Since the early nineteenth century, American women's movements have often been closely linked to American temperance movements—that is, efforts to limit or prohibit alcohol consumption. A strong argument can be made that temperance—not suffrage, not feminism—has been the most powerful women's social movement in American history. But why?
The story begins in the early nineteenth century, when powerful forces unleashed by the Industrial Revolution upended traditional social structures and cultural norms in American communities. In the 1820s, efficient new technologies of industrial production made alcohol cheaper than ever before, just at a time when millions of Americans were struggling to adapt to the unprecedented demands of a new market economy. The result was an orgy of bacchanalian excess, as the citizens of the young republic—especially young men striving to secure a place in the emerging middle class—drowned their anxieties in an ocean of liquor. Horrified religious leaders lamented that the United States was "fast becoming a nation of drunkards," and the statistics suggest that they were right. By 1830, annual alcohol consumption skyrocketed to 9.5 gallons of hard liquor, plus 30.3 gallons of beer or hard cider, for every American man and woman over age 14.19 (By way of comparison, that's more than three times as much alcohol as the average American drinks today.) This was America's drunkest generation.
Men were responsible for the lion's share of America's prodigious boozing during the hard-drinking 1820s. Yet American women paid a disproportionate price for male alcohol abuse during the period. Some women suffered the awful, timeless consequences of male drunkenness—aggression, domestic violence, and rape. Other negative impacts were more narrowly rooted in the specific legal and social structures that prevailed in early nineteenth century America. The most important of these was the doctrine of couverture in marriage, which ruled that upon their wedding a husband and wife legally merged into one person—the man. The woman, legally speaking, ceased to exist as an independent entity, losing all control over her property and many other legal rights. The law thus made women completely dependent upon their husbands. It is not hard to see how this dependency could have devastating consequences if a woman's husband succumbed to alcoholism, for the wife had no legal means of protecting herself from the alcohol-fueled mistakes of her partner. Through no fault of her own, the wife of a drunkard could find herself in a state of financial ruin, cast out of the emerging middle class.
The alcoholic excesses of the 1820s led to the rise of a powerful temperance movement in the 1830s, with women joining clergymen in the front ranks of the anti-alcohol crusade. Founded by a group of prominent religious leaders in 1826, the American Temperance Society (ATS) sought to encourage "total abstinence from ardent spirits." Somewhat surprisingly, the ATS quickly attracted more than 1.5 million members, becoming the largest and most powerful mass organization yet seen in American history. And a majority of the Society's supporters were women. They turned temperance into a great moral crusade that achieved remarkable results: between 1830 and 1845, alcohol consumption in America fell by three-fourths. The ATS-led temperance crusade may well have been the most successful anti-drug campaign in American history, and the successes of the temperance campaign inspired other social reform movements; many veterans of the temperance movement also became prominent abolitionists and suffragists.
Having curbed the worst excesses of the drunkest generation, the temperance movement pushed on in hopes of winning a complete ban on alcohol. In the late nineteenth century, the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) followed in the ATS's footsteps to become a powerful mass organization, advocating for a complete prohibition against alcohol sales in America. In 1919—not coincidentally, a time when millions of American men were temporarily out of the country fighting World War I—the women who dominated the temperance crusade won their greatest victory. Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment, imposing Prohibition on a nationwide scale. Starting in 1920, the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol became illegal throughout the United States.
Prohibition marked the zenith of the temperance movement. In the end, however, Prohibition proved to be temperance's undoing, for Prohibition proved to be an utter fiasco. Millions of Americans continued to drink illegally, and a lucrative black market in booze fueled a shocking rise in organized crime and violence. By 1932, a large majority of the American population favored Prohibition's repeal, and Franklin D. Roosevelt won the presidency in 1932 in no small part because he promised to let Americans ease the pain of the Great Depression with beer. Alcohol has been legal for American adults ever since.
Yet faint echoes of the original temperance movement as a powerful female moral crusade can still be seen in our own time. In 1980, Candy Lightner, the mother of a 13-year-old child tragically killed by a drunken driver, founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) as a grassroots organization dedicated to fighting drunk driving. MADD's appeals to the female moral authority of bereaved mothers proved to be politically potent, and the group's agenda expanded from opposition to drunk driving to opposition to drinking in general. MADD's advocacy was instrumental in changing many state and federal policies related to alcohol, most significantly the 1984 federal law that increased the drinking age to 21 nationwide.