Pauline Sabin: Repeal of Prohibition Leader (Powerful & 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.


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

Sabin was sitting in a congressional hearing. She heard the president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), Ella Boole, shout “I represent the women of America!” Sabin thought to herself, “Well, lady, here’s one woman you don’t represent.”1 Her group challenged the assumption that virtually all women in the U.S. supported Prohibition and its enforcement.

I. Promises of Prohibition

Sabin at first supported Prohibition. As 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 public morality, the  protection of youth, and many other benefits.

The dream of Prohibition quickly turned into the nightmare of its reality. Within a week after the 18th Amendment went into effect, 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% during the first five years of Prohibition. There was a booming nation-wide demand for grapes. Not to eat, but to make wine at home.5 A member of the President’s cabinet operated an illegal still. Bootleggers operated in the halls of Congress.

Organized crime grew rapidly. Toxic illegal alcohol blinded and killed people. Corruption was widespread in law enforcement. 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 be drinking cocktails. The ineffectiveness of the law, the decline of temperate drinking, and the growing power of bootleggers all distressed her.

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 about the unintended effects of Prohibition. 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. However, Prohibition had the exact 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 eight to ten years younger than before.

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 observed 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. She resigned from the Republican National Committee in order to found 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 organization self-supporting.This was largely because of its explosive growth. But it was also essentially 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 exaggerated these numbers, it was clearly the largest anti-Prohibition organization in the country. It was also several times larger than the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

V. Sabin’s Argument

Pauline Sabin successfully argued for Repeal 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 organization gained members from the ranks of the WCTU. Many had become disillusioned and recognized the logic of Sabin’s arguments.

Sabin 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. The Women’s Organization for Prohibition Reform as modern, urbane and sophisticated. The WCTU was the opposite.

The two leaders also contrasted greatly. Pauline Sabin was modern, urbane and sophisticated. She was also 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 distressed and 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 — Wet women who, like the drunkards whom their program will produce, would take pennies off the eyes of the dead for the sake of legalizing booze.”9 One prohibitionist supporter wrote to Pauline Sabin that “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 reality, 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 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 Grace C. Root’s Women and Repeal: The Story of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform. NY: Harper, 1934. The other is  K.D. Rose’s American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition. NY: NYU. Press, 1996.

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.

Writings about Pauline Sabin

Alderson, B. Pauline Sabin. Women of Prairie State History. Springfield, IL: Alderson, 1977.

Neumann, C. The end of gender solidarity. J Women’s Hist, 1997, Vol. 9.

Pauline Morton Sabin. Am Nat Bio, 1999, vo. 19.

Pauline Morton Sabin. Political Graveyard.

Pauline Sabin. Diction Am Bio (Supp. 5, v. 5). Chicago: Scribner’s, 1977.

Sicherman, B. and Green, C. Pauline Sabin. Notable Am Women. Supp. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press, 1980.

Time. National Affairs: W. O. N. P. R. Time, June 10, 1929.

Writings by Pauline Sabin

Diaries and papers (1923-1950). Schlesinger Library, Harvard U.

(With others.) Confidential Report on Great Britain’s Industrial and Financial Mobilization Plan. Washington: Brookings, 1939.

Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform. Pennsylvania Division. Records, 1930-1934. Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE.

1. Kyvig, D. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1979.
2. ______, ibid.
3. Asbury, H. The Great Illusion. NY: Greenwood, 1968, p. 157.
4. Aaron, P. and Musto, D. Temperance and Prohibition in America. In: Moore, M., and Gerstein, D. (Eds.) Alcohol and Public Policy. Washington: Nat’l Acad Press, 1981, p. 159.
5. Feldman, H. Prohibiton. NY: Appleton, 1928, pp. 278-281.
6. Kyvig, ibid.
7. Rose, K.  American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition. NY: NYU. Press, 1996.
8. ______, ibid.
9. Root, G. Women and Repeal: The Story of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform. NY: Harper, 1934.
10. Kyvig, ibid.
11. Root, ibid.