Prohibition, Suffrage, and Repeal

Notice the sobbing women and child being “crushed” by the weight of the drunkard

The early days of the 20th century have always fascinated me. If there were such things as past lives, then I have lived a life in that era. The end of the Gilded Age, the rise of the progressive era, into the Roaring 20’s and the Great Depression beyond industrialization had gripped our economy, bringing factory lines and waves of worker protests across the nation. Women were making their final stand for the right to vote and temperance had swept the nation. Then came mobsters and speakeasies, women driving cars and smoking cigarettes – the horror. Followed by repeal and the end of an era. All this change even trickled up to the Federal government, “…between 1913 and 1919, in the greatest burst of constitutional activity since the Bill of Rights, amendments establishing the income tax, direct election of senators, Prohibition, and woman suffrage were engraved into the nation’s organic law.” [1] Life was changing for the everyday people of the United States. But what does the 19th amendment – the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex – have to do with Prohibition (18th amendment) and repeal (21st amendment) thereafter, besides timing?   

LOT prizes
Look for the Libraries on Tap punch cards and win these great prizes!

This blog is a continuation of the women’s series that I have been working on this year, with the discussion of intoxicating liquids as an added twist meant to highlight some programming that we are holding throughout the FRL system. Libraries on Tap: Brewing Scavenger Hunt is a partnership that will span Jackson, Macon, and Swain counties joining Fontana Regional Libraries and local breweries, if only for the month of August. Throughout August there will be games and events at our partner breweries. Please visit these locations and FRL libraries to gather stamps to win prizes. For scavenger hunt punch cards and more information, stop by any Fontana Regional Library or partner brewery. Now back to the juicy information!

The 18th amendment – the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within … the United States … for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited –  was the first to pass. At this point, women did not have the right to vote, so how could they have really made an impact on the 18th amendment? Women and children were those most directly affected if the husband was afflicted by excessive drinking. During the mid to late 19th century, a common place for men to go after work was the local saloon. The saloon was more than just a place for drink. They were central to society, it is where connections were made, political discussions were had, and often where men found employment – especially recent immigrants. A central argument of the Anti-Saloon League against saloons was the view that immigrants were degrading our nation and the saloon was their meeting hall. Family life was affected, income was spent, husbands would come home intoxicated or not at all, and domestic violence occurred. What could women do? 19th century women had no real rights, especially when it came to issues like ownership (not just of land but of her own body and children), divorce, and a voice at the polls. If they were granted a divorce (which was rare in the case of domestic violence) there was the very real possibility that they would lose the right to their children. Woman would be relegated to her lot in life, or would she? Women decided to use the idea of the Women’s sphere to make a change in society and became the strongest proponents of temperance in order to to save the home and family life. Women created groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) which gave rise to leaders [?] like Carrie Nation and propelled temperance forward.

Carry Nation
From the Kansas Historical society, Carry Nations wielding her hatchet. This was most likely a staged photograph. By this point she was a nationally renowned lecturer and was very talented at marketing herself.


Women were to act as a moral compass for family and, in effect, society. They were to be the proprietors of the home and in charge of child rearing. They were certainly not supposed to go into public and make a stink. But Carrie Nation did just that. Carry A. Nation (interchangeable with Carrie Nation, she changed the spelling to Carry A. Nation to prove a point) was what one may call a spitfire. She was devoutly religious and rallied hard against all that she viewed as vice: promiscuous dress, smoking, and most vehemently, the evils of alcohol. The common historical image of her is holding a hatchet in arms against saloons, but that is not how she started her crusade. She had been a woman trapped in a marriage to a violent drunk and claimed that her daughter’s mental health challenges were caused by his drunkenness. She then married a minister and her zealous nature bloomed. Her first weapon of choice to force saloon keepers to shutter their doors was prayer. She would plant herself outside the saloon, praying loudly and singing hymns. Kansas (where she lived at the time) had passed statewide prohibition, yet in reality there was no enforcement of that prohibition. Carrie worked to propel the temperance movement in the United States and it is argued that she did more to actually close liquor establishments than any other group. Early in her quest she was a leader in the Women Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The WCTU was fearful of her methods yet accepted her success but never fully embraced her. Carrie took it upon herself to enforce the drying of Kansas and the nation. She soon became frustrated that prayer was not being effective at closing saloon doors. She looked to God for answers and God spoke. This is when she began her reign of destruction by using rocks, clubs, and crowbars to destroy saloons and pharmacies throughout Kansas. She would eventually evolve her tactics to include her hatchet that would come to define her legacy and would call her protests hatchetations – she was really great at clever names. Carry would go on to write a newsletter named The Smasher’s Mail, publish a paper named The Hatchet, become a prominent national lecturer, and a proponent of women’s suffrage. Carrie was very talented at marketing herself; she sold hatchet pins, books, and other trinkets to raise money to further her causes. People throughout the nation knew the name Carry A. Nation. Equivalent to going viral today, Carry stormed the nation.       

