Pauline Sabin

Pauline Sabin is best known for founding the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR) in 1929. She was sitting in a congressional hearing when the 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."1 Her women's organization challenged the long-held assumption that virtually all women in the United States supported National Prohibition (1920-1933) and its enforcement.

Sabin at first supported National 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, greater prosperity, improved public morality, and many other benefits.

The dream of Prohibition was quickly replaced by the nightmare of its reality. Within a week after the Eighteenth Amendment was imposed, small portable stills were on sale throughout the country.3 The mayor of New York City sent instructions on winemaking to his constituents4 and California's grape growers increased their acreage about 700 percent during the first five years of Prohibition to meet the booming nation-wide demand for grapes to produce home-made wine.5 A member of the President's cabinet operated an illegal still, bootleggers operated in the halls of Congress, organized crime grew rapidly, people were blinded and killed by tainted illegal alcohol, law enforcement was widely corruption, individual rights were routinely violated by police and Prohibition Bureau agents, the entire administration of many cities was corrupted, gangsterism flourished, tax revenues plummeted, and there was growing disrespect for law, among other problems.

Journalist H. L. Mencken wrote in 1925 that "Five years of prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic but more. There is 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

Sabin was troubled by the hypocrisy of politicians who would support resolutions for stricter enforcement and half an hour later be drinking cocktails disturbed her. The ineffectiveness of the law, the apparent decline of temperate drinking, and the growing power of bootleggers all distressed her. She realized that Prohibition was causing corruption, hypocrisy, crime, violence and destroying the cherished principles of personal liberty and local self-government. But there was something that bothered her even more about the unintended effects of Prohibition - the harm it did to children and young people.

A major argument in favor of Prohibition was that it would benefit and protect children. This was a belief that had strongly appealed to Sabin as 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 – 10 years younger than before. Sabin argued that mothers had supported Prohibition in the belief that it would eliminate the temptation of drinking from their children's lives, but found instead 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 complained to the House Judiciary Committee that "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

Pauline Sabin was an excellent organizer who had earlier helped establish the Women's National Republican Club and 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. It was completely non-partisan and enlisted both membership and support from Democrats, Republicans and independents.

Reflecting Sabin's organizational skill was the fact that NONPR had specific components or "committees" that addressed specific segments of the population. They included the Service League of younger women, the Business and Professional Women's Group, the Women's Hotel Committee and the 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.

Sabin received a small amount of seed money from the Association Against Prohibition but after about a month membership dues made the organization self-supporting because of its rapid growth. It was a volunteer organization with a very small paid office staff.

In less than a year Sabin's organization had a membership of 100,000 (often referred to as The Sabin Women). In April, 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 and by the time of Repeal in December of that year, 1.5 million members were claimed. Even if the numbers were exaggerated, WONPR was clearly the largest anti-Prohibition organization in the country and several times larger than the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

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 furtive 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 who had become disillusioned and recognized the logic of Sabin's arguments.

Sabin, who was related to the Mortons who founded the Morton Salt Company, selected a group of about two dozen of her wealthy society friends as leaders of WONPR. This helped the organization obtain high visibility in the press and made opposition to Prohibition socially acceptable. The Women's Organization for Prohibition Reform was seen as modern, urbane and sophisticated, whereas the WCTU was seen as the opposite.

The success of the WONPR distressed and angered many Prohibition supporters. D. Leigh Colvin, chairman of the National Prohibition Committee, described Sabin and the other members of WONPR as consisting of "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 Women's Christian Temperance Union was dismissive of the WONPR in 1930, saying that "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 and an end to the failed experiment in social engineering. Surprisingly, in spite of the abysmal and undeniable failure of Prohibition, many people and organizations today support neo-prohibition ideas and strongly defend the many vestiges of Prohibition that continue to remain.

Pauline Sabin was recognized for her work promoting the repeal of National Prohibition by being featured on the cover of Time magazine on July 18, 1932. She died in 1955.

 

References:

  • 1. Kyvig, David. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  • 2. Kyvig, David. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  • 3. Asbury, Herbert. The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition. NY: Greenwood Press, 1968, p. 157.
  • 4. Aaron, Paul, and Musto, David. Temperance and Prohibition in America: An Historical Overview. In: Moore, Mark H., and Gerstein, Dean R. (eds.) Alcohol and Public Policy: Beyond the Shadow of Prohibition. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1981, p. 159.
  • 5. Feldman, Herman. Prohibiton: Its Economic and Industrial Aspects. NY: D. Appleton and Co., 1928, pp. 278-281.
  • 6. Kyvig, David. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  • 7. Rose, Kenneth D. American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition. NY: New York University Press, 1996.
  • 8. Rose, Kenneth D. American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition. NY: New York University Press, 1996. 
  • 9. Root, Grace C. Women and Repeal: The Story of the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform. NY: Harper and Brothers, 1934;
  • 10. Kyvig, David. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  • 11. Root, Grace C. Women and Repeal: The Story of the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform. NY: Harper & Brothers, 1934.

Resources on Pauline Sabin (also known as Pauline Morton Sabin, Pauline M. Sabin; Pauline Morton; Pauline Smith; Mrs. Charles H. Sabin; Mrs. Dwight F. Davis):

  • Alderson, Bernita. "Pauline Sabin." Women of Prairie State History. Springfield, IL: Alderson, 1977.
  • Neumann, Caryn E. The end of gender solidarity: the history of the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform, 1929-1933. Journal of Women's History, 1997, Vol. 9. (Pauline Sabin discussed)
  • New and especially posed photo of Mrs. Charles H. Sabin [Pauline Sabin], wife of the President of Guaranty Trust Company of New York and her two sons, P. Morton Smith and James H. Smith, 1922. Library of Congress. (Available through the internet)
    "Pauline Morton Sabin." American National Biography, 1999, vo. 19.
  • "Pauline Morton Sabin." Political Graveyard http://politicalgraveyard.com/bio/saal-sacket.html.
  • "Pauline Sabin." Dictionary of American Biography (Supplement 5, volume 5). Chicago: Charles Scribner's Sons/Thompson/Gale, 1977.
  • Root, Grace C. Women and Repeal: The Story of the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform. NY: Harper & Brothers, 1934. (Pauline Sabin discussed in detail)
    Rose, Kenneth D. American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition. NY: New York University Press, 1996. (Pauline Sabin discussed)
  • Sicherman, Barbara and Green, Carol H. "Pauline Sabin."Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. Supplement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.
  • Time. National Affairs: W. O. N. P. R. Time, June 10, 1929. (Discusses Pauline Sabin)

Publications and Writings by Pauline Sabin

  • Pauline Sabin. Diaries and papers (1923-1950). Schlesinger Library, Harvard University.
  • Pauline Sabin Davis, et al. Confidential Report on Great Britain's Industrial and Financial Mobilization Plan. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1939.
  • Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform. Pennsylvania Division. Records, 1930-1934. Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE. (Includes correspondence of Pauline Sabin)

Facts About Pauline Sabin

  • Pauline Sabin was
    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 other being 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, and
    died on December 28, 1955, in Washington, DC.

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