Suffragettes and the Temperance Movement

When an issue plagues society, often the first and most popular response is: “we need a law to protect us!”  Most libertarians shun the idea of more laws as they see the legislation as restricting freedom.  Sure, I can agree with that for the most part.  However, government and laws can enact positive change to expand and protect individual liberties when used sparsely and directed appropriately.  Let’s take one of my favorite subjects in history as a case study: The Temperance Movement.

The Progressive Era, a time from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s, spawned a number of new laws and reform in the United States.  Arguably, the two most well-known reforms from the time are Prohibition and Suffrage. The 18th amendment took effect January 17, 1920, banning the “manufacture, sale and transportation” of alcohol.  Prohibition is often used to prove the failure of laws regarding morality, which is agreeable but a different subject.  Instead, we’re going to look at why prohibition was pushed in the first place which could also help explain its downfall. 

Imagine you are a lower/middle class woman in the early 1900’s living in Chicago with your husband and four children.  Thankfully, your husband has a decent job in a factory but spends hours at the company saloon to wind down from his hard day’s work.   

Many nights, your once kind husband comes home to typical unruly children and in a drunken rage, beats them.  As a woman, you have no right to stop him as they are HIS children.  In the eyes of law enforcement, he has the right to raise his children as he wishes.  Your husband then focuses his attention on you, expecting you to perform your wifely duties.  If you do not comply, he abuses and takes what he wants; raping you.  You might have been knowledgeable enough to understand this was not a good time of the month in order to prevent pregnancies (maybe not though since the Comstock Act prevented such knowledge from being spread) but that knowledge doesn’t matter to your drunken husband.  Now you might possibly have another mouth to feed, which is alright because your husband has a job with manageable income, right? Yes, if he would quit wasting it in the saloons every night.  You have been raped.  Your children have been abused.  Rent is difficult to pay and everyone is starving.  Why?  Alcohol. 

You can predict where this scenario led; home abortions, starving children that then went to work in factories to try to survive and a large number of deaths.  The Women’s Christian Temperance Union blamed these issues and more on alcohol, pleading for a new law. Unfortunately, society of the time ignored a very important key factor to this situation; the problem.  The problem was not alcohol; it was abuse.  You, the woman in this scenario, have an inherent right to be protected from aggression.  Instead of placing a law against alcohol, a law directed towards individual liberties might have better addressed the problem.  Do not outlaw alcohol, but instead rape and domestic violence.  When used responsibly, legislation is a perfectly viable solution.  Prohibition: great example of an irresponsibly placed law. 

The next amendment on the table is the very next one, actually; suffrage.   Seven months after prohibition began, women were granted their right to vote in August of 1920.  This is a wonderful example of how legislation could be used to expand individual liberties.  Until the progressive era, women were seen as second class citizens.  Especially once married, a woman lost most of her rights to her husband.  Rights over her children, her body, income, and any assets she once had.  Most importantly, in most states, a woman could not vote.  This sheer lack of civil rights for a woman in the 19th and early 20th century led to a hunger for more rights and involvement in politics.  Ultimately, women fought (sometimes, brutally) for and gained political recognition of their rights which should have always been held.  These political rights led to more socially recognizable rights (finally a woman could be served at a fine restaurant without a man accompanying her *eye roll*) thus giving her more equality and freedom within her marriage.

So, why did women fight for prohibition as opposed to concentrating all their efforts towards civil rights? If suffrage had been passed long before prohibition, maybe women would not have been in the predicaments that led to prohibition.  If women’s rights had never been taken from them in the first place (as they were in the late 18th century), lives would have been saved in a number of areas.  Fewer mothers dying in home abortions resulting from rape. Fewer deaths of children from starvation, factory work, and abuse. Fewer deaths of the countless individuals caught in shady prohibition dealings.  What could have been gained in return?  Liberty, of course. Freedom to live within one's fundamental rights.  Laws should be well thought out, directed in the appropriate place, and used to ensure individual freedoms rather than restricting such.  

ArticleKenna Lea