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Prohibition and women’s suffrage: A 100-year review

It’s worth retracing their paths as progressives aim to edit the Constitution again 

This op-ed originally appeared as the Sunday Opinion cover in the Star Tribune on October 6, 2019.

Progressives today are eager to do some constitutional tinkering. One amendment to the U.S. Constitution many would like to draft would abolish the Electoral College. Another would alter the lifetime tenure of Supreme Court justices. A third would reduce the disproportionate clout of U.S. senators from sparsely populated (and mostly red Republican) states.

Pushing for such changes is a progressive tradition, if you will.

A century ago, America’s original Progressives did quite a lot of constitutional tinkering of their own. Think first of the 16th and 17th Amendments (both ratified in 1913), which gave us the federal income tax and the direct popular election of senators. These were followed by the 18th Amendment (1919) and the 19th Amendment (1920).

Thanks to those two bold measures, “intoxicating beverages” could no longer be legally manufactured or sold in the United States (18th Amendment). And women could no longer be denied the vote (19th).

The two landmark reforms were related. Women had long played a leading role in local, state and national campaigns for “prohibition.” When the country actually went dry, and women got the vote soon afterward, there was a progressive — and progressively stronger — expectation that women would play an ever greater role in campaigns for societal betterment.

Each of these amendments was consistent with a legitimately progressive impulse. Prohibition was part of the progressive drive for decency, healthfulness and efficiency, both in the home and in the workplace. The women’s vote was a key step in the larger progressive commitment to expanding American democracy.

In addition, both were nationalizing transformations, often favored by progressives then as now. States had long had their own laws dealing with who could drink what, where and when — and setting forth what women could or could not vote on. Now rules about both would be uniform and thorough. Or so it was thought.

Each amendment had taken a very different path on the way to ratification. And each would have a very different post-ratification impact.

Prohibition had been long-debated, but it didn’t last. In 1933, the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th and “happy days were here again” in America.

Women’s political equality was long overdue, and its impact has been enduring, even if it wasn’t immediate.

In 1920, progressive Democrats sought to appeal to women voters by turning the presidential election into a “solemn referendum” on the League of Nations and the hopes for lasting world peace it represented. They failed miserably, as Warren Harding and the Republican Party were swept into office.

Columnist H.L. Mencken was not surprised. Democrats, wrote Mencken, had mistakenly tried to “fetch the female vote by tear-squeezing.” For the cynical Mencken, the problem with such a strategy was that most every married woman of voting age already had a “broken heart” and so was hardened against sentimental appeals.

Yet efforts continue down to this day to “fetch the female vote” with targeted issues. Witness the current bipartisan attempt to woo two distinct sets of female voters: single women and suburban women.

Of course, female voters played no direct role in the ratification of either the 18th or the 19th Amendment, although there had been serious suggestions that the suffrage amendment should be put to a special vote — of women. This idea was also favored by British essayist G.K. Chesterton, who thought it would be the fair-minded thing to do (women’s suffrage came to Britain in the same era). He also thought women, given the chance, would vote down the idea of politicizing their lives.

As it happens, Minnesota women for some time had not been altogether without a right to vote. In 1875, the all-male state Legislature granted women the right to vote in school board elections. But that was it until 1920.

In addition to the broad success of the Progressive movement, it was World War I that accelerated momentum for the two big social reforms. Before the “Great War,” the crusade for national prohibition had been losing steam, while the drive for women’s suffrage had been only slowly gaining strength. The war revitalized the campaign against alcohol and provided the final push to get the vote for women across the finish line.

A need to conserve grain for the war — and a desire to punish German-­American breweries — combined to give new life to the prohibition movement. And the contributions of women to the war effort surely boosted the credibility of the suffrage movement.

Of course, both crusades had a long history that stretched back to the pre-Civil War era. In the early 1840s, a young Abraham Lincoln worried that the “temperance” movement of the time might come to dominate his Whig Party. Nationally, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union came into existence in 1874. Five years later, a Minnesota chapter was organized at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis for the purpose of uniting “Christian women of Minnesota for total abstinence.”

