Last night I made myself a whiskey sour and curled up to start watching Ken Burns’ documentary on Prohibition.

The early activists, as I’d known, as you likely knew, were women. They were the ones who had to bear the costs of alcohol-fueled domestic violence, of children with no other caregivers, of families without economic support (and in a world where both childcare expectations and restrictions on women’s labor force participation reduced their capacity to provide that support). And they needed the costs to stop, but they didn’t have a rhetorical or legal space to advocate for themselves, so they advocated for the children, for God, and against the conduct of men.

They had some early and dramatic successes — how could it be anything short of terrifying to have two hundred women kneeling in prayer and singing hymns outside the door to your saloon? — but ultimately the movement was unsuccessful before the founding of the Anti-Saloon League, where the pictures all flip from women to men, and the solutions are political, using suffrage (a tool women didn’t have) and targeting specific politicians (who are best targeted through conversations women couldn’t have, in places women couldn’t go). After prayer and hatchets failed — after women constrained to situate themselves within or dramatically against a tiny range of acceptable conduct failed — the political machine, and the men eligible to be part of it, succeeded.

Things have changed less than I might have hoped.

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