However, such a linear view of history may be all too narrow, as Ian Tyrell, writing in the One of the major groups behind the temperance movement, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, was “long ignored or ridiculed as a fossil of prohibition.” But recent scholarship has come to appreciate the more progressive—even feminist—side of temperance work.
Scholars like Ruth Bordin recognize that the temperance movement—whose goals included improving the lives of women whose drunken husbands were driven to abuse—as “the foremost example of American feminism.” Indeed, many women’s rights activists came to the movement through participation in the temperance crusade (among them Susan B. The temperance movement, in fact, gave women the opportunity to be engaged in public political life for the first time.
By mid-1850’s, it was common for women to address public temperance gatherings.
When the old fraternal orders were slow to admit women to full membership, new temperance organizations sprang up at the local level that did not discriminate on the basis of sex.
After decades of vehement debate, the "Noble Experiment" of Prohibition commenced on January 17, 1920, one year after the 18th Amendment had been ratified by the states.
The debate did not end at that point, of course; it switched to the issues of efficacy, unforeseen consequences, popular support, and repeal.Although the American involvement with alcohol and with temperance movements had been present from the beginning of the country's history, Prohibition rode to easy victory in an alliance with other elements of the Progressive Movement in the early twentieth century.The Sixteenth Amendment, permitting the income tax, freed the government from dependence on the tax on liquor.The act defined "intoxicating liquors" as any drink with an alcohol content higher than .05 percent, a strict definition that prohibited even the intake of beer.It permitted exemptions for industrial, medicinal, and sacramental uses, and the act also contained a possession exemption for personal use within one's own private dwelling.In pursuit of temperance, too, women came to invade even that most sacred of male spaces: the saloon.Dannenbaum recounts how throughout the mid-nineteenth century, groups of women activists would enter saloon spaces and “physically destroy” them. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited. The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.The Eighteenth Amendment, enacted in 1919, was one of four "Progressive" Amendments passed and ratified in quick succession.In Illinois, “about fifteen women…approached [a] saloon and asked its keeper to close down.” When he refused, the women “brandished their hatchets.” The owner then fetched a shotgun, aimed it at them, and ordered them out.As they left the cellar, a group of “gentlemen who had been attracted by the cry of the ladies” disarmed the owner, and allowed the women to resume their efforts, and demolished the town’s other two remaining saloons “amid the cheers and plaudits of the assembled multitude.” The women, “regret[ted] the necessity which led to these acts of violence but [the act] appealed to the virtuous and the good everywhere.” While prohibition laws were not successfully passed until much later, the temperance movement itself was nevertheless indebted to the radical activism of the WTCU and its ilk.