Reflection: Retrospective on Prohibition and women’s suffrage

By Lane Hedrick, F/G Scholar

The 1920s are closely regarded as a time of both social strife and social reform, specifically for women, because of women. In 1919, women’s temperance movements across the nation were largely successful in passing the Prohibition Act – banning the sale of alcohol, as well as its manufacturing and transportation. In 1920, the Women’s Suffrage movement happily saw passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave white women the right to vote.

As the centennials of each political milestone are nearing, it is immensely important to reevaluate how we should celebrate and talk about them. In this reflection, I hope to analyze the level of progressiveness of each movement, as well as the success that women individually found within them before reviewing how we should respond one hundred years later.

In modern classrooms and discussions surrounding history, talk of the Prohibition Movement brings commentary on Al Capone, mobs and gang violence, and underground distilleries. Yet, I’ll admit, before this course I did not even know that Prohibition began with advocacy against alcohol from women. Women’s Temperance Movements, the main actors behind Prohibition, centered their arguments against alcohol on morality and domestic violence.

Many successful temperance movements, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, viewed alcohol as a sin – a beverage and social activity that encourage immoral and sexual behavior within men. They focused on preserving the familial unit, which, if broke, could result in a fragmentation of American society. Yet morality was coupled with discussion on domestic abuse, as well. Several speakers spoke out about themselves and/or their children being tormented by drunken husbands after late, alcohol-filled nights. Their stories were relevant and impactful for legislators.

While we mock Prohibition today, there was a central tenant of progressive value found in the movement, specifically in light of claims of domestic abuse. In 2018, especially as we are overwhelmed with Brett Kavanagh’s nomination and the #MeToo movement, we often forget that sexual violence occurs within marriage and the home as well. Like women understood 100 years ago, we should understand now. According to the World Health Organization, in cases where women have been brave enough to speak out against their husbands, perpetrators have been estimated to have consumed alcohol 55% of the time. Perhaps this was the ultimate advocacy issue during Prohibition and women were too afraid to used it as their only form of leverage. Regardless, as we enter the centennial of Prohibition, we should recognize this aspect of the movement and reconsider how we approach it today.

The Women’s Suffrage movement also shed light on issues pertaining to women, although in a much different way than Prohibition. Women had fought for a voice for over one hundred years, and in 1920 the time finally came for (white) women. In August 1920, the Supreme Court passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution declaring, “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.”

Yet, it has been noted time and time again by intersectional feminists, that the Women’s Suffrage movement was inherently racist because it only sought suffrage for white women. In the article “How to Celebrate a Complicated Win for Women,” Ann Gordon questions the movement and how feminist it truly was. It also is important to remember that around the same time, the KKK was entering its second era. WWI had just ended, and white supremacist groups were thriving off racism and xenophobia from immigrants coming to the United States. This time period is immensely problematic considering its historical context, as is the movement. However, because it set the stage for suffrage for all, we are forced to think about its implications.

As someone who has worked in a cultural heritage site, I am aware of how seriously the centennial of Women’s Suffrage is. Historic houses, museums, and other heritage sites are already planning how they approach celebration of the movement. Gordon’s previously mentioned article asks how we should reconcile with Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s racism as it relates to her activism. As the centennial quickly approaches, I think that we should frame it in two ways: 1) it was a powerful movement that enlisted large amounts of support and polticial activism, while 2) it also had distinctly problematic sentiments that should be talked about one hundred years later so that modern feminists can not only apologize for their history but also reevaluate strategies moving forward. In this way, while it will be much easier said than done, America can understand its past in order to provide a better future. Intersectional feminist organizations (even those not related directly to feminism as its main rallying call), like the Alliance for Justice, Black Lives Matter, and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, should all build campaigns to demonstrate such knowledge as well.

We cannot move forward as a country without addressing our problems from the past. As 2019 and 2020 approach, we should consider movements that were built by women and use them as a call to action to be better, do better, and teach better in modern America.

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