Pauline Sabin: Repeal of Prohibition Leader (Very Effective)

Pauline Sabin was a highly successful leader in the Repeal of National Prohibition (1920-1933). To do so, she formed the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR) in 1929.

Sabin was sitting in a hearing in Congress. The president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), Ella Boole was speaking. Then Boole shouted “I represent the women of America!” Sabin thought, “Well, lady, here’s one woman you don’t represent.”1 Her group challenged the assumption that virtually all women in the US supported Prohibition.


I.   Promises of Prohibition

II.  H.L. Mencken’s Verdict

III. Protection of Children

IV.  Skilled Organizer

V.   Sabin’s Argument

VI.  Many Prohibitionists Angry

VII. Facts about Pauline Sabin

VIII. Resources

I. Promises of Prohibition

Sabin at first supported Prohibition. She explained later. “I felt I should approve of it because it would help my two sons. The word-pictures of the agitators carried me away. I thought a world without liquor would be a beautiful world.”2

Prohibition had promised a society with lower crime and violence. Better health. Higher employment and greater prosperity. It had promised improved morality. The protection of family and youth. It also promised many other benefits.

The dream of Prohibition quickly turned into the nightmare. Within a week after it started, small portable stills were for sale throughout the country.3 The mayor of New York City sent instructions on winemaking to his constituents.4 California grape growers increased their acreage about 700%. That was during the first five years of Prohibition. There was a booming nation-wide call for grapes. Not to eat, but to make wine at home.5 A member of the President’s cabinet worked an illegal still. Bootleggers operated in Congress.

Organized crime grew rapidly. Toxic bootleg blinded and killed people. Corruption was widespread in policing. Police and Prohibition Bureau agents routinely violated Constitutional rights.  The entire administration of many cities was corrupt. Gangsterism flourished. Tax revenues plummeted. There was growing disrespect for law. And the list continued.

II. H.L. Mencken’s Verdict

After five years of Prohibition, famous journalist H.L. Mencken gave his verdict. “There is not less drunkenness in the Republic but more. Not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.”6

Pauline Sabin
Pauline Sabin

The hypocrisy in Prohibition troubled Pauline Sabin. Many politicians would support laws for stricter enforcement. Half an hour later they would be drinking cocktails. She was distressed by the ineffectiveness of the law. By the decline of moderate drinking. And by the growing power of bootleggers.

She realized that Prohibition was causing corruption, hypocrisy, crime, and violence. It was destroying the principles of personal liberty and local self-government. But there was something that bothered her even more. It was the harm it did to children and young people.

III. Protection of Children

A major argument in favor of Prohibition was that it would benefit and protect children. This belief had great appeal to Sabin, who was a mother. Yet Prohibition had the opposite effect. Police records showed that intoxication among young people had increased tenfold. The Salvation Army reported young girls were coming into their rescue shelters younger than before. Eight to ten years younger.

Mothers had supported Prohibition thinking it would eliminate the temptation to drink from their children’s lives. Instead they found that “children are growing up with a total lack of respect for the Constitution and for the law. She said that “The young see the law broken at home and upon the street. Can we expect them to be lawful?”7

Sabin expressed her view to the House Judiciary Committee. “In pre-prohibition days, mothers had little fear in regard to the saloon as far as their children were concerned. A saloon-keeper’s license was revoked if he were caught selling liquor to minors. Today in any speakeasy in the United States you can find boys and girls in their teens drinking liquor, and this situation has become so acute that the mothers of the country feel something must be done to protect their children.”8

IV. Pauline Sabin: Skilled Organizer

Pauline Sabin was an effective organizer. She had earlier helped form the Women’s National Republican Club. Sabin served as its president from 1921 until 1926. That was to have enough time to founded the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (NONPR). It was completely non-partisan.

NONPR had components for specific segments of the population. They included the Service League of younger women, the Business and Professional Women’s Group. Also the Women’s Hotel Committee and the Committee of Foreign-born Women. WONPR speakers talked before waitress’ unions, women’s clubs, and laundry workers. They spoke with African American groups, Polish groups, farmer’s groups, and many others.

Pauline Sabin received a small amount of seed money from the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment. But after about a month membership dues made the group self-supporting. This was largely because of its explosive growth. But it was also basically a volunteer group with very low expenses.

