How Prohibition Changed Women’s Relationship to Alcohol

by Leah on October 7, 2011

One of the unintended consequences of Prohibition was that more women drank—and drank with men, keeping right up with them.

This is just one of many fascinating facts in Prohibition, a new documentary currently airing on PBS, by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (also available on DVD).

Before Prohibition, especially throughout the 1800s, women’s relationship to alcohol was an adversarial one, as they tried to stop their stressed-out husbands from drinking so much.

Saloons were primarily for men. According to Ken Burns, “The only women inside were likely prostitutes – think Miss Kitty on ‘Gunsmoke.’”

Chronic drinking meant chronic abuse by men toward their wives and children. Eventually, women organized themselves into groups like the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union, pushing for a ban on alcohol.

On Jan. 17, 1920, the women got their wish when the 18th Amendment went into effect, banning the sale of alcoholic beverages. But as we all know, Prohibition didn’t stop people from drinking. Instead, it ushered in an even more thrilling chapter in the history of alcohol consumption–the “Roaring Twenties,” with its speakeasies and gangsters.

Not only were men drinking as much as ever, but women joined them, too. Unlike saloons, speakeasies (“an estimated 32,000 in New York city alone,” according to Burns) were coed.

The 19th Amendment, giving the vote to women, was ratified Aug. 18, 1920. Women’s newfound freedom and empowerment came with additional challenges.  Female alcoholism became a huge problem, because more women had access to drink in a way they had never had before.

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