Women campaigned for Prohibition—then many changed their minds

Flush with the accomplishment of winning the vote, some women focused their newfound political power on reversing the Constitutional ban on alcohol.

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Pauline Morton Sabin, one of the leaders of the anti-Prohibition movement, is held aloft during a 1932 demonstration at the U.S. Capitol to repeal the 18th Amendment.

Photo by Keystone-France:Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

In late October of 1931, some 18,000 laborers, fraternal organization members, and veterans took to the streets of Newark, New Jersey. Their cause, stated simply on the signs they carried, was clear: “We want beer.” It’d been 11 years since Prohibition had begun—and since the protestors or their fellow Americans had enjoyed a (legal) drink at their neighborhood saloons.

Flag-waving men with their starched-collared shirts and irreverent signboards became the iconic image of the anti-Prohibition movement. Yet the people who led this march—and indeed much of the movement to repeal the 18th Amendment—were not men in ties and long coats. They were some of the very same women who had supported Prohibition in the first place—and who had won the right to vote the same year it was enacted.

Anti-alcoholism had long been seen as a woman’s cause. A century before the 18th Amendment became law in 1920, women had begun joining church groups to preach the ills of alcohol. They had reason to be concerned. Alcoholism was rampant throughout the 19th and early-20th century, especially among men: At its peak in 1830, the average American's liquor consumption reached the equivalent of 90 bottles of vodka per year. Women paid the price. Barkeepers would cash men’s checks, allowing them to deplete their savings on alcohol and sometimes forcing their families to go hungry. Alcoholism also contributed to widespread domestic violence. (Discover humanity's 9,000-year love affair with booze.)

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Members of the Women's Organization on National Prohibition Reform prepare to set out on a motorcade through New York State urging the repeal of the 18th Amendment.

Concerned about their safety and what they saw as alcohol-induced social ills, some women began to craft anti-alcohol campaigns that would reach beyond their churches and appeal to the mostly white, all-male electorate. Alcohol was tearing families apart, argued groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which was founded in 1874. Prohibition would provide what they called “home protection.”

Though women’s support for temperance was strong across races, some leaders of the mainstream movement valued political expedience over solidarity, and used racist messages to make their case. One WCTU state director called alcohol a “racial poison” capable of destroying the white family. Frances Willard, the organization’s national president, claimed that alcohol fueled “great, dark-faced mobs” who threatened the safety of white women and children. (She was expertly taken to task for this comment by activist Ida B. Wells, who pointed out that Willard was long silent about the white mobs who lynched Black Americans.)

Eventually, temperance proponents realized that what they needed was enfranchisement. With the vote, the thinking went, women could prohibit alcohol and protect the (implicitly white) family. In many states, the women’s temperance movement became almost synonymous with women’s suffrage.

For that reason, liquor industry leaders lobbied mightily against suffrage. But in 1920, both the temperance women and the suffragists were victorious. That year, the 18th Amendment (prohibiting the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors”) and the 19th Amendment (declaring that the right to vote could not be denied “on account of sex”) became enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. (Black women still had to fight for the vote after the 19th Amendment passed.)

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It would be a massive understatement to say that the 18th Amendment had unintended consequences. Rather than erasing widespread drunkenness, Prohibition sparked a rise in crime and corruption. Saloons were supplanted by speakeasies, complete with secret passwords and off-the-menu hooch. Deadly organized crime ran rampant in cities and small towns as moonshine developed into a lucrative underground industry. The Great Depression only made things worse. The federal government spent a fortune trying in vain to enforce Prohibition, while simultaneously losing the potential revenue from taxing alcohol. (Meet the female sheriff who led a Kentucky town through Prohibition.)

In 1929, New Yorker Pauline Morton Sabin, the daughter of a railroad executive, decided she had had enough. Like many wealthy, white mothers, she had initially supported Prohibition because she thought it would be good for her sons. But the opposite proved to be true: Unregulated speakeasies freely serving alcohol to young people. To combat the problem, Sabin formed the bipartisan Women’s Organization on National Prohibition Reform.

“She, and by extension her organization, argued that Prohibition was a failure and actually ended up worsening the situation of youth and children, who she thought were now more likely to be exposed to alcohol and crime,” says Alison Staudinger, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. “It was essentially ‘home protection redux’—except this time in opposition to federal Prohibition.”

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Supporters of the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform pose in Washington, D.C., in front of signs stating the case for repeal.

A skilled organizer, Sabin published articles and toured the country speaking to women in support of the anti-Prohibition cause, often to sold-out crowds. “Her wealth and charm were a boon to her work,” says Staudinger. She even made the cover of Time magazine. By Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, her organization had well over a million members.

Fellow New Yorker M. Louise Gross—working class, college educated, and single—took a more radical approach. In 1922, Gross created an all-women repeal club named for Molly Pitcher, a Revolutionary War hero who, as the legend goes, stepped in for her husband on the battlefield when he could no longer fight. “Gross and the Molly Pitchers were much more likely to argue on their face for the right of women (and others) to drink alcohol,” says Staudinger. “They also made arguments connected to ideas of personal liberty [and] constitutional rights.” (During prohibition, nightlife thrived at these clubs.)

Though the organization was relatively small, the Molly Pitchers helped to overturn a New York State Prohibition enforcement law. In a 1930 speech, Gross said that the government’s prohibition of alcohol was an overreach. She pleaded with enfranchised women to use their newly earned vote to elect congressional representatives who would overturn the 18th Amendment.

Even Sabin, with her privileged social position and palatable arguments of “home protection,” ended up explicitly advocating for women’s place in politics. Her group built on the momentum of the 19th Amendment, imploring women through pamphlets and posters to engage in the political process. One such message: “Have you impressed upon your senators and congressmen that you demand unqualified repeal? … as citizens—as voters—it is our job.”

On December 5, 1933, Prohibition was overturned. Breweries immediately sprang back to life (with beer readied for sale). Bars became neighborhood fixtures once again. And women across the country raised a glass to their accomplishment.

Anti-prohibition men had been “defeatist,” explained William Stayton, a repeal advocate quoted in a Baltimore Sun article titled “Man Who Really Busted Prohibition Gives All Credit to the Opposite Sex.”

“The women knew better,” Stayton said. “When they went to bat for the 19th Amendment more than 13 states were against them, but they won nevertheless. They believed from the start that they could win again, and they were right.”

Katie Thornton is an essayist, podcast producer, and public historian. You can follow her on Instagram at @itskatiethornton , and hear her audio documentary about the intersections—and limitations—of the mainstream suffrage and temperance movements on her website.