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: Both. That’s the interesting thing. She’s an incredibly compelling character. Very sincere, very honest in a corrupt world, Washington. They chose her because they thought she wouldn’t do much. But she was able and determined. She was motivated to some degree not by a belief in prohibition, but in the law. Her job was using the power of the law to make people obey the law. She was very diligent, worked herself to the bone. She also stood up against wiretapping when it was used by the government in its case against [bootlegger] Roy Olmstead. So I respect and admire her, but maybe her political ambitions got the best of her. Her willingness to use her position to rile up the base…

More: She waged the anti-Catholic campaign against presdidential candidate Al Smith, who opposed Prohibition. Then, after she left office, she was a lawyer for liquor interests and converted to Catholicism!

Novick: People are so complicated. You can’t make this stuff up.

More: Women come full circle here, prompting and ending Prohibition. At the end, you have another great character, the socialite Pauline Sabin, who founded the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform.

Novick: You fall in love with these people. We spend a lot of time with these characters, and we fall in love. They give you a window into your history. What Pauline Sabin did was very brave. Inspiring. She stood up and said no, this is ridiculous. It was very brave, especially in her social circle.

More: I would think her social rank would make it easier to take a stand.

Novick: No doubt it did empower her. She had the connections, the ability to do it. But she’s the one who did it.

More: The best thing was that she made the point that not all women think alike, believe the same things.

Novick: It was so important—she did not stay in lock step. For a woman to say yes, I want to protect my children, but now we’re finding out it’s not protecting them. A 10-year-old can get a drink.

More: That’s another great revelation in your film—that there’s more protection now, when drinking is legal.

Novick: [Author] Dan Okrent explained it to us. Now there is a legal drinking age, the alcohol content has to be listed on the bottle, there are taxes to benefit the government.

More: What surprised me most about Prohibition was how much it involves women’s history. I guess because I associate Prohibition with gangsters, I didn’t realize the extent to which it’s a women’s story.

Novick: It’s a women’s story from beginning to end. Women’s lives were transformed by it. It’s a wonderful way to look at women’s history, and the history of America. It’s a very significant 100-year period, and if you don’t look at what women’s lives were like, how can you possibly understand?


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First Published September 28, 2011

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