The person with the greatest claim to have ended Prohibition just might be Pauline Sabin. As we celebrate Repeal Day today, she deserves a toast.
As an upper-class divorcée who started a successful interior design business, Sabin was sure to be the subject of at least some controversy in early-20th-century America. But it was in politics that she really made her mark. Sabin believed women should be active within political parties and not confine themselves to causes viewed as exclusively the preserve of women. Thanks to her charm, her fundraising abilities, and her political skill, Sabin quickly became one of the most influential women in the GOP. With Henrietta Wells Livermore, she founded the Women's National Republican Club (WRNC), became its first president, and rose to be the first woman on the Republican National Committee (RNC).
Sabin opposed the first version of the Equal Rights Amendment, arguing that it had no clear definition of "equal rights" and that it threatened to eliminate protections for women in the workplace. But she fought for women to be represented equally in the upper echelons of politics.
Sabin initially supported Prohibition. But she tended to be skeptical about expanding federal power, and she often opposed paternalistic legislation. (In 1920, when the Lord's Day Alliance was opposing the playing of movies on Sundays and pushing for federal censorship, Sabin said: "I'm heartily opposed to any legislation that will deprive the public of a wholesome entertainment on Sunday.") As Prohibition failed to deliver on its promises, Sabin became increasingly disenchanted. She finally endorsed Repeal in a 1928 article titled "I Change My Mind on Prohibition."
While Sabin was not enthusiastic about the Republican presidential nominee that year, Herbert Hoover, she was encouraged by Hoover's promise to appoint a commission to study Prohibition. But after Hoover's inaugural address, in which he promised to enforce the law against alcohol, she decided she'd had enough and resigned from the RNC. She then met with 11 other women to lay the groundwork for founding the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR).
Speaking at a luncheon in her honor a month after Hoover's inauguration, Sabin channeled the spirit of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. "To tell citizens what they must or must not do in their strictly personal conduct as long as public safety is not affected is a function which government should not attempt," she said. "It is the age-old effort of the fanatic which has been behind every invasion of personal liberty in the past." Later that year, she told the National Civic Federation: "We have exchanged the government of the people for the government of and by the Methodist Board of Morals."
Sabin's challenge was making Repeal respectable. Other reform organizations were constantly under attack, as when prohibitionists denounced the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment as a cabal of wealthy businessmen who wanted to see the return of alcohol revenues. She especially wanted to counter the narrative that the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) spoke for American womanhood. On February 12, 1930, she appeared before Congress "to refute the contention that is often made by dry organizations that all the women of America favor national prohibition." She spoke scathingly of politicians who were "notoriously wet in their personal conducts, but continue to vote under the whiplash of that political cabal called the Anti-Saloon League."
Sabin's rhetoric borrowed heavily from the prohibitionists, but with the script flipped. Repeal, not Prohibition, would safeguard the home from crime, drink, and lawlessness. The WONPR declined to base its central case for Repeal on the importance of individual freedom—the more libertarian approach favored by Louise Gross, leader of the Molly Pitcher Club. But this doesn't mean Sabin didn't share these ideas.
"Some of Sabin's views may have been closer to those of Louise Gross than was politically convenient for Sabin to admit," the historian Kenneth D. Rose wrote in his 1996 book American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition. "Both before she assumed her WONPR duties and after she completed them, Sabin revealed herself to be, if not a libertarian, at least a person with well-developed distrust of government intrusion that went beyond any concerns over child welfare."
Sabin took the fight for Repeal to the strongholds of Prohibition in the Midwest and the Deep South. Her social standing and political experience guaranteed her spots on the front pages, in the society pages, and in the newsreels. WONPR's size exploded. Sometimes referred to as "Sabines," its members lobbied lawmakers and made waves in the press. Critics accused the group of being a collection of wealthy socialites like Sabin, but in fact 37 percent of the Sabines were housewives, 19 percent were clerical workers, and 15 percent were industrial workers.
The WONPR demanded that political candidates state their views on Prohibition, telling its members to vote only for those supporting reform, regardless of party. Reporting on the WONPR's second convention in 1931, Sabin wrote that they would enlist "an army of women so great that its backing will give courage to the most weak-kneed and hypocritical Congressman to vote as he drinks." A key plank in the WONPR's platform was to reject any compromises that would still leave the issue in the hands of Congress, making it vulnerable to future political swings.
"When Mrs. Sabin formed her Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform it gathered members so fast that within an incredibly short time it has more of them than all of the W.C.T.U.'s and other such dry organizations put together," the anti-Prohibition activist William H. Stayton told the journalist H.L. Mencken. "This alarmed the politicians and they began to jump. They saw that the women were actually more dangerous to them than the men."
Sabin's final abandonment of partisanship came with her endorsement of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. "It has been said that the Democratic candidate is a very recent convert to the cause of Repeal because of political expediency," said Sabin. "It cannot be said up to this date, the Republican candidate is a convert to Repeal for any reason."
In October 1933, with victory in sight, Sabin suffered a devastating blow when her second husband, Charles H. Sabin, died at their Long Island estate. Before his death, Pauline promised Charles that she'd continue the fight for reform. When Repeal came, the WONPR helped ensure that there was no fudging on the issue and that the states, not the federal government, would regulate the sale of alcohol.
Recent years have seen some attempts to rehabilitate Prohibition and its supporters. When revising whether the drys have been unfairly caricatured and the wets overly lionized, contrast Wayne Wheeler, head of the ASL, with Sabin. Wheeler cheered the government's poisoning of the industrial alcohol supply, which was being used to make bootleg liquor. "The person who drinks this industrial alcohol is a deliberate suicide," Wheeler said. He added: "To root out a bad habit costs many lives and long years of effort." Thousands died thanks to government-contaminated alcohol.
Sabin didn't rest after her victory. Though she initially supported Roosevelt because of his stance on Prohibition, she soon turned her energies to fighting his New Deal policies by joining the American Liberty League.
She married again in 1936, and she served as the Red Cross's director of volunteer special services both before and during World War II. In her later years, Sabin advised on the interior decoration of President Harry Truman's White House and wrote letters to The Washington Post expressing concern over the national debt and warning against McCarthyism. She died on December 27, 1955. Anyone who values liberty both for themselves and for others raise a glass on Repeal Day to Pauline Sabin.