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Tim Stafford

Gender Prohibition

From all-male saloons to cocktail lounges for everyone.

The image of Prohibition got fixed by Richard Hofstadter, who summed it up as a "rural-evangelical virus," "a pinched, parochial substitute for reform." Prohibition has remained exactly that in the popular imagination, like a freak preserved in formaldehyde, useful for editorialists and pundits as a standing lesson against "legislating morality." (Why does it never occur to them that virtually all laws "legislate morality"?) Historians have long since moved on, citing Hofstadter only when they want to make the point of how wrong he was about Prohibition. Nevertheless his and others' visceral reaction has effectively kept the real and more interesting story out of public view.

Perhaps that is for good reason: Prohibition is full of awkward facts, and it would be convenient to pretend that it was purely the product of puritanical rubes who temporarily seized power in a moment of American weakness. In truth, no reform movement had deeper roots in American values. Prohibition was the culmination of a century of agitation which swept over the nation in repeated waves. Its support was wide and deep, including people as thoughtful and diverse as Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Carrie Chapman Catt. If Prohibition was "pinched and parochial," then certainly the same indictment should be applied to other movements that culminated in the progressive era of reform—the movements for industrial safety, electoral reform, world peace, fair labor laws, food regulation, urban planning, good government, and (nearest cousin of all) woman suffrage. Almost invariably the same set of progressive people supported all these, with the hopeful expectation that rational and humane measures could make America a happier place.

Catherine Gilbert Murdock's Domesticating Drink looks at Prohibition from the interesting angle of male- female relations, and in doing so has to confront awkward facts about women in politics. For Prohibition was very much a progressive women's cause. Murdock makes ...

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