American Women Tell Their Story in New Documentary 'Prohibition'

From Carrie Nation to Zelda Fitzgerald, it was one wild ride

By Susan Toepfer
prohibition image
Female dancers performing the Charleston, 1926
Photograph: ©Scherl/Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/The Image Works

Novick: I have mixed feelings. What I didn’t understand was that she was marginal. The women in the temperance movement didn’t like her because her methods were unsound. But she thought, We’ve tried the system. The system doesn’t work for us. And she did have a tragic life, and tremendous problems due to alcohol from her first husband. It’s hard not to feel sorry for her. On the other hand, she talked about having a vision from God. She was a little frightening, messianic, and so extreme that she probably scared some people away from the mainstream movement. Then she went on the Vaudeville stage, smashing bars.

More: Really? As herself? This wasn’t an actress playing her?

Novick: That happened, too. But no, she herself went on the stage.

More: Unbelievable. But looking at the photos I kept thinking, you know, protest is by nature unsubtle. I don’t think a man would have gotten so much flack for smashing up bars with a hatchet.

More: Yes. I was talking to someone the other day, an African-American, and he was saying, sometimes civility doesn’t get you what you need. If what you’re protesting is so extreme, civil protest doesn’t get you anything. For sure she wouldn’t have become a figure of mockery if she was a man. Look at John Brown. It’s so incongruous, the idea of a woman that age breaking things.

More: I also was struck by how then, as now, a simple change of language can change the way people perceive a movement. When the temperance people started calling themselves “home defenders,” that put a rosy glow on it.

Novick: One-hundred percent. There was a lot of sincerity, but they were trying to sell the whole cause to women: We have to protect our homes. Somebody has to stand up for our children. It was an appealing message to women, and to men—how are you going to argue that fact? It was really a good strategy. I have a lot of respect for how they could position themselves. It’s also instructive in how they successfully campaigned for a single issue cause. This is the original playbook. They had the votes, the public relations, the visuals, the message. They got it done. In the late 1800s, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union had a whole host of causes: ending prostitution, raising the age of sexual consent from 10 to 16, sending children to kindergarten. They were progressive in the way we would think today. But they were not able to fully seal the deal on Prohibition because they had other causes. The Anti-Saloon League, which took over in the 20th century, was single-minded. They built an amazing coalition across an astonishingly wide range of interests.

More: Pete Hamill and some of your other commentators talk about class warfare. Hamill points out that the bars were working men’s clubs. Rich men had their private clubs; working men made their connections in bars.

Novick: There was at least antagonism of the more comfortable classes toward African-Americans and immigrants. The feeling was, They can’t control their appetites. They’re dangerous. Our cities are full of dirty people who don’t speak English. The wealthier, more privileged Americans never thought that Prohibition would have anything to do with them. It was for the people who scared them. They were going to help those people by making sure alcohol wasn’t available to them.

More: The documentary points out that men used to vote in bars. When I was growing up in Cincinnati, my parents voted in a bar. Of course, it was closed for the day.

Novick: There certainly is a history of mixing politics and alcohol and corruption. It wasn’t an impersonal system, and the WASPS were threatened by all that. It speaks to the question of who is an American. We think we’re a country of immigrants, but every new group has had to fight to get their way in. It’s true today.

More: I also didn’t know about the whole campaign against German beer, and by extension, German Americans, during World War 1. That was incredibly clever, in an awful way.

First Published September 28, 2011

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