The Women's
Organization for National
Prohibition Reform

excerpted from the book Repealing National Prohibition

by David E. Kyvig

Copyright 1979 by the University of Chicago Press
available for non-profit educational purposes on the world wide web at:

 Skip to Declaration of Principles

Women and Prohibition

One of the main pillars upholding the idea that the Eighteenth Amendment was unrepealable was the belief that American women, since 1920 fully enfranchised, could be counted upon to support prohibition nearly unanimously. Women had contributed mightily to the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, with Frances Willard, Anna Gordon, Carry Nation, Ella Boole, and the Women's Christian Temperance Union as prominent as any man or male organization in the dry campaign. Defense of the home, protection of the family, and concern for youth had often been cited as reasons for establishing prohibition and were expected to keep women firmly behind even an imperfect liquor ban. A decade of prohibition produced hardly any evidence to the contrary. The leading antiprohibition groups remained almost entirely male, with only men listed as directors. The AAPA's (Association Against the Prohibition Amendment) early attempt to create separate women's divisions, Molly Pitcher Clubs, had never attracted many members and was abandoned prior to the association's reorganization. But in 1929 an independent and effective women's repeal organization, the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform, appeared to challenge old assumptions.

The spirit propelling this organization was Pauline Morton Sabin of New York. Not a campaigner for women's suffrage, Pauline Sabin seized the Nineteenth Amendment's opportunities with seldom-matched energy and effect. She had been raised in a political family. Her grandfather, J. Sterling Morton, had been governor of Nebraska and Secretary of Agriculture under Grover Cleveland, while her father, Paul Morton, became Theodore Roosevelt's Secretary of the Navy when she was sixteen. Pauline Morton had been born to wealth and high social position as well. Her father had been vice president of the Santa Fe Railroad before his cabinet service, and he became chairman of the board and president of the Equitable Life Assurance Society thereafter. Her uncle had developed the "When It Rains, It Pours" salt company. After a stylish but limited education in private schools in the United States and abroad, Pauline Morton made a social debut and then in 1907, at the age of nineteen, married a wealthy New York sportsman, J. Hopkins Smith, Jr. During the next few years, she bore two sons, involved herself in family life, and gave no visible indication of becoming a politically active, independent woman.

In 1914 another side of Pauline Morton Smith began to appear. She divorced her husband and, with another woman, established a profitable interior decorating shop. She gave up this budding business career in 1916 to marry Charles Hamilton Sabin, chairman of the board of Guaranty Trust Company, but soon began to get interested in politics, at first through charitable work. "I found," the new Mrs. Sabin explained, "that on charity boards in New York City you had to have political pull to get things done." Her preoccupation with politics quickly surpassed all else. Although her husband was a Democrat, Pauline Sabin shared her father's allegiance to the Republican party. In 1919 she was giving elaborate lawn parties for Republican organizations at the Sabin estate on Long Island. The same year she joined the Suffolk County Republican Committee and by 1920 had been made a member of the party's state executive committee. Mrs. Sabin helped found the Women's National Republican Club and served as its president from 1921 to 1926, building a membership of several thousand and earning a reputation as an excellent fund-raiser and a skillful organizer. When women were added to the Republican National Committee, as advisors in 1923 and full members a year later, Pauline Sabin became New York's first representative. She was a delegate to the Republican conventions of 1924 and 1928, cochaired Senator James Wadsworth's unsuccessful 1926 reelection campaign, and directed women's activities for the Coolidge and Hoover presidential campaigns in the East.


Concerns about Prohibition

Pauline Sabin's concern over prohibition grew slowly. Initially she favored the Eighteenth Amendment, explaining later, "I felt I should approve of it because it would help my two sons. The word-pictures of the agitators carried me away. I thought a world without liquor would be a beautiful world."

Gradually, however, intertwined motherly and political concerns caused her to change her mind. Her first cautious public criticism of prohibition came in 1926 when she defended Wadsworth's opposition to the law. By 1928 she had become more outspoken. The hypocrisy of politicians who would support resolutions for stricter enforcement and half an hour later be drinking cocktails disturbed her. The ineffectiveness of the law, the apparent decline of temperate drinking, and the growing prestige of bootleggers troubled her even more. Mothers, she explained, had believed that prohibition would eliminate the temptation of drinking from their children's lives, but found instead that "children are growing up with a total lack of respect for the Constitution and for the law."

