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: ┬ęScherl/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?

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.

Novick: They were brilliant. I may not agree with them, but I respect their savvy: All the brewers are German so if you buy beer they will send the money to Germany and you are supporting Germany our enemy. It worked!

More: I wonder how they made that work, when so much of the population was German by heritage—still is.

Novick: It’s amazing. It had to do with the beer drinking habits of Germans.

More: Also, German women drank.

Novick: And they drank on Sunday afternoon. They had beer gardens; the whole family was there, having a few beers.

More: Another great character in your documentary is the bootlegger George Remus. I had never heard of him—and then he popped up on the HBO series, Boardwalk Empire the other night! But what a great story—lawyer turned bootlegger, goes to jail, his wife takes up with a Fed, he murders her and the jury lets him go!

Novick: We didn’t know that story, either. Once we heard it, we had to make the film. Remus was very famous in the 1920s. He had the big house, the swimming pool, the lavish parties. I think he was the model for Jay Gatsby. Even if he wasn’t the model for Gatsby, he represents the era and Fitzgerald would have seen the headlines.

More: I also liked Lois Long, the woman who wrote about night life in the ‘20s under the pseudonym Lipstick in The New Yorker. But how did she get away with that? How did she write about boozing when it was prohibited?

Novick: This is the interesting thing. Prohibition is going on, but it’s just a weak link, at least in New York. Drinking was more or less out in the open, not completely in the early ‘20s but certainly by the late ‘20s. In 1929, the mayor of Berlin came to New York and went on a tour of night clubs with the New York mayor, Jimmy Walker. At the end, he asked, “So when does this Prohibition thing go into effect?” In cities, it was unenforceable. The statistic that says the most to me is: By the late 1920s, America was the biggest importer of cocktail shakers in the world.

More: There’s a lot of talk in Prohibition linking it, ironically, to the liberation of women.

Novick: Very ironic. But we have to be careful not to put all the eggs in one basket in terms of Prohibition. There were a lot of other things going on. Teenagers had started rebelling against Victorian mores in an earlier period; there was the rise of mass media. There were a lot of reasons women rebelled, but add alcohol and men and women together drinking and dancing—exactly what the women who worked for temperance didn’t want—and you get sexual liberation, too. The historian, William Leuchtenburg, says in the film, “Men and women enjoyed sex more. Men had discovered the clitoris.”

More: That’s a pretty stunning moment when he says that.

Novick: When he said it during the interview, an 87-year-old historian—he  just brought it up—we knew we had to include it.

More: I didn’t realize how close Prohibition and women getting the right to vote were in terms of timing. They both happened in 1920.

Novick: The same year, but Prohibition, the 18th Amendment, came first. Women did not vote it in; men did. By then, women realized that they needed the right to vote so they could be the moral guardians of society. Originally, getting the vote was the more extreme idea. But once women saw the impact they could have, they didn’t want to go back.

More: Let’s talk about the U.S. Assistant Attorney General who enforced prohibition. Mabel Walker Willebrandt—hero or villain?

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 Wed, 2011-09-28 16:50

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