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Raise a Glass to the Women of the Repeal

December is a month of many types of celebrations, but if you are a wine lover, there is one particularly significant holiday to toast – and I’m not referring to New Year’s Eve. Seventy-eight years ago, on December 5, 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment repealing Prohibition was fully ratified. Not only does December 5 mark the beginning of the rebuilding of America’s wine industry, but it was also the first (and only) time that an amendment to the US Constitution was rescinded. But one of the most interesting parts of the story of Prohibition is the role that women played in the campaigns for and against alcohol.

If you’ve been watching Boardwalk Empire, you’ll know that Prohibition started as a women’s movement. While today it is easy to recognize how ridiculous many of the arguments for Prohibition were, at the time it was a cause that deeply inspired the women of America. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the main women’s anti-alcohol organization, was convinced that alcohol was a threat to safe and happy homes. Their grassroots campaign tied alcohol to child- and wife-abuse, child-labor, poverty, prostitution, and political corruption. It gained members in record numbers, and was a major player in generating support for national prohibition.

But women are also due credit for its repeal, too. By the end of the 1920s, women had become disillusioned with the anti-alcohol groups. Promises of a utopian American society didn’t come true. And instead of discouraging drinking, Prohibition had led to bootlegging and speakeasies, both of which were seen as even more dangerous than pre-Prohibition saloons.

By this time, women could do more than rally. Since they now had the right to vote, they could play an active role in the decision-making process. Though Prohibitionists continued to argue that alcohol posed a danger to families, American women, perhaps more than other groups, saw firsthand that Prohibition was causing more harm than good.

Enter the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR), founded by Pauline Morton Sabin in 1929. Intelligent, wealthy, stylish and from a politically-connected family, Sabine rallied women across the US in a campaign to end Prohibition. Within several years, her organization had grown to close to 1.5 million women with offices throughout America – which gave WONPR one of the loudest voices in the discussion. While Sabine was from the upper class, the WONPR was made up of a mix of women from all classes and had a high number of working women among its ranks. Thanks in large part to their efforts, the call for repeal reverberated through America and in 1933, Prohibition was rescinded.

It took decades, but today the American wine industry is thriving. Better yet, in what was once considered a male-dominated field you can now find women making their voices heard in every aspect of the wine business. So tonight as you savor a glass of wine with dinner, give a toast to the women who made Prohibition’s repeal possible. You wouldn’t be enjoying that glass without them.

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