January 29th, 1919 the day the nation went “dry” 

Women in the late 19th century fought for all kinds of political and societal causes, even without the vote. Some decided to focus their energy on temperance, others focused on suffrage, and many of the older women started their political life with abolition. Whether the women worked for abolition, temperance, or suffrage, they all gained leadership abilities and speaking skills that were difficult for women to gain in other areas of society. Many groups on both sides of the temperance debate believed that the woman’s vote would be monolithic. We would come to find through time that there could be nothing further from the truth, yet for the suffrage movement this idea was both a curse and a blessing. Most suffragists privately believed in the temperance movement and personally backed such efforts but were very careful to keep the temperance discussion separate from the fight for women’s vote, at an organizational level. The suffragists did not want the power of the national Brewers Association or distillers to join forces against the right to vote. They were correct to fear, as the Brewer Association and distillery groups saw states where women had earned the right to vote pass prohibition laws. Yet the women’s vote was not monolithic and there were other states where women had the right to vote yet did not pass such laws. But the brewers and distillers saw this as a huge threat to the bottom line and they moved to block the women’s vote state by state. Unfortunately for them, they did not see the power in joining forces for a common fight. The Brewers Association actually lobbied against the Distillers by arguing that society’s true alcohol issues were the problem of high alcohol spirits, not the innocent beer. The Brewers Association even incited race hatred by saying that black men in the south were being influenced to attack white women by drinking “N— gin.” Appalling. The suffrage movement knew that they had an uphill battle, one that they had been fighting for decades, with incremental success. They had to publicly denounce the temperance/prohibition movement. Though suffrage groups like the National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA) had to stay out of the liquor fray for the good of the movement, they did seek the backing of prohibitionist politicians and of groups like the WCTU and the Anti-Saloon League. 

For the part of temperance the WCTU and the Anti-Saloon League looked to all groups that they could find to support and back the prohibition movement. They even started their own political party, the Prohibition Party, and have run a candidate for president every cycle since 1872. The only real serious contenders being from 1884 to 1920, they still run candidates today. “Prohibition could only be achieved by making common cause with other groups whose goals could be made to line up with its own, the ASL could be very accommodating. Soon its march to victory was propelled forward by three remaining groups to the dry coalition of convenience–the populists, the suffragists, and the nativists, who would push Prohibition into the Constitution with peculiar implements: a tax, a social revolution, and a war.” [2]

National Women’s Party continuing to protest even after Alice Paul and a number of other members were jailed. They eventually started a hunger strike which lead to the jailers force feeding them

Both prohibition and suffrage moved across this country state by state. Sometimes following on each other’s heels, sometimes at odds, but move they did until there was a strong national momentum to bring the issues to the federal level. Constitutional amendments for both issues had been introduced for a vote in Congress many times with the Elizabeth Cady Stanton amendment (19th) coming to vote 42 times before actual passage. When the 18th amendment finally made it out of committee, it was heard on the floor the same day as the 19th amendment. This was not a coincidence. The 18th amendment would go on to pass in Congress and be sent to the states to be ratified. The 19th amendment would fail in the Senate. So women’s groups went back to the streets with their powerful temperance allies and helped to flip the Senate. The 19th amendment would pass during the next congress. Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party protested, were jailed, and eventually were force fed during a hunger strike. The stories of these women finally swayed public opinion and Woodrow Wilson. There is a great historical fiction movie, Iron Jawed Angels, that does a great job of portraying these last moments of the fight for the 19th amendment.

The moral faction of the United States had won the victory of prohibition and women had the right to be a part of political discourse, so what went so wrong? And why would some of the women who had worked directly to implement prohibition make a hard turn and eventually be the strongest voices to repeal the 18th amendment?

The Volstead Act was passed shortly after Prohibition and was meant to be the rules and teeth of the 18th amendment that would in theory dry the country out. The 18th amendment made it illegal for people to manufacture, sell, or transport intoxicating liquor. What it did not do was criminalize the actual consumption of alcohol. The Volstead Act created glaring loopholes in the system by allowing for the use of intoxicating spirits in religious rites and medical/research capacities. There is a story in my family that my grandparents, who were courting each other during prohibition, would go on dates to multiple churches a night to drink the Sacrament. People found all sorts of ways to imbibe. The more industrious created rumrunning routes to import from Canada and the Carribbean or built stills in the hills to bootleg hooch. The era of gangsters and speakeasies was born. Suddenly what had started as a way to make a more righteous and safe society turned into a dangerous and sinful reality. 

