Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform

The Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR) was founded in 1929 by Pauline Morton Sabin. She had earlier been a staunch supporter of National Prohibition. However, over time she came to realize that the social experiment was not only ineffective but actually counterproductive and causing very serious problems.

She had been 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."

This led Sabin to establish the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform (originally called the Women's' Legion for True Temperance), which challenged the long-held assumption that virtually all women in the United States supported the Eighteenth Amendment (National 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 and organizational 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. An official of the Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition & Public Morals characterized the members of the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform with a dismissive sneer: "A little group of wine-drinking society women who are uncomfortable under Prohibition."

The new group had 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.

Contributing to its growth was the fact that the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform had different components or "committees" focusing on 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

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 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).

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.

D. Leigh Colvin, chairman of the National Prohibition Committee, described the WONPR membership 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." 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 Women's Christian Temperance Union failed to understand the extent of Repeal sentiment and the strength of the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform, saying in 1930 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 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.

The American people had come to realize that National Prohibition created increasingly serious problems such as dangerous bootleg alcohol, organized crime, violence, law enforcement abuses, binge drinking, widespread political corruption, and an increasing disrespect for law.

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.

The original Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform described here should not be confused with an organization by the same name founded early in the 21st century. The new Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform states that its "mission is to educate the public regarding the tragedy of drug prohibition in America and how it adversely affects every citizen and to bring about an end to current drug policy."

 

Resources on the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform:

  • Cashman, Sean Dennis. Prohibition: the Lie of the Land. NY: Free Press and London: Collier Macmillan, 1981.
  • Kyvig, David E. Repealing National Prohibition. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2000, p. 123.
  • 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.
  • Root, Grace C. Women and Repeal: The Story of the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform. NY: Harper & Brothers, 1934.
  • Rose, Kenneth D. American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition. NY: New York University Press, 1996.
  • Time. National Affairs: 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

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