Monday, June 24, 2019
Mark Lawrence Schrad, Why Do we Blame Women for Prohibition?
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.
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.