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The Surprisingly Complex Link Between Prohibition and Women’s Rights

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On Jan. 16, 1919, Nebraska became the 36th state to ratify the 18th Amendment, banning “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” Though Congress would spend the next year figuring out the technicalities before the guidelines for policing and enforcing the new reality went into effort, the era of Prohibition had begun.

A hundred years later, experts agree that the effects of this extreme 13-year effort to police morality can still be seen today. While it may have failed in its aims — and was repealed Dec. 5, 1933, via the 21st Amendment — Prohibition lives on in many ways, from cocktail culture to speedboat technology. But one of its greatest legacies is how, a century before the MeToo movement, it succeeded in making issues that women cared about part of the national conversation.

The social movement behind Prohibition had been brewing since the mid-19th century, and gender dynamics had always been part of it.

“Men would go to the tavern, drink away mortgage money, drink so much they couldn’t go to work the next day, beat their wives, abuse their children. That’s what launched the beginning of the temperance movement,” Daniel Okrent, former Time Inc. editor-at-large and author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, recently told TIME.

This epidemic — particularly damaging at a time when drinkers were more likely to turn to much stronger stuff than drinkers do today — was illustrated by a series of eight illustrations, avidly circulated by temperance activists, called “The Bottle,” by British caricaturist George Cruikshank. Published in 1847, the sixth shows the “brutal violence” that is the “natural consequences of the frequent use of the bottle,” and depicts a husband getting ready to punch his wife. The seventh shows people gathered around the wife’s body, captioned, “The husband, in a state of furious drunkenness, kills his wife with the instrument of all their misery.”

Frances Willard, later President of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (sometimes referred to as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union), spoke of the problem in a 1874 speech known as “Everybody’s War”: “Try to fathom the unfathomable lessons of these words: a drunkard’s wife. There is a war about this in America, a war of mothers and daughters, sisters, and wives.” She described how a man goes to a bar and “loiters away his time” and “fritters away his earnings” and then goes home, “to the house where he is best loved, to the best friends he has in the world, where they love him better then they do anybody else. Yet upon that wife that loves him so well and little children clinging about his neck, he inflicts atrocities which imagination cannot picture and no tongue dare describe.”

In 1900-1901, in a more dramatic illustration of this point, temperance activist Carry Nation, whose first husband was an alcoholic who couldn’t work, became so fed up that she took a hatchet to everything behind bars in Wichita, Kans. — beer bottles and barrels, so beer “flew in every direction.” The infamous event was laughed off by some, but she began writing op-eds so that the public could see she wasn’t “insane,” as she later wrote. She also started Hatchet Hall, which took in battered women.

And Americans today are likely to recognize the names of the most famous temperance activists not from that work but from their efforts for women’s suffrage — not that those two weren’t connected. In 1853, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded the Women’s State Temperance Society in upstate New York. Stanton would even refer to alcohol as “the unclean thing.” It became clear to them that giving women the right to vote was only way they could ban alcohol. As Anthony put it in 1899, “the only hope” for Prohibition was “putting the ballot into the hands of women.”

In that way, the Prohibition and women’s suffrage went hand in hand, with the latter actually happening when the 19th Amendment was ratified seven months after Prohibition went into effect on Aug. 18, 1920.

And once the women of the temperance movement got their way, with the 1919 passage of the Volstead Act outlining implementation of the 18th Amendment, a woman enforced it: the 32-year-old assistant U.S. Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt.

As the highest-ranking woman in the federal government back then and one of the first women appointed to a sub-Cabinet position, she oversaw Prohibition through three presidential administrations. The media called her “Prohibition Portia” and “Mrs. Firebrand,” and she made the cover of TIME in 1929. She didn’t come from a temperance background and didn’t make statements linking Prohibition to feminism, but she acknowledged the key role that women have played in ridding society of vice. “Women must use the scrubbing brush and soap,” she said in a 1924 Buffalo Enquirer article headlined “Women Alone Can Rid Cities of Vice, Says Women Asst. Atty. Gen.”

“She was regarded by the establishment in D.C. as [doing] a woman’s job on the basis that women had been the primary movers and shakers in getting Prohibition enacted, and therefore a woman should be in charge of it. And in a very cynical way, men wanted to hang it on women if it failed,” says John Schuttler, co-author of Liberated Spirits: Two Women Who Battled Over Prohibition.

In fact, this job she was forced to take prevented her from getting her dream job. “[The] opposition of the wets [those who favored repealing the 18th Amendment] kept me from being appointed as the first female federal judge,” she later told the American Bar Association.

But not every woman was a Prohibition supporter. As women were increasingly being arrested as bootleggers and speakeasy hostesses, Willebrandt advocated for the building of the first federal prison for women.

“Part of her argument was that some of these women are doing this because they don’t have any other thing they can do — their husbands have left them or they’re looking to make extra money for the home, and we need to treat them better than they’re being treated,” says Schuttler.

By the late ’20s, it became clear that Prohibition was almost impossible to fully enforce. On a basic level, Willebrandt didn’t even have control over the Prohibition agents, who worked out of the Treasury Department. Drinking was still happening widely in speakeasies, and crime was getting worse with the development of the crime syndicates. And once again, women turned the tide.

In 1929, New York socialite Pauline Morton Sabin founded the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR), which mobilized women, many of whom were lifelong Republicans, to vote for Democratic candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, because he favored repealing the 18th Amendment. Addressing the WONPR’s second annual convention in April 1931, she vowed to enlist “an army of women so great that its backing will give courage to the most weak-kneed and hypocritical Congressman to vote as he drinks. Women will prove to them that the ballots of an aroused people are irresistible in the achievement of a fundamental project.”

It wasn’t her first foray into politics. She had already become New York’s first female representative to the Republican National Committee in the 1920s, served as a Republican National Convention delegate, and started the Women’s National Republican Club, one of the oldest associations of Republican women. Politics was also in her blood. She was the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Navy and granddaughter of a former Secretary of Agriculture. (She was also a niece of the Morton Salt company founder.)

In the authorized history of WONPR, Women and Repeal, Grace Root (daughter-in-law of former Secretary of State Elihu Root) imagined America’s husbands thinking, “What have you done to my wife, Mrs. Sabin? She now insists upon reading the editorial page before she will pour my breakfast coffee!” As Okrent puts it in Last Call, the fact that Sabin was elegant and refined showed women it was socially acceptable to speak up, while also showing that women don’t all vote the same way.

“Pauline Morton Sabin’s view is we essentially brought this upon American women and therefore it’s our responsibility to get it tossed it out. People have to see women don’t want this,” says Schuttler.

Willebrandt and Sabin “really did change women’s view of themselves in politics and men’s view of women in politics and what they could and couldn’t do,” he adds. “When they saw what Sabin could do by marshaling this army of women, men had to think a lot more seriously about how they were trying to use women to bolster their own vote counts, and that was part of what Sabin was trying to say also. Not just, ‘Women need to take [Prohibition] away because we brought it,’ but, ‘Look at what we can do without your help, and you should be nervous about that.'”

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com