Pauline Morton Sabin founded the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR). The year was 1929. She had earlier been a staunch supporter of National Prohibition (1920-1933). But over time she came to realize that the social experiment was ineffective. She also saw that was causing many very serious problems. In short, it was worse than doing nothing.
Origin of WONPR
Morton had been sitting in a congressional hearing. Ella Boole, president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was speaking. Then she 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 form WONPR. (It was first the Women’s’ Legion for True Temperance). WONPR challenged the belief that virtually all women in the U.S. supported Prohibition. WONPR was a non-partisan volunteer group. There was only a small paid clerical staff.
Sabin had earlier helped form the Women’s National Republican Club. She served as its president from 1921 until 1926. Thus, she enjoyed the advantage of political experience. One goal of the WONPR was to expose the hypocrisy of those many politicians who publicly supported Prohibition. Yet they privately drank.
A Prohibition supporter was a “dry.” At first, drys failed to see the growing strength of opposition to Prohibition. Clarence True Wilson was head of the Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition & Public Morals. He described 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.”
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The new group had 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. That’s because of its rapid growth.
Contributing to its growth was the fact that the WONPR had effective committees. They focused on special segments of the population. They included these.
- 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, and African American groups. They spoke to Polish groups, farmer’s groups, and many others.
WONPR Grew Quickly
In less than one year the WONPR 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. By the time of Repeal in December of that year, it claimed 1.5 million members.
The numbers may have hyped. But even if they were, WONPR was the largest anti-Prohibition group in the country. It was also several times larger than the WCTU.
The success of the WONPR soon distressed many Prohibition supporters. They 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. That’s 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. As well as 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, this was true. Members of the WONPR and the supporters Repeal out-voted members of the WCTU and supporters of Prohibition. The vote for Repeal was three-to one.
The American people had come to realize that National Prohibition caused serious problems. And they were increasing.They included these.
- Dangerous bootleg alcohol.
- Organized crime, violence.
- Police abuses.
- Binge drinking.
- Widespread political corruption.
- Growing disrespect for law.
- Reduced tax revenues.
- Increased criminal justice costs.
Many people today support neo-prohibition ideas. They also strongly defend the many vestiges of Prohibition that continue. In fact, nearly one in five US adults favor Prohibition today.
The original WONPR described here should not be confused with a group by the same name. It formed early in the 21st century. The new WONPR’s goal is similar. It’s to educate the public about the tragedy of drug prohibition. As well as to bring an end to it.
Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform
Other Repeal Groups
- The Association against the Prohibition Amendment.
- The Crusaders
- Labor’s National Committee for the Modification of the Volstead Act
- Moderation League of New York. (Despite its name, this was a nation-wide Repeal organization.)
- Molly Pitcher Club
- Republican Citizens Committee Against National Prohibition.
- United Repeal Council
- Voluntary Committee of Lawyers. See also VCL.
- Women’s Moderation Union
- Cashman, S. Prohibition: the Lie of the Land.
- Kyvig, D. Repealing National Prohibition.
- Neumann, C. The end of gender solidarity. J Wom Hist, Vol. 9.
- Root, G. Women and Repeal: The Story of WONPR.
- Rose, K. Women and the Repeal.
- W. O. N. P. R. Time, June 10, 1929.
- WONPR. Third Ann Conven, WONPR, Wash. Wilmington, DE: Hagley Museum and Lib, downloadable com file.
- WONPR. WONPR, PA Div Records. (1930-1934). 29 lineal feet. Wilmington, DE: Hagley Museum and Libr. Search aid is avail online.
- WONPR. Excerpts from the WONPR Convention, April 23-24, 1930.