Friday, October 23, 2009

The Frightful Face of Prohibition

In Hillsboro, a Southwestern Ohio farming town, just before Christmas 1873, 70 women left the Presbyterian Church and marched downtown to saloons and drugstores that sold liquor. They prayed on the sawdust floor or, if barred from entering, outside on the snowy ground. The effects were startling. Owners were seen pouring booze into the gutters. That day, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was born.

Within 50 days the WCTU Crusade, according to their publicist, “drove the liquor traffic, horse, foot and dragoons, out of 250 towns and villages.” It took another 47 years for liquor to be made illegal throughout the Nation -- a significant victory for the WCTU. As shown here in a cartoon, adherents felt like Joan of Arc, coming to the rescue of the country with battle ax in hand, fighting “Womans Holy War.”

For many males of a drinking persuasion, however, the efforts of Temperance women were depicted less heroically. Another cartoon , entitled “The Struggle,” shows a man being pulled on one side by a comely woman through a fancy archway and tugged on the other by a spinsterish woman in a funny hat. She is urging him toward a wooden shack on which is written, “Abandon Joy All Ye Who Enter Here.” It leaves little doubt which way the gent will be heading.

The public face of the WCTU did little to discourage this sexist view of prohibition. Francis Elizabeth Willard, the president of a women’s college in Evanston, Illinois, left academia in 1879 to become the president of the WCTU. Shown here, her stern visage appeared frequently in the pages of newspapers nationwide as she campaigned vigorously against strong drink.

Willard’s image helped give rise to a series of cartoons and photo mocking the WCTU mantra, “Lips that Touch Liquor Shall Never Touch Mine.” These images often sarcastically juxtaposed the motto with pictures of women who looked as if they had never been in danger of being kissed by drinkers, teetotalers, or anyone else.

When Carry Nation burst upon the scene in 1900, she reinforced male stereotypes about the kind of women carrying the torch for Prohibition (see my posting May 2009). Like Joan of Arc, she brandished a weapon, in this case a hatchet, and traveled the country storming and wrecking barrooms. A series of postcards from that era parodied her actions as those of the “Saloon Smasher.” So identified did Ms. Nation become with the Temperance Movement that the venerable Dr. Seuss himself ridiculed her in 1942, long after her death, in a cartoon satirizing efforts to reestablish the Anti-Drink Crusade.

There is more than immediately meets the eye in this effort to depict anti-alcohol females as unattractive and sometimes violent hags. The WCTU preceded by almost a half century women being given the vote in the United States. Upon taking the reins of the WCTU, Francis Willard had added the cause of Women’s Suffrage to the organization agenda. If females in advocacy roles could be portrayed as highly offensive, some opponents reasoned the images also would discourage efforts at giving women the vote. In the end, Prohibition failed and was repealed. Women, on the other hand, were enfranchised in 1920 -- and the rest is history.

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