Why Do We Blame Women For Prohibition?

Why Do We Blame Women For Prohibition?


One hundred years ago this month—on January 16, 1919—the 18th Amendment was ratified, enshrining alcohol prohibition in the U.S. Constitution. And for the past hundred years, we’ve largely blamed women for that. Why?
With the obvious exception of the women’s rights movement—from suffragism to #MeToo—perhaps no other social movement in American history is as synonymous with women as temperance, and none is as vilified. Histories dismiss prohibition derisively as a “pseudo-reform … carried about America by the rural-evangelical virus,” and a “wrongheaded social policy waged by puritanical zealots of a bygone Victorian era.” We describe prohibitionists in the same way we talk about Al Qaeda or ISIS: They were “ruthless” “extremists,” “deeply antidemocratic” “fanatics and fools,” who posed a “threat to individual freedoms.” These evildoers are almost universally understood to be women.Story Continued Below

The standard trope back in the 1920s, when prohibition was in full force, was that the policy was “put over while the boys were away” fighting World War I—if only the men had been home, prohibition would have been avoided. Surprisingly, this gendered conspiracy theory has endured, despite being completely unfounded. There was no popular referendum on 18th Amendment, and most women couldn’t vote anyway since, chronologically, the 18th Amendment came before the suffragist 19th Amendment. (A handful of western states granted women full voting rights before the 19th Amendment.) The only woman who voted for the 18th Amendment was Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the country’s first—and at that time, only—congresswoman. In 1918, hers was but one of the bipartisan supermajority of 282 yeas (to 128 nays) in the House that passed the prohibition amendment. In the all-male Senate, the vote to submit the amendment to the states for ratification was even more lopsided: 65-20.
In January 1919, the 18th Amendment was the first order of business for many state legislatures elected in the 1918 midterms. With unprecedented speed, 46 of the 48 states voted for prohibition, in some cases unanimously. With 80.5 percent of state legislators in favor (5,033 to 1,219), support for prohibition was even greater at the state level, where 99.8 percent of representatives were men.
Well, if not the vote—one might protest—then surely the temperance movement itself was women’s work? Think of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)—or one of its greatest celebrities, Carrie A. Nation. She famously led bands of women into Kansas saloons, smashing them with hatchets, singing Bible hymns and quoting scripture! As her celebrity rose, she even trademarked the name “Carry,” in order to coin the phrase “Carry A. Nation for prohibition.”
Anecdotally, I’ve long asked colleagues, students and historians: “Who’s the most famous prohibitionist?” The answer is Carrie Nation, every time. Little wonder: Today, she plays a starring role in virtually every temperance history, features prominently in Ken Burns’ documentary “Prohibition” and was the first personality you’d meet at the prohibition exhibition at the National Constitution Center. Carrie Nation embodies everything we think we know about prohibitionists: a scorned, white, protestant, evangelical, Midwestern woman. She was imposing in stature, prone to violence and—claiming God spoke to her, urging her to attack saloons—slightly unhinged. In sum: the perfect Maleficent for American historians.
The only problem is that Carrie Nation died in 1911, almost a full decade before the 18th Amendment was ratified. So why do we blame her for something that happened years after her death, while exonerating those directly responsible for prohibition? Why do we remember Carrie Nation, but forget the “father of prohibition” Neal Dow? Or Anti-Saloon League “dry boss” Wayne Wheeler, who in 1922 was described as “the man who is as much or more than any other single person, directly responsible for the able leadership bringing prohibition”? Or Andrew Volstead, the man whose name is on the prohibition-enforcement act? Based on Google’s Ngram dataset of over 500 billion words from some 15 million digitized books, we can chart the notoriety of individuals over time. The data suggests that, since prohibition’s repeal in 1933, the men responsible for prohibition have begun largely to vanish from history, while the image of Carrie Nation endures.
The Forgotten ProhibitionistsYearly frequency of names mentioned in Google’s corpus of digitized books, 1900-2000.

