked for the Dept of the Treasury…. So tell me she wasn’t set up for failure. AND, since the Great Depression was setting in, the potential revenue via taxes and the possible new jobs by bringing the alcohol industry back was too good to pass up.

Once again, however, women changed history- New York socialite Pauline Morton Sabin founded the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, which encouraged women (many of whom were lifelong Republicans) to vote for FDR in 1932, because he favored repealing the 18th Amendment, mainly for economic reasons. I really wanted to know more about why Pauline was anti-Prohibition, because she very much seems the type of woman to not want other women to suffer. She’s literally an OG feminist icon in a lot of ways, we just don’t learn about her in our history books. Shocking. Anyway, she began to feel uneasy about Prohibition because she saw the hypocrisy of politicians who would support stricter enforcement, and not long after be drinking cocktails. In addition, the ineffectiveness of enforcement, the seeming decline of temperate drinking (meaning that people seemed to be drinking and partying harder now), and the prestige of bootleggers and crime syndicates were very troubling. Pauline said that women believed their children would grow up without the temptations and troubles of alcohol in their lives, but instead children were “growing up with a total lack of respect for the Constitution and for the law.” Which, yeah. Fair. Plus, saloon keepers were held to a certain age restriction in terms of selling alcohol pre-prohibition, and speakeasies clearly were not held to that same standard, so minors were able to drink without a problem. She saw that Prohibition was literally making the problem worse.

Pauline had an inexorable influence on American women- she showed that elegant, refined socialite women are allowed to read the news, to speak up about their opinions, and to make their voices heard. She also brought to the forefront the fact that women do not all vote the same way, which apparently was a shock. Pauline’s influence, as well as Mabel's, proved to male politicians that women have their own power, can act without their help, and that men need to consider the repercussions of that.

The 21st amendment repealed Prohibition in 1933, the first ever amendment to be fully repealed in its entirety. This allowed states to control their own liquor laws, which ultimately led us to different states having different drinking ages, different states having blue light laws (where you can’t buy alcohol on Sundays or before a certain time of day), etc etc. Drinking ages were eventually made a federal standard via a Supreme Court case but that’s a story for another day.

And so, my beloveds, that is how feminism and the Women's Rights Movement is directly correlated to the passage and repeal of Prohibition.

P.S. if you're that rude man from Insta who tried to mansplain to me that Prohibition is all about taxes, I hope you learned something.


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