In less than a year Sabin’s organization had a membership of 100,000. In April of 1931 it had 300,000 and in April 1932 the number grew to 600,000. By November of that year there were over 1,100,000. By the time of Repeal in December of that year, the group claimed 1.5 million members. Even if WONPR bolstered these numbers, it was clearly the largest anti-Prohibition group in the country. It was also several times larger than the WCTU.

V. Sabin’s Argument

Pauline Sabin successfully argued for Repeal. She did it by turning the WCTU’s home protection argument on its head. Repeal would protect families from the crime, corruption, and drinking that Prohibition had created. Repeal would return decisions about alcohol to families, where they belonged. The WONPR  gained members from the WCTU. Many had become disillusioned. They recognized the logic of Sabin’s arguments.

Pauline SabinSabin was one of the Mortons of the Morton Salt Company. She selected about two dozen of her wealthy society friends as leaders of WONPR. This helped give it high visibility in the press. It also made opposition to Prohibition socially acceptable. This placed WONPR as modern, urbane and sophisticated. The WCTU was the opposite.

The two leaders also contrasted greatly. Pauline Sabin was attractive, thin, statuesque, well dressed, worldly, and wealthy.

On the other hand, Ella Boole was old-fashioned, provincial, and unsophisticated. She was also unattractive, portly, and frumpy. This did not advance her cause. Especially so among younger women.

VI. Many Prohibitionists Angry

The success of the WONPR angered many Prohibition supporters. D. Leigh Colvin, chairman of the National Prohibition Committee was one. He described Sabin and the other members of WONPR in a most unflattering way. They were “Bacchantian maidens, parching for wine…would take pennies off the eyes of the dead for the sake of legalizing booze.”9 One prohibitionist supporter wrote to Pauline Sabin. She said “Every evening I get down on my knees and pray to God to damn your soul.”10

The president of the Georgia WCTU was dismissive of the WONPR in 1930. “As to Mrs. Sabin and her cocktail drinking women, we will out-live them, out-fight them, out-love them, out-talk them, out-pray them, and outvote them.”11 In fact, Americans soon voted 74% in favor of Repeal.

Pauline Sabin appeared on the cover of Time magazine on July 18, 1932. This  was in recognition of her effective work promoting Repeal. She died in 1955.

VII. Facts About Pauline Sabin

    • Born in Chicago on April 23, 1887.
    • The granddaughter of Julius Sterling Morton.
    • One of two daughters of Paul Morton and Charlotte (Goodridge) Morton
    • The sister of Caroline Morton Guggenheim.
    • Married to James H. Smith in 1907. (Divorced in 1914.)
    • The mother of P. Morton Smith and James H. Smith.
    • Married to Chares Hamilton Sabin (1868-1933) in 1916,
    • Married to Dwight Filley Davis (1879-1945) in 1936
    • Died on December 28, 1955, in Washington, DC.

These two books are excellent for more about Pauline Sabin. One is Root’s Women and Repeal. Harper. The other is Rose’s American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition. NYU Press.

VIII. Resources on Pauline Sabin

Note that Pauline Sabin also had other names. They were Pauline Morton Sabin, Pauline M. Sabin and Mrs. Charles H. Sabin. Also Pauline Morton, Pauline Smith and Mrs. Dwight F. Davis.

About Pauline Sabin
By Pauline Sabin
    • Diaries and papers (1923-1950). Schlesinger Lib, Harvard U.
    • (With others.) Confidential Report on Great Britain’s Industrial and Financial Mobilization Plan.
    • WONPR. PA Div. Rec, 1930-1934. Hagley Museum and Lib, Wilmington, DE.

1. Kyvig, D. Repealing National Prohibition.
2. ______, ibid.
3. Asbury, H. The Great Illusion, p. 157.
4. Aaron, P. and Musto, D. Temperance and Prohibition in America. In: Moore, M., and Gerstein, D. (Eds.) Alcohol and Public Policy, p. 159.
5. Feldman, H. Prohibiton, pp. 278-81.
6. Kyvig, ibid.
7. Rose, K.  American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition.
8. ______, ibid.
9. Root, G.  Women and Repeal.
10. Kyvig, ibid.
11. Root, ibid.