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January 21, 2020

The Centennial of Both Prohibition and Suffrage (And the Correlation Between the Two)

One hundred years ago, in 1920, two major events in America’s history occurred.

1) Prohibition took effect. The 18th Amendment (passed in 1919 but not
implemented until the Volstead Act in 1920) banned the manufacture and
sale of alcohol.

2) The 19th Amendment (passed in 1920) mandated universal suffrage within
the United States.

It is trendy to mock our country for the puritan futility of prohibition, and for the backwardness of women being denied the vote as recently as 100 years ago. Among all the snark and mockery from modern Americans, however, a critical point is being forgotten – prohibition and suffrage went hand in hand. Prohibition could have been avoided if women had continued to be denied the voting franchise as the 1900s commenced. How many progressive young Americans would forsake their IPAs and craft liquors and go completely dry to end a civil wrong? That is what American men did a century ago.

To be clear, the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) was passed before the 19th Amendment (Suffrage), but the 19th Amendment formalized the wave of suffrage victories rolling across the nation. Starting with Wyoming, several states already allowed women the right to vote in the late 19th century, then in the early 20th century it became a cascade: Washington in 1910; California in 1911; Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kansas in 1912; Montana and Nevada in 1914, etc.

Although suffrage was the great civil rights issue of the day, the most powerful women’s political movement of the era was temperance. Carrie Nation and her hatchet became the symbol of the temperance movement, while concurrently the Anti-Saloon League gained immense political power. The leader of the Anti-Saloon League was Susan B. Anthony, who later gained additional fame as the first American woman on a US coin for her work on behalf of woman’s suffrage. But she was also a passionate prohibitionist, and her work on behalf of suffrage was for the purpose of advancing the cause of prohibition. She is quoted as saying, “The only hope of the Anti-Saloon League’s success lies in putting the ballot into the hands of women.”

One example - after Arizona extended women the right to vote in 1912, it was followed by a referendum to ban the sale of alcohol in 1914. That referendum passed and Arizona went dry on January 1, 1915 – a full 5 years before the nation as a whole went dry. By giving women the vote, Arizona had made it inevitable that the sale of alcohol would be banned. And this was playing out in states and municipalities across the country.

To put the issue into modern context, what if prohibition had been the price for getting gay marriage legalized? Or let’s look forward – would today’s progressives trade prohibition for universal health care? Heck – a left-wing argument could even be made that having a nanny-state government ban alcohol would reduce medical expenses, helping to pay for their universal health care.

I’m not defending prohibition and I’m most certainly not arguing that women should have been denied the vote, but I am arguing that it was complicated, and those who want to mock America for dragging its feet in granting universal suffrage, while also mocking America for the puritan silliness of Prohibition, should know the correlation between the two.

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posted by Open Blogger at 05:47 PM

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