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

It was one of the most dangerous—and glamorous—periods in American history, an era that conjures up images of gangsters, flappers and buckets of booze. But in their fascinating new documentary, Prohibition, airing over three nights on PBS (Sunday-Tuesday, October 2, 3 and 4), filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick show that the struggle to enact the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, prohibiting “the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors” was a much larger story. In covering it, they explore issues of personal freedom, prejudice, social justice and, most tellingly, women’s liberation.

In the 19th century, when domestic violence went unprosecuted and there was no such concept as marital rape, women and children were the primary victims of what the first episode of Prohibition calls “A Nation of Drunkards.” Over the century, they began cautiously to fight back, culminating in legislation they thought would bring an end to the alcohol-fueled abuse.

The resulting debacle is the stuff of literature and legend. And in the end, what women created—the national ban on alcohol—women put an end to. Along the way, we learned plenty. Novick, who has collaborated with Burns for over 20 years, spoke with More about their latest project.

More: Do you think Prohibition would have happened if women hadn’t pushed it?

Novick: I don’t. I don’t think anything would have happened if women hadn’t taken the lead. They had every right to do so, because they had no rights. We say that, but think of what it was: A husband coming home and beating you and you had no rights. They had no choice but to push for prohibition. Women were the moral guardians of society, the protectors of the home. They were not meant to be anything in the public sphere. Women accepted that. But the problem with alcohol became increasingly serious. Ministers talked about it, women talked about it. The energy that was unleashed got focused on the abolitionist movement for quite a while. But after the Civil War, women took the lead.

More: Watching the documentary, I wondered if this was the first time women took to the streets to protest, or if that happened during abolitionism, since so many women were involved in that cause.

Novick: I’m not an expert on abolitionism, but I don’t think you had that kind of civil protest on the part of women. Men took the lead there. That kind of protest didn’t happen by women until after the Civil War. With abolition, they were told to take a back seat. For women to publicly protest was quite a radical thing to do, given the mores of the time, and it came out of desperation: Men are not fixing this problem; they are the problem; so we have to fix it.

More: Prohibition does make the point that one reason drinking reached such a crisis was that the alcohol content changed; people started drinking whiskey, not cider.

Novick: Well, really the problem started with the mass production of spirits, which happened in the early 19th century. Drinking per capita peaked as alcohol became more available, stronger and cheaper. There were economic reasons for this. With the overproduction of grain, it was more profitable to convert it to alcohol. So there was much more being produced. Also, society was evolving from pre-industrial to industrial.

More: I guess if you were isolated on a farm it was hard to belly up to a bar.

Novick:  Yes, drinking habits were evolving, as they always do. But it soon
reached a point where it could no longer be ignored.

More: I loved the section in Prohibition about Carrie Nation. She’s the face you see in all the textbooks, the poster child for the temperance movement—and the anti-prohibition people couldn’t have come up with a better poster: A hatchet-faced, hatchet-wielding woman! I didn’t know about her tragic life, the events that made her that way. How do you feel about her now?

First Published September 28, 2011

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