On January 20th 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - which banned the production, transport, and sale of alcohol - went into effect. Among the many Americans rejoicing at the passage of Prohibition that evening, was one Pauline Sabin. 

Sabin, a wealthy WASP socialite, who was New York’s first ever female member of the Republican National Committee, foresaw many positives to an alcohol-free society. Like many American women, Sabin viewed alcohol as a threat to the morality of her family, particularly her two young sons, and, in her own words, Sabin believed that “a world without liquor would be a beautiful world.”

Quickly, however, Sabin and many others realised that such utopian hopes were misplaced. Prohibition, it seemed was creating more problems than it solved. Looking around at the increased crime and disrespect for law and order in the country, Sabin came to the conclusion that Prohibition was actually creating a worse world for her sons as opposed to the beautiful world she had once imagined. 

By 1929, convinced of Prohibition’s failure, Pauline Sabin formed and led the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR). An organisation that quickly accrued over 1.5 million members and led the charge to repeal Prohibition. 

Women had played a crucial role in Prohibition’s passage and much to everyone’s surprise they would play an equally important role in its eventual repeal in 1933.  

Prohibition would throw up many such surprises throughout the thirteen years it remained on the books and many of its failures still hold important lessons for our society today.  As such, on this episode of American History Too, we aim to answer a simple question:  Why did American Prohibition fail?

Reading List

David Kennedy, Freedom From Fear (1999)

David E. Kyvig, “Women Against Prohibition,” American Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Autumn, 1976), 465-482.

Mary Murphy, “Bootlegging Mothers and Drinking Daughters: Gender and Prohibition in Butte, Montana,” American Quarterly, Vol.46, No.2 (Jun., 1994), 174-194.

Michael Parrish, Anxious Decades (1992)

Kenneth Rose, American women and the repeal of Prohibition (1996)

Wendy Sarvasy, “Beyond the Difference versus Equality Policy Debate: Postsuffrage Feminism, Citizenship, and the Quest for a Feminist Welfare State,” Signs, 17:2 (Winter, 1992), 329-362
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