If you asked me, I would say progressive stalwart William Jennings Bryan was the most famous American prohibitionist. He fought vehemently against the liquor traffic where rich capitalists got richer by getting workers addicted to booze. “The Great Commoner” had far more political clout than Carrie Nation. Or consider Frederick Douglass—perhaps the most famous orator of the 19th century, back when abolitionism was virtually synonymous with temperance. On his temperance tour of Britain in 1845, Douglass, who, like Nation, died well before nationwide prohibition was passed, claimed, “If we could but make the world sober, we would have no slavery. Mankind has been drunk.” In his autobiographical Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: American Slave, he explained that keeping slaves stupefied with liquor was “the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection” on the plantations.
Such details largely disappear from contemporary biographies, perhaps because they don’t fit our image of temperance as an angry, white, female, Bible-thumping crusade against individual liberty. While their political legacies are obviously variegated, Frederick Douglass, William Jennings Bryan and Carrie Nation all held the exact same positions on abolition, suffragism and prohibition. Yet even the titles of their biographies belie their differential treatment by historians: Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. William Jennings Bryan: A Godly Hero, or Champion of Democracy. And Carrie Nation? Vessel of Wrath. Historians give William and Fredrick a free pass for their role in prohibition along with Neal, Wayne and Andrew; we’re told that Carrie is the real villain.
So, why do we blame women for prohibition? Misogyny is the easy answer; but more fundamentally, we need to better understand not just who the prohibitionists were, but what motivated them in the first place. Perhaps they weren’t the “deeply antidemocratic” monsters that we now make them out to be.
Contrary to popular description, prohibitionists weren’t hellbent on taking away the individual’s “right to drink.” From its very inception, the temperance movement targeted not the drink, or the drinker, but the drink seller. Just as abolitionists objected to the slave trader who profited from subjugating others, prohibitionists aimed at a predatory liquor traffic of wealthy capitalists and saloonkeepers who—together with a state that, before the income tax, relied disproportionately on liquor revenues—got rich from the drunken misery of the poor. The 18th Amendment doesn’t even outlaw alcohol or drinking. It prohibits the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” This wasn’t some oversight; the target was the traffic, not the booze.

Wikimedia Commons

Prohibitionists were very clear about this. The 18th Amendment was very clear, too. That we have a hard time believing it today—scoffing that outlawing booze or booze sales has the same practical outcome of restricting the rights of the individual—says more about our changing understandings of liberty than theirs. It is only in more recent generations (with the rise of Hayekian neoliberalism after World War II) that any interference with the free market is deemed a constraint on our citizenship rights. For most of American history, political liberty and economic liberty were understood to be distinct from each other. There is no “right to buy” anywhere in the constitution.
Ultimately, we need to stop vilifying prohibitionists as “antidemocratic” simply because our understanding of liberty has changed. In fact, prohibitionists championed the right of self-determination, and the right of the community to defend itself against extortionate businesses and government corruption. Prohibitionists encouraged grassroots power—especially for communities, counties and states to vote themselves dry at the ballot box. Such Jeffersonian commitments made prohibitionists natural allies of abolitionists and suffragists from the very beginning. (Prohibitionists who cheered the 18th Amendment’s ratification in 1919 also cheered when the 19th Amendment gave women the vote the following year.) At its core, prohibition was a populist attack against predatory capitalism and its corrupt ties to government power.
It was no fluke that the ultimate victory of prohibition came at the high point of the Progressive Era: like other reforms of its day, prohibition was fundamentally progressive. Prohibition protected consumers from unscrupulous sellers of potentially dangerous substances, just like the progressive Pure Food and Drug Act, and Federal Meat Inspection Acts of 1906. Prohibition targeted the corrupting power of big business, just like the Federal Trade Commission Act and Clayton Anti-Trust Acts of 1914.
Moralizing Bible-thumpers like Carrie Nation were only one part of a broad prohibitionist coalition. Focusing only on activists like her, though, produces a wildly incomplete picture, which our brains try to make whole by filling in the gaps with deeply rooted—and misogynist—social biases.
Centennials are a time for reassessment—and since prohibition’s centennial comes in the #MeToo era, it is high time to unpack our highly gendered received wisdom.

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