Today in Feminist History: Why Suffragists are Celebrating Prohibition

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

January 16, 1920: Though not all suffragists are personally in favor of Prohibition, the fact that the 18th Amendment becomes effective at midnight tonight was the occasion for National Woman’s Party leaders to issue optimistic predictions today about how soon the proposed Susan B. Anthony (woman suffrage) Amendment will be ratified, and note how much faster it is progressing than its predecessor. 

Until the 18th Amendment was ratified, exactly a year ago today, the liquor industry was a major, though quiet, source of funding for the anti-suffrage movement, and would probably still be pouring money into it to protect their business interests if not for the amendment’s passage. But over the past year, as the date for Prohibition to take effect has approached, this source of funding for our opponents has “dried up” and is now gone.

Passage of the 18th Amendment has clearly helped the suffrage cause because with the issue of prohibition finally settled once and for all—no Constitutional amendment has ever been repealed—the issue of woman suffrage can now stand alone.

Brewers and saloon owners have spent decades tying suffrage and Prohibition together, and the fact that women have always been quite active and prominent in the Temperance movement (even Susan B. Anthony got her start there) made many men vote against suffrage referenda. But on January 16, 1919, the argument that “if women get the vote, they’ll close the saloons” became irrelevant. Just five months later, on June 4th, the Anthony Amendment was finally approved by Congress, 41 years after it was first introduced.

The National Woman’s Party is in a hurry to finish the job of ratification, since registration deadlines for State primaries are coming up soon, and in States where one party dominates, winning the primary assures victory in November. Today the party issued a prediction of speedy victory. Its goal is to get the Anthony Amendment into the Constitution by February 15th, which would have been Susan B. Anthony’s 100th birthday. That’s five days before the earliest Primary registration deadline. The earliest registration deadline for the General Election is May 1st, so if the first target is missed, ratification before May will be the next goal. 

But the National Woman’s Party pointed out today that the proposed 19th Amendment is being ratified by the States at a faster pace than the 18th:

Twenty-five States within the past seven months have ratified suffrage, in comparison with thirteen ratifications secured during the first seven months for the passage of the prohibition amendment. The prohibition amendment developed its astonishing speed during the last month of the ratification campaign in January, 1919, when 29 States added their names to the list. Only eleven more States are needed to secure the ratification of the suffrage amendment. Suffragists still have one month’s time if they are to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Susan B. Anthony by the complete enfranchisement of American women.

There are differences between the two situations, of course. The 18th Amendment gained its final ratifications at a time when the State legislatures were in regular session. The suffrage amendment will require special sessions of State legislatures to be called by State governors because most legislatures don’t meet in even-numbered years. Another difference is that the Southern States were the first to ratify Prohibition, but they have been solidly against the Anthony Amendment, at least so far, due to the fact that it is race-neutral and can be enforced by Congress, not the individual States.

But even with some hard battles left to fight, it now seems almost inevitable that ratification will occur, appropriately enough, during the Susan B. Anthony Centennial Year.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.