Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform

 Pauline Morton Sabin founded the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR) in 1929. She had earlier been a staunch supporter of National Prohibition (1920-1933). However, over time she came to realize that the social experiment was ineffective. In addition, she saw that was causing many very serious problems. In short, it was worse than doing nothing.

Origin of WONPR

Organization for National Prohibition ReformMorton had been sitting in a congressional hearing. Ella Boole, president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), shouted “I represent the women of America!” Sabin thought to herself, “Well, lady, here’s one woman you don’t represent.”

This led Sabin to establish the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform. (It was first the Women’s’ Legion for True Temperance). WONPR challenged the long-held assumption that virtually all women in the U.S. supported Prohibition and its enforcement. It was a non-partisan volunteer organization in which there was only a small paid clerical staff.

Sabin had earlier helped establish the Women’s National Republican Club and served as its president from 1921 until 1926. Thus, she enjoyed the advantage of political experience. One goal of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform was to expose the hypocrisy of those many politicians who publicly supported Prohibition but privately drank.

At first, drys (Prohibition supporters) failed to recognize the growing strength of opposition to Prohibition. Clarence True Wilson was head of the Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition & Public Morals. He characterized members of the WONPR with a dismissive sneer. He said it was only “A little group of wine-drinking society women who are uncomfortable under Prohibition.”

Organization

The new group had received a small amount of seed money from the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment. However, after about a month membership dues made the group self-supporting because of its rapid growth.

Contributing to its growth was the fact that the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform had committees focusing on specific segments of the population. They included the

  • Service League of younger women.
  • Business and Professional Women’s Group.
  • Women’s Hotel Committee.
  • Committee of Foreign-born Women.

WONPR speakers talked before waitress’ unions, women’s clubs, laundry workers, African-American groups, Polish groups, farmer’s groups, and many others.

WONPR Grew Quickly

In less than one year the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform had a membership of 100,000. In April of 1931 it had 300,000 and in April of 1932 it 600,000. By November of that year there were over 1,100,000 and by the time of Repeal in December of that year, it claimed 1.5 million members.

Even if the numbers were exaggerated, WONPR was clearly the largest anti-Prohibition organization in the country. It was also several times larger than the WCTU.

Organization for National Prohibition Reform
Pauline Sabin of WONPR.

The success of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform soon distressed many Prohibition supporters who could no longer dismiss it. It was large, growing, powerful and visible. Pauline Sabin was featured on the cover of Time magazine on July 18, 1932. The power and influence of the WONPR was especially irritating to drys because women, who were traditionally thought to advocate Prohibition, had become organized and powerful opponents.

Hostility Toward WONPR

D. Leigh Colvin, chair of the National Prohibition Committee, contemptuously described the WONPR membership. 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.” One Prohibition supporter wrote to Pauline Sabin that “Every evening I get down on my knees and pray to God to damn your soul.”

The president of the Georgia WCTU failed to understand the extent of Repeal support and the strength of the WONPR. In 1930 she said “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 out-vote them.”

At the very least, it appears that the members of the WONPR and the supporters of its position out-voted the members of the WCTU and supporters of its position. The vote for Repeal was three-to one.

Serious Problems

The American people had come to realize that National Prohibition created increasingly serious problems. They included

  • Dangerous bootleg alcohol.
  • Organized crime, violence.
  • Law enforcement abuses.
  • Binge drinking.
  • Widespread political corruption.
  • Growing disrespect for law.
  • Reduced tax revenues.
  • Increased criminal justice costs.

Today

Surprisingly, many people today support neo-prohibition ideas. They also strongly defend the many vestiges of Prohibition that continue.

The original WONPR described here should not be confused with an organization by the same name founded early in the 21st century. The new WONPR’s goal is similar. It’s to educate the public about the tragedy of drug prohibition and bring an end to it.

Resources on the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform

Readings

  • Cashman, S. Prohibition: the Lie of the Land. NY: Free Press, 1981.
  • Kyvig, D. Repealing National Prohibition. Kent, OH: Kent State U Press, 2000, p. 123.
  • Neumann, C. The end of gender solidarity: the history of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, 1929-1933. J Wom Hist, 1997, Vol. 9.
  • Root, G. Women and Repeal: The Story of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform. NY: Harper, 1934.
  • Rose, K. American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition. NY: NYU Press, 1996.
  • W. O. N. P. R. Time, June 10, 1929.
  • Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR). Third Annual Convention, Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, Washington, DC. Wilmington, DE: Hagley Museum and Library, downloadable computer file.
  • Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR). Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR), Pennsylvania Division, Records. (1930-1934). Twenty-nine lineal feet. Wilmington, DE: Hagley Museum and Library. Collection is available for research and a search aid is available online.
  • Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR). Excerpts from the WONPR Convention, April 23-24, 1930. http://mdk12.org/instruction/curriculum/social_studies/ne/ne_woprohibition.pdf