In later statements, she elaborated further on her objections to prohibition. With settlement workers reporting increasing drunkenness, she worried, "The young see the law broken at home and upon the street. Can we expect them to be lawful?"" Mrs. Sabin complained to the House Judiciary Committee: "In preprohibition days, mothers had little fear in regard to the saloon as far as their children were concerned. A saloon-keeper's license was revoked if he were caught selling liquor to minors. Today in any speakeasy in the United States you can find boys and girls in their teens drinking liquor, and this situation has become so acute that the mothers of the country feel something must be done to protect their children." Finally, she opposed federal involvement in matters of personal conduct. National prohibition, in sum, seemed to Pauline Sabin to be undermining American youth, the orderly, law-observing habits of society, and the principles of personal liberty and decentralized government, all important elements in the world of this conservative, upper-class, politically active woman.

She decided to found a women's repeal organization during a 1928 congressional hearing when Ella Boole, president of the WCTU, thundered, "I represent the women of America!" Sabin recalled remarking to herself, "Well, lady, here's one woman you don't represent." In June 1928 she declared that "a serious burden rests on the men and women who have political responsibility" to state frankly their attitude toward prohibition. Women opposed to the law could, if organized, bring about a change, she predicted. Her own well-developed sense of political responsibility led her to think of guiding such a movement.

After publicly criticizing prohibition, Pauline Sabin nevertheless campaigned for Herbert Hoover. She was a party loyalist and believed that Hoover's campaign promise to appoint a prohibition study commission showed a receptivity to reform. Disillusioned by Hoover's inaugural address and planning to work for a change in the law, Sabin resigned from the Republican National Committee in order to be unhampered by party ties. Within a month, she denounced the Hoover administration for supporting national prohibition.

Pauline Sabin moved quickly to give form to her announced intention. She first enlisted the support of several of her New York friends and social peers, Mrs. Cortlandt Nicoll, Mrs. Coffin Van Rensselaer, Mrs. Caspar Whitney, and others. Then she added other upper-class women from throughout the country, among them Mrs. R. Stuyvesant Pierrepont of New Jersey, Mrs. William Lowell Putnam of Boston, Mrs. Amasa Stone Mather of Cleveland, Mrs. John B. Casserly of San Francisco, Mrs. Henry B. Joy of Detroit, Mrs. W. W. Montgomery of Philadelphia, and Mrs. Pierre S. du Pont of Delaware. During the next two months three organizational meetings were held in New York, and Mrs. Sabin toured parts of the East and Middle West to seek support.


Getting organized

On May 28, 1929, 24 women from eleven states formally launched their endeavor at the fashionable Drake Hotel in Chicago. At an earlier meeting to select a name, the merely awkward Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR) won out over the truly dreadful Women's Legion for True Temperance. The Chicago gathering chose Mrs. Sabin chairman, formed a national advisory council of 125 women from twenty-six states, and reported organizing progress in several states. Despite frequent condemnations of prohibition, the group chose not to propose a specific remedy until more women from more states could come together in a general convention. Despite their caution, the mere fact that such prominent women had met to oppose prohibition drew national press attention.

The WONPR opened a small office in New York. For a month or so, the AAPA paid the office expenses, but thereafter members' donations made the WONPR self-sufficient. Mrs. Sabin made speeches and wrote articles criticizing prohibition for producing more rather than less drinking, endangering youth, corrupting public officials, and breeding contempt for law and the Constitution. She struck a responsive chord, for in less than a year 100,000 members were enrolled and thirteen relatively autonomous state branches were formed. By its first convention, the WONPR had set its direction as a highly visible, nonpartisan, mass-membership, volunteer organization.

Critics of the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform characterized it as a puppet of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, a new and more effective Molly Pitcher Club. The leaders of the AAPA, recognizing that women were an important obstacle to repeal, "in true Russian fashion, ordered their wives and daughters into the trenches,"

Fletcher Dobyns later charged. "The Anti-Saloon League and, especially, the WCTU wished to maintain the popular assumption that women overwhelmingly supported national prohibition. One dry leader scornfully called the WONPR nothing more than a clever advertising device. Charles Sabin, after all, served on the AAPA executive committee and was the association's treasurer. After the 1928 election, he had participated in executive committee discussions of the need for a women's antiprohibition group. But no AAPA record reveals any steps having been taken to organize women. In politics, the resourceful and energetic Pauline Sabin always acted independently of her husband, who was an active Democrat throughout the years that she worked so diligently for the Republican party. In the spring of 1929 she appears to have acted independently once again in founding the WONPR. She kept M. Louise Gross and the vestiges of the Molly Pitcher Clubs at arm's length, despite Gross's many suggestions that the WONPR accept her leadership. WONPR membership eventually so far exceeded that of the AAPA, and the family overlap between organizations was so slight, that the dry charge that these women were not acting of their own free will lacks credibility.

The Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform's first national convention in Cleveland in April 1930 articulated a basic viewpoint regarding prohibition which would remain largely unchanged until the end of the repeal fight. Some elements of the women's critique of prohibition were peculiarly their own, while others were common throughout the organized repeal movement. The WONPR regarded itself as an advocate of temperance and believed that prohibition had reversed a trend toward moderation and restraint in the use of intoxicating beverages. WONPR spokeswomen expressed particular distress at the effects of national prohibition on children and family life. Temperate use of alcoholic beverages had been increasing up to 1918, maintained Mrs. Carroll Miller of Pittsburgh, one of the convention's principal speakers, "But suddenly true temperance was cast aside for a supposedly quick method of reform and Prohibition was inserted into our Constitution with the notion that people could be made better by legislative enactment rather than through precept, education, reason and persuasion." This flouting of the American belief in free will, she continued, had resulted in the law being ignored; crime, political corruption, and misuse of alcohol increasing; and a general disregard for all laws developing. "And because we women value the American home above everything else and because we wish the youth in that home to develop high character and to grow in uprightness toward decent citizenship," Mrs. Miller concluded, "we demand that these prohibition measures which hinder his development and growth, be repealed."

Time and time again, the WONPR expressed concern over the violence, corruption, and alcoholic excesses of prohibition, all of which, they emphasized, had a harmful influence upon American youth. The organization reprinted an article by a New York juvenile court judge blaming national prohibition for increases in child neglect and young people's disrespect for law. "Many of our members are young mothers-too young to remember the old saloon," Mrs. Sabin explained. "But they are working for repeal because they don't want their babies to grow up in the hip-flask, speakeasy atmosphere that has polluted their own youth." The need to protect children and the home became central themes for the women's antiprohibition movement, just as they had been in the temperance crusade.
[back to top]
Also the WONPR shared AAPA distress at the apparent breakdown in the social fabric, the weakening of the ties between citizen and government which disdain for prohibition appeared to produce, and federal involvement in matters of individual behavior. The WONPR considered proposals calling merely for Volstead Act modification inadequate since, they argued, that would eliminate neither federal involvement in liquor control nor the criminal activity of bootlegging. The Cleveland convention unanimously declared:

1. We are convinced that National Prohibition is fundamentally wrong.

(a) Because it conflicts with the basic American principle of local home rule and destroys the balance established by the framers of our government, between powers delegated to the federal authority and those reserved to the sovereign states or to the people themselves.

(b) And because its attempt to impose total abstinence by national government fiat ignores the truth that no law will be respected or can be enforced unless supported by the moral sense and common conscience of the communities affected by it.

2. We are convinced that National Prohibition, wrong in principle, has been equally disastrous in consequences in the hypocrisy, the corruption, the tragic loss of life and the appalling increase of crime which have attended the abortive attempt to enforce it; in the shocking effect it has had upon the youth of the nation; in the impairment of constitutional guarantees of individual rights; in the weakening of the sense of solidarity between the citizen and the government which is the only sure basis of a country's strength.


The elderly presiding officer of the Cleveland convention, Mrs. Henry B. Joy, once a prohibitionist like her AAPA-director husband, summarized the broad sweep of the WONPR'S opposition to prohibition. After noting increased crime, overcrowded prisons, social and economic distress, and loss of respect for law and the law enforcement system, she concluded, "To my view, the prohibition conditions constitute the greatest menace to our country's welfare which has existed in my lifetime."

The WONPR expanded even more rapidly after its Cleveland meeting. At the second annual convention in Washington in April 1931, Pauline Sabin announced total membership of 300,000 and "live, active organizations in thirty-three states." One year later, 600,000 members and forty-one state branches were claimed. By the 1932 election, membership reportedly had passed 1.1 million, and when repeal was achieved in December 1933, 1.5 million women belonged, it was said. Although membership claims are hard to verify and are probably somewhat exaggerated, on the basis of these figures the women's organization must be deemed by far the largest antiprohibition association, three times the size of the AAPA at its peak.

