As I was preparing this post and already thinking about Carrie Nation, I learned from a student in a University of Michigan class I am teaching on addiction that the temperance advocate had come to Ann Arbor in 1902, where she was ridiculed by students at a rally only a few blocks from our classroom. Then as now, Nation’s passionate activism—her “hatchetation,” as she called her campaign to close saloons—could easily be reduced to caricature. Like other women involved in temperance efforts, Nation blamed the liquor traffic for destroying many men and causing hardship for their wives, children, and mothers; Nation’s first husband, in fact, died from alcohol-related causes a few years after their marriage. In 1899, Nation reported that she had experienced a vision calling her to demolish saloons. Armed with stones, bricks, an iron bar, and eventually a hatchet, Nation smashed bottles, glasses, and mirrors in saloons across Kansas. Jailed numerous times, Nation then embarked on a lecture tour, raising money which she used to pay her court costs and to establish a home for the wives, children, and mothers of alcoholic men. Although her goals were shared by mainstream temperance organizations, her religious fervor and violent tactics caused most temperance advocates to keep their distance and brought derision from the media and the general public. (1)
Nation’s methods may have been extreme, and today many dismiss her as a narrow-minded prude, but it is worth recalling that the issues for which she fought might appropriately be considered feminist—she and other temperance advocates linked the temperance cause to the legal and economic powerlessness of women in marriage and to the abuse we now call domestic violence. For Nation, the solution to these interconnected problems might not be easy, but it was obvious: outlaw saloons and the liquor traffic. The temperance slogan “Home Protection” shows how neatly aligned—indeed, how mutually reinforcing—were ideas about gender and alcohol.
Although she died in 1911, Nation cast a long shadow, showing that despite important changes in both gender roles and American attitudes toward alcohol in the twentieth century, the intersection of these domains carried persistent and resonant echoes from the past. More than three decades after Nation’s death, and more than ten years after the repeal of national Prohibition, descriptions in the media of Marty Mann, the polished and sophisticated public health advocate who founded the organization that is now the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, invoked Nation as a counterpoint. One reporter wrote, for example, “No Carri [sic] Nation, Mrs. Mann, who is an ex-drinker herself, believes that a helping hand can do more to help alcoholics than all the axes in the country” (2). Mann herself contrasted her campaign with Nation’s, emphasizing that her own organization was neither wet nor dry (a necessary insistence in the post-Repeal era). Even when the comparison with Nation was used to highlight Mann’s difference, the fact that it was made at all demonstrates the cultural staying power of the gendered politics of temperance.