Louis Capone (left) and Emanuel “Mendy” Weiss (right), American mobsters of the 1930s

Mobsters controlled regions and would kill to defend them. The mobsters made so much cash that they were able to buy off local liquor control boards and police officers. Some of the very men who were tasked with enforcing the Volstead Act got into the rumrunning game themselves like Roy Olmstead in Seattle Washington. One of the turning points of public support of the 18th amendment most likely originated from the hands of Al Capone with the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. Seven members of a rival Chicago gang were lined up and shot, execution style. This event sparked a gang war that ravaged through the streets of one of the largest cities in the United States. Innocent people were caught in the crossfire, people were horrified, and the police were ineffective in dealing with the situation. This piece of prohibition history is rich with intrigue and is fascinating to learn more about. If you are interested, there are a number of books that you can check out from the library; Prohibition Gangsters: the rise and fall of a bad generation is just one.

So we see that things didn’t work out as planned. Beyond the black market and rise of mobsters, proponents of the 21st amendment also argued that the blatant disregard of a constitutional amendment and federal law was degrading our entire system of law. Prohibition had been a losing battle from the beginning, with not enough money or teeth to enforce, but the Anti-Saloon and Women Christian Temperance Union was still an extremely strong lobby. Even though the citizenry in large numbers had turned their support away from the 18th amendment, no politicians wanted to stand against the prohibition forces. Luckily there were women who turned their focus to repeal. Pauline Sabin and her organization, Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR), would lead a charge to change the law. Sabin had been a proponent of prohibition but came to realize that it really did not dry the country and in fact, led the children of the nation to distrust the power of the Constitution. WONPR was led by high society women, giving credence to their movement, and women from around the nation joined in. They even converted some members of the WCTU to flip sides and join the moral fight to repeal prohibition. This was suddenly a different climate for women’s organizations from the fight for prohibition: they would now wield the power of the ballot. Yet they still would not vote as a monolithic group. No matter the support that they had gathered they still had to face the gun-shy legislature that was subservient to the outsized power of the prohibition lobby. Politicians knew that if they proposed the 21st amendment it would be the end of their career. Fortunately, written into our Constitution are two ways in which to amend. One route, and the only route taken up until the passage of the 21st amendment, is to go through Congress to ratification by the states. Or the people can call for a State Ratifying Convention. This takes the power, or in this case, blame, out of law-makers hands. The states individually vote to form a state ratifying convention. It must pass by ⅔ vote of the state legislature. They then send representatives to a state convention where the only purpose is to discuss and write an amendment to the constitution which, if passed by the convention, is then sent to Congress to be passed and ratified by the states. The 21st amendment to the Constitution is unique in two ways: it is the only amendment to be added by a state ratifying convention and it is the only amendment that repeals another amendment. 

This is a fascinating time and much has been written about it. Women had found their voice and they were using it; in to both implementing and removing prohibition, women played a central role. This topic is very rich with interesting characters and events–too much to talk about here but there are plenty of great books and movies that are at your local library. If you would like to learn more, please see the list below.

 [1] Okrent, Daniel. Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Scribner, 56

[2]  Okrent, Daniel. Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Scribner, 52


Carry (Carrie) A. Nation – such a fascinating women, I could write a whole blog just on her antics and life. 

“But I have done nothing but fight the saloons, the home-destroyers, and I can introduce myself as the loving Carrie Nation, the defender of the homes of this country.” 

“Mrs. Carrie Nation Guest of Salisbury.” Daily Industrial News, 30 June 1907, pp. 2–2.

Vessel of Wrath: the life and times of Carry Nation  by Taylor, Robert Lewis


Al Capone and mobsters – 

Prohibition Gangsters: the rise and fall of a bad generation by Mappen, Mark

Movies about mobsters – 

The Untouchables, with Robert DeNiro playing Al Capone

Road to Perdition, with Tom Hanks 

General Prohibition Era- 

Last Call: the rise and fall of prohibition, by Daniel Okrent, probably one of the best regarded books on the era and made into a Ken Burns documentary

Prohibition, did we say Ken Burns? Yes we did! Such a great documentary, I think I’ve watched it about three times. It’s about time to watch it again!


Iron Jawed Angels, a historical fiction movie following Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party

For the repeal-

Liberated Spirits: two women who battled over prohibition, by Hugh Ambrose, about two strong and fascinating women that made a mark on both the Republican party and the nation.