The WONPR placed great importance on obtaining a large membership. If vote-counting politicians were to take the repeal crusade seriously, they must realize that not all women supported prohibition. The national publicity chairman believed that no more important news could be distributed than reports of increased membership, for "it is the only way we have of demonstrating our strength nationally." Branches in New York (where by April 1933, 305,000 women were enrolled), Illinois (214,000), Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania (each about 100,000), California, Massachusetts, Missouri, and New Jersey (between 50,000 and 65,000 apiece), and Connecticut (35,000) became especially significant. Quite a few other states reported several thousand members, and by the end of 1933 only Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Nevada, Oklahoma, and South Dakota lacked any organization. In general, the group grew strongest in the northeast and remained weakest in the states of the old confederacy. Four to 6 percent of the state's women joined the WONPR in Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, and New York. State branches took considerable pride in announcing that membership had exceeded or doubled or even-in the case of Illinois in 1933-reached thirteen times that of the state WCTU. When national WONPR membership reached 400,000 in December 1931, surpassing the total claimed by the WCTU, it was considered a major milestone in the organization's history. The WONPR's rapid and enormous growth, according to James Wadsworth, "made a lot of men wake up and realize that, 'By heavens, there is a chance of getting repeal if the women are going to join with us!"' Women prohibitionists, not surprisingly, were less pleased. One wrote to Pauline Sabin, "Every evening I get down on my knees and pray to God to damn your soul."

The WONPR assaulted the stereotype of total female support for prohibition in other ways. States branches distributed literature, lobbied legislators, studied liquor control systems, held public meetings and parades, and campaigned for repeal candidates or against prohibitionists. Nationally, the women's organization disputed WCTU claims, based on convention resolutions of the General Federation of Women's Clubs, that all three million federation members endorsed prohibition. Asserting that many of its own adherents also belonged to the federation, the WONPR in February 1932 challenged the GFWC to conduct a membership referendum on prohibition. Although no such poll was ever held, the federation fell silent on the prohibition issue. The WONPR had again undercut claims that women universally favored national prohibition.

Why was the WONPR SO successful in attracting support and thereby shattering the image of women as unswerving prohibitionists? Some observers suggested that many women enlisted to improve their social standing, to associate with and emulate the fashionable ladies who led the organization. To some degree, this may have been the case. Scarcely a description of Pauline Sabin was published which failed to mention her grace and delicate beauty, her fine taste in clothing, and her prominence in New York society. Magazines as diverse as Vogue, Time, McCall's, Smart Set, Liberty, The New Yorker, Forum, and Vanity Fair all pointed out the high social position of the WONPR leadership. A writer for Vogue, in an early article on the women's organization, exclaimed, "It always takes an important lady to set a style, one with considerable manner and chic. Just such ones have started the organized women's movement for prohibition reform."

All too often, however, the efforts of American women have been dismissed as trivial whatever the motives or achievements involved. A common means of discounting women's serious activity has been to attribute it to a mere quest for domestic improvement or social advancement. The women's organization, although largely middle and upper class in composition, drew women of various backgrounds and not only socialites. A noticeably higher percentage of WONPR members were working women than was the case in the population as a whole. A number who took up the repeal issue were regularly involved in politics, while far more participated in charitable or other civic causes. It seems unlikely that such active women were persuaded to join simply to follow fashion. One New York WONPR officer suggested that the importance of the social standing of the organization's leaders lay in the encouragement it gave to concerned but cautious women. "The fact that the published list of sponsors contains the names of some of the most highly respected women in the country," said Mrs. Christian R. Holmes, "inspires confidence in those who have wanted to join us, but did not dare. They are no longer afraid to come into the open and declare themselves."

Undoubtedly, the growth of the WONPR was not inhibited by the desire of some women to follow "chic" social leaders and to share in the considerable acclaim being given this new women's crusade. However, substantive objections to prohibition appear to have weighed heavily on the minds of many who joined the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform. Published surveys of female antiprohibitionists, although admittedly quite limited, show them sincerely concerned that prohibition was subverting youth, the home and family, the economy, and respect for all law. The decision of the WONPR to declare the mild goal of "Reform" in its name, despite its commitment to full repeal, may have boosted membership somewhat, but the general outspokenness of the organization suggests that most women knew exactly what they were joining and accepted the WONPR platform. Serious opposition to national prohibition, rather than social climbing, seems to have been the principal reason that, beginning in 1929 and 1930, hundreds of thousands of women aligned themselves with the repeal movement.

[To read more, go to Chapter 7 of Kyvig's book shown at top, about half way down]