In 1848, black abolitionist Frederick Douglass had urged Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to add the right to vote to their Seneca Falls “Declaration of Sentiments.” Two decades later, Douglass welcomed a 15th Amendment that extended the right to vote to black males but not to any females.

It was about this same time that Minnesota women began to petition the Legislature to obtain the right to vote. To further that goal, the Minnesota Women’s Suffrage Association was created in 1881.

It’s clear that Douglass and many others presumed the failure to include women in the 15th Amendment was merely a temporary setback for the cause of women’s suffrage. But another half century would unfold before that setback would be overcome. In the meantime, suffrage movement leaders grew increasingly frustrated. High-toned arguments for women’s equality were joined by lower-toned arguments which held that good, upstanding WASP women deserved the vote as much as or more than non-WASP men. There was also an increasing emphasis on the progressive and practical matter of granting women the vote to speed the passage of social reform.

In any case, within a year of the end of World War I, both of the landmark amendments were ratified by the Minnesota Legislature. On Jan. 17, 1919, Minnesota became the 39th state to ratify Prohibition. A favorable Minnesota House tally of 92-36 came a day after the Senate had approved, 48-11.

Only 36 states were then necessary for an amendment’s ratification, so the approval of the Minnesota Legislature was superfluous. But the race to ratify had been hectic. Twenty-nine states acted on ratification in January 1919, with five states doing so on Jan. 16, the day Prohibition went over the top.

Approval of the suffrage amendment was more halting nationally, but proved quite decisive in Minnesota. In early January 1918, the U.S. House passed the 19th Amendment by a vote of 274-136, but the U.S. Senate failed to follow suit. Reintroduced in the next Congress, the amendment easily repassed the House, 304-90, on May 21, 1919. This time the Senate quickly concurred.

Minnesota’s Republican Gov. J.A.A. Burnquist called a special session of the Legislature to consider ratification. On Sept. 8, 1919, Minnesota became the 15th state to ratify the 19th Amendment. The margins were 120-6 in the House and 60-5 in the Senate. But final national ratification would not be realized until August 1920.

While local celebrations following the arrival of Prohibition ranged from muted to nonexistent, Minnesota suffragists did not wait long to celebrate — and to give thanks to the pro-suffrage legislators. The Minneapolis Morning Tribune of Sept. 9, 1919, reported that suffragists marked the end of “forty years of drudgery” for their cause by singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the Senate chamber.

Here irony intrudes, because the composer of that great song, Julia Ward Howe, had been a staunch opponent of women’s suffrage.

That same night, Minnesota suffragists capped off the day’s festivities by cooking and serving an “old-fashioned chicken dinner” to thank the “men of Minnesota” who had given them the vote.

There is a uniquely Minnesota postscript regarding the 18th Amendment, as well. It involves the name of Andrew Volstead, onetime mayor of Granite Falls and a member of the U.S. House from 1903 to 1923. Volstead chaired the House Judiciary Committee. And his greatest claim to fame — or infamy — is having his name attached to a momentous piece of legislation drafted largely by prohibition prophet Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League.

After all, the 18th Amendment’s ban on the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” left a lot of details to be specified by legislation. It was the Volstead Act that defined “intoxicating liquor” as any beverage containing over 0.5% alcohol and provided that “no person shall manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish or possess any intoxicating liquor except as authorized by this act.”

Exceptions included alcohol ensuring an “ample supply” for scientific research, “lawful industries,” religious rites, etc.

On Oct. 29, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the Volstead Act. Congress promptly overrode the veto that same day.

What President Herbert Hoover would later call America’s “noble experiment” was officially underway — just as the first Progressive movement itself was about to go into hibernation.

But that movement did have quite an impact. Today a new generation of progressives is seeking power. Will its members one day draft and ratify a new batch of historic constitutional amendments, or will they need such amendments to achieve their desired power in the first place? Time will tell.

In the meanwhile, let’s remember that not all progressive tinkerings proved to be good ideas. No one knew that better than the “New Deal” progressives who moved to rid the country of Prohibition as soon as they came to power in 1933.

John C. “Chuck” Chalberg, senior fellow at Center of the American Experiment, writes from Bloomington.

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