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Women of the Temperance and Prohibition Movements
Sage thinkers and armchair philosophers alike have mused on humankind’s inertia toward new ideas. Or, as a department store greeting card or kitschy bumper sticker might proclaim, that “the only constant, is change.”
Those people were not talking about booze. Alcohol abuse and addiction are perhaps society’s most enduring ailments.
As long as people have fermented or distilled intoxicating drinks, there’s been the dilemma regarding how to mitigate alcohol’s potential harms.
In (relatively) recent memory, equally enduring are the prominent men—Al Capone, James Cannon, Jr., Woodrow Wilson—with fingerprints all over the United States’ most drastic answer to alcohol addiction, federal prohibition.
But with Alcohol Awareness Month coming to a close next week, we highlight the intrepid women of the temperance and prohibition movements who fought an impossible fight but ultimately, somehow, managed to change the nation’s perception of alcohol forever.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WTCU) didn’t spring from Frances Willard’s brain, but her 1879 election to WTCU president did catalyze the group’s explosion into the largest women’s organization in America.
Alcohol abuse was always the WTCU’s grind—members would sing spirituals outside local saloons to inspire moral strength and change within those liquored walls—but Willard perceived alcoholism’s societal wreckage in dimensions surpassing her peers. Willard could adroitly connect alcohol abuse to suffrage and civil rights issues like women’s (lack of the) right to vote, domestic and sexual abuse, and women’s wage-earning power.
With Willard at the helm, the WTCU spearheaded more than 35 separate welfare initiatives across the United States.
Willard’s WTCU contributed more than moral fervor and momentum toward eventual prohibition. Under her stewardship, the WTCU laid bare for politicians and community leaders what Willard’s flock had known for years: that women can, and will, be heard in the public forum, and it will be a thunderous, ground-shaking roar.
Frances Willard was the nuanced ideologue impelling temperance and social reform in America. Carrie “Hatchet” Nation was not that. A firebrand and moral crusader, Nation was columnar fire from the mouth of an Old Testament God, destroying the saloons and brew houses spreading “the scourge of alcohol” across her native Kansas countryside. And destroy she did. Sticks, stones, clubs—whatever Nation could get her hands on became a scepter to smash bar tops and mirrors to bits, but her eponymous hatchet was always the weapon of choice.
Not that Nation ever had to scrounge for ammunition. Her antics quickly transcended the state of Kansas to capture all of America’s attention, so much so that zealous admirers across the country would frequently mail Nation rocks and bricks for hurling through saloon windows.
Whatever city Nation visited poured its citizens into the streets to adulate her and the prohibitionist fever she exuded.
Nation’s wave crested quickly, however, and the infamous rabble-rouser never lived to see prohibition enacted, passing away in 1911. But her indignation at the bilious American saloon set an emotional watermark for movement leaders to admire and strive to match. In that regard, Nation’s dream was realized nine years after her death—not with the swipe of an ax, but a pen—when Congress ratified prohibition in 1919.
Mabel Walker Willebrandt
In 1928, Mabel Willebrandt was something of a national paradox. She was the most illustrious woman in America, presidential hopeful Herbert Hoover’s bullhorn on the campaign trail against incumbent Al Smith (Hoover won, by the way). She was also, for many people in the country, at one of the least popular posts in government: the head of the federal prohibition enforcement agency.
Willebrandt embodied the rising dissonance surrounding prohibition in the late 1920s—and really, the debate of how to address alcohol abuse that’s simmered for millennia. She expressed fastidious attention to the law (that is, the Volstead Act) and a passion for upholding it. While many of her colleagues themselves would partake behind closed doors, Willebrandt converted to teetotal abstinence the moment she entered office, not on moral or medical principle, but professional tenacity. Her dedication won millions of wet and dry admirers alike.
In retrospect, Willebrandt’s career has become a symbol for the ongoing public struggle with alcohol abuse: the constant rally against a powerful social ill mired by an imperfect system. Each of these three women, though, contributed something crucial to Americans’ cultural ken and understanding of alcoholism—how we regard the drink and the families it inflicts. A clear answer to the problem may never surface. But we have these thought leaders to thank for asking the